Sunday, July 27, 2008

Colossus of Rhodes

One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the huge statue of the pre-Olympian sun god Helios stood at the entrance to the harbor of Rhodes on the Aegean island of the same name. The work of the celebrated sculptor Chares of Lindos, the giant figure, shown in some representations to be shielding his eyes as he looked out across the sea, towered 110 feet (33 meters) above the entrance to the Mandraki harbor. According to Greek mythology, Helios was the son of the Titans Hyperion and Thea, and brother of Selene, goddess of the moon, and Eos, goddess of the dawn. He was worshiped throughout the Peloponnese, and the people of Rhodes held annual gymnastic games in his honor.

The cast-bronze shell of the Colossus, reinforced and stabilized with an iron-and-stone framework, stood on a white marble base. It has been suggested that, in order to attach the upper parts of the monument, earth ramps and mounds were built. Work commenced around 294 b.c.—although some sources put the date at ten years earlier—and the statue took twelve years to complete. Its size is hard to comprehend, but some idea can be gained from Pliny the Elder, who wrote, “Few people can make their arms meet round the thumb.” From medieval times, artists’ romanticized impressions have shown the Colossus straddling the entrance to Mandraki harbor, towering over the ships that sailed between his feet. Given its height, the width of the harbor mouth, and the technology available to the builders, that construct is most improbable. The fact is that no one knows exactly what the statue looked like, nor where it stood. Recent scholarship suggests that it stood on the eastern promontory of the Mandraki, or perhaps a little inland.

Rhodes was an important island in the ancient civilization of the Aegean. The Dorians inhabited it in the second millennium b.c., and their city-states of Lindos, Camiros, and Ialysos were vigorous commercial centers with colonies throughout the region. In the fifth century b.c., it belonged to the Delian League, a confederacy of city-states led by Athens, ties they severed in 412 b.c. Just four years later their own confederation was celebrated in the completion of the new city of Rhodes, said to have been designed by Hippodamos of Miletus; it seems more likely that it was laid out according to Hippodamean principles.

In 332 b.c. Rhodes came under the control of Alexander the Great, but following his death nine years later its citizens revolted and expelled the Macedonians. Rhodes’s power and wealth reached a zenith in the second and third centuries b.c., and it became a famous cultural center. One badge of that political unity and artistic eminence was the Colossus, built to commemorate the raising of the Antigonid Macedonian Demetrios Poliorcetes’ long siege (305–304 b.c.). The metal for the statue was taken from the siege machines abandoned by the invaders when they withdrew. It is said that the dedicatory inscription read, “To you, O Sun, the people of Dorian Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus when they had pacified the waves of war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom.”

A violent earthquake struck Rhodes about 225 b.c. The city was extensively damaged, and the Colossus, broken at the knee, crashed down. Ptolemy III of Egypt offered to meet the restoration costs, but when an oracle warned them against rebuilding, the Rhodians declined. It is ironic that the Colossus was actually lying in ruins when it was accorded a place among the wonders of the world. In a.d. 654 the Arabs invaded Rhodes, and two years later a Muslim dealer—some sources say a Syrian Jew—bought the fragments of the statue as scrap metal and carried them away to be melted down. Tradition has it that they were transported to Syria by a caravan of 900 camels.

In December 1999 the Municipal Council of Rhodes announced an international design competition for a new Colossus. As the island’s millennium project, the monument will encompass “modern artistic expression and technical construction that will surpass conventional standards [while borrowing] all the ancient symbolic values of the original.” Expected to cost U.S.$2.8 million, it is, intended to be finished in time for the Athens Olympic Games in 2004.

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