Driving along the seafront of the old Greek town of Rhodes, the Turkish coast emerges from the mist on the horizon. The sea at this time of year is a deep blue, the same blue you see on the Greek flags that are everywhere.
Rhodes Islanders celebrate a historic Greek national holiday (which we’ll talk about later). I visit relatives and take a break from the horrible headlines of Palestine. I wanted to visit ancient Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman sites. All of these civilizations were at home here, in this Eastern Mediterranean crossroads between Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
What I wanted to see the most was the Rhodes Museum. The ancient pottery, around 2,600 years old, has been beautifully restored. Cracked pots and decorated vessels send a message that resonates through the centuries as a testament to our shared heritage. They show that human beings have always loved beauty and design as well as functionality. Pots and vessels commemorate ancient heroes, warriors and legends or animals, from lions to cattle, with beautiful geometric designs.
Unfortunately, war is actually an extension of politics by other means.
Part of the museum houses rooms where the Ottomans rested during the heat of the day. Their sofas look so inviting it’s as if the locals have just gone for a walk on the beach. One of the large, beautiful rooms is full of memorials to the Christian crusaders who came here from all over Western Europe.
Rhodes was an ideal base from which to launch their invasions of what the three Abrahamic religions consider to be the Holy Land, the place where these religions have their roots. But as well as reminding us of what we have in common, crusader memorials are obviously also a testament to historical intolerance.
Despite common teachings of kindness, friendship and scholarship, religious differences evidently continue to violently divide many people, eight centuries after the abandonment of the Last Crusade.
However, the story is instructive. The crusaders were motivated by ideas of faith but also by conquest, plunder, land and property. For some, it was an adventure. Presumably, letting England, France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere conquer others in the name of religion must have seemed like a good idea to them at the time.
But what happened next is telling. The Crusades continued throughout the Middle Ages from 1095 to 1291, although armed conflict in each of the eight Crusades lasted two or three years each time and ultimately failed.
Estimates of the damage are difficult to assess, but historians admit that disease and poor hygiene meant that about one in 20 crusaders actually reached the Holy Land. Some estimates conclude that in total, almost two million people were killed, at a time when the world population numbered only 300 million. And why?
As I look at the tombstone of an English crusader who died 800 years ago, what strikes me is the abiding human capacity to allow hope to triumph over experience. It took eight crusades and three centuries for the Christian nobility of Western Europe to stop staging invasions based on the idea that only one faith can be a true faith.
What started as a visit to a Greek museum to escape the news headlines from Gaza and Israel transformed into something else. I thought about our common human capacity to cause problems for others and ourselves by failing to recognize that what we have in common far outweighs what divides us.
It took Christian crusaders centuries to understand the old wisdom that folly is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. They got there eventually, I guess. But I also wondered how long it would take for those dropping rockets, tanks and bombs recognize now that the slabs commemorating the death of the figures in the Rhodes Museum also have a message for the 21st century.
Long before the Crusades, the Roman writer Tacitus understood the ultimate futility of war. As for all those Greek flags, my Greek friends and relatives explained to me that they celebrate what is called “Ochi” day – translated as “No Day”. At the end of October, Greeks around the world commemorate 1940s prime minister Ioannis Metaxas, who received an ultimatum from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini demanded that Greece accept an invasion by Italian forces and, ultimately, a fascist Italian government.
The Greeks said “Ochi”. It means “No”. I left the Rhodes Museum thinking that there are a lot of things we should say “no” to right now. But unfortunately, war is actually an extension of politics by other means. Conflict means politicians have failed. And museums are proof that history shows that one of our most common human failures is ignoring the most important lessons of history itself.
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Updated: October 31, 2023, 4:00 a.m.