Erik Bruns is a passionate historian and a philhellene. I met Erik while I was in search of traces of Dutch presence in Rhodes’ past. For more than half an hour Erik gave me a precious insight of Rhodes’ medieval times and the Dutch consular activities during Rhodes’ ottoman past. I was fascinated by the depth of his knowledge and his unbiased perspective that usually surrounds the “official historical version” of a city. During this interesting meeting, it became more obvious to me why RICHeS, a non-profit that he founded a few years ago, is probably the most active and more popular cultural organization on the island. Here is his interview with our collaborating writer Julia Tsiaka.
(Erik Bruns is the first from the left in the photo)
JT: Erik, could we begin the interview with a brief synopsis of your biography and how you came to Rhodes?
EB: Yes, certainly. I was born in Holland in 1971. I studied history at Utrecht University in Holland and I am a historian.
At some point in 2002 I wanted to do something different and thought, “I want to go back to Greece”.
I was raised very much as a philhellene and had been to Greece with my parents in 1977 and 1979, but I had not been back since. I wanted to see how much it had changed since the 70’s when, although I was obviously very young, I was very impressed. I came for a 5-day holiday and really loved it.
Two years later I came to work at the Dutch School in Rhodes on a sort of sabbatical for a year. I then became involved with the International School and became a member of the board there.
I spent time in Rhodes on and off after that and in 2009 we started Rhodes Riches.
JT: Why was The Rhodes International Culture & Heritage Society (RICHeS) formed?
EB: RICHeS was formed because we felt that there was something missing from the various aspects of cultural heritage in Rhodes that were on offer. Rhodes is a unique island with amazing cultural diversity; it is classical Greek, it is Roman, it is Byzantine, it is Hospitaller Knights, it’s Ottoman, it’s Jewish, it’s Italian colonial – it is an amazing combination of cultural influences that you don’t find anywhere else, not even in Cyprus, and not each of those segments got the attention that we thought they needed so we thought we should create an organisation that was going to contribute to both cultural awareness in Rhodes and to the cultural climates.
JT: One of the achievements of Rhodes Riches [RICHeS] has been getting Rhodians to recognise the diversity of their own heritage.
EB: Yes, there has always been an emphasis on the medieval and classical periods in Rhodes but it is so much else. The Old Town is not only a medieval town, but it is also an Ottoman town with hammams and mosques and Ottoman mansions. There is also a very nice synagogue museum that attracts thousands of visitors every year, and few people actually knew this.
We were the first to organise heritage walks in the European sense (for local people). These walks were so successful that on occasion we attracted something like 500 people because we didn’t make any pre-selection! We had to stop people on the Castello Square and say please go home or come back another time because we can’t handle this vast amount of people!
So there is a very, very big interest in the subjects that most people are not so familiar with. Indeed last year we organised the Marasia and the forgotten Greek heritage – this is where the Greeks lived from 1523 to 1912, forced by the Ottoman overlords who obviously did not permit Christians to live in the Old Town. This is a very interesting place, it is where everything happened, and this essential historical heritage information for the local people has been totally neglected until now. We were the first ones to do something about that. So we try to be innovative in our approach and also in our themes and I think it really works out.
JT: Why do you think that the events Rhodes Riches organise have been so successful?
EB: Partly because we are very well organised and work according to clear vision mission strategy with a long-term plan for things. But also because of our approach to people and our accessible nature: everybody is welcome. And you can see that people like that they don’t have to go through a voting or pre-selection process to become a member of the organisation and that they don’t have to pay an annual fee. No, if you want to come, you come. Sometimes you pay a small fee, like three or five Euro for a walk, but most events are free of charge, and you can do it as many times as you like.
JT: Tell us something about the events that you organise.
EB: We have five big annual events reoccurring:
Stadium General is a series of lectures about academic or important topics that are accessible for everybody, so you don’t have to have a PhD in each subject in order to follow it. These are all free. There are four big lectures by lecturers coming from outside Rhodes (following the medieval concept of a travelling scholar going from town to town instructing people about interesting subjects). These are sponsored by Aegean Airlines and the Periferia Notiou Aigaiou and give people the opportunity to listen to famous speakers that they would normally only see on TV or have to go to Athens or Thessaloniki to hear. This year we are going to offer these lectures in foreign languages also.
The second of the ‘big five’ events is the heritage walks. Last year we held the ‘In the footsteps of Suleyman the Magnificent’ walk because of the famous Turkish series and it was a major success, we sold out!
Number three is the ICOMOS day (International Council on Monuments and Sites). It is always held on the 18th of April and we do school programmes, culture and education for schools.
Number four is the Villa Rees Jazz Concert. The Villa Rees is a historic villa by the sea in Ialysos built by an English Levantine family, Commander Noel Rees, who was from a very rich, cosmopolitan family in Alexandria. He died shortly after WWII at the age of 47 from cancer. He was the British Consul in Chios and later Vice-Consul in Smyrna and in that capacity was able to organise, together with British Intelligence, escape routes for Greek politicians, resistance fighters and Commonwealth troops from occupied Greece to neutral Turkey and from there to British-controlled Egypt. He saved people like George Papandreou (Prime Minister in Greece 1944-45, 1963, 1964-65) and Sophia Bembo (known in Greece as “The Singer of Victory”) and he was friends with everybody. He was basically a war hero and was somehow forgotten after his death.
The villa is now owned by his daughter who is half Greek-half English. She is trying to restore him to the fame he deserves with a big biography written about him, and to honour him she has donated a collection of engravings to the municipal museum here. The house is also a monument to this very important Anglo-Greek oriental family. The concert is called Jazz by the Sea and last year we introduced the all-in-white theme because we want to bring Europe to Rhodes and Rhodes to Europe to connect to international trends. The dressed-in-white theme is extremely popular; it started in France 25 years ago and it is a major international thing – so we tried it here, and people loved it.
And the last of the big five events are the European heritage days which we introduced here in 2010 (Open Doors) and this is the biggest pan-European cultural heritage event all over Europe and it attracts millions of people.
The original European idea started in France and Holland, is that you open doors of monumental buildings that normally remain closed for the public, so, private houses, un-restored buildings, you know, anything that doesn’t have a museum function but is still a historic building. We were inspired by that idea and we introduced it here and it became a tremendous success. I think in 2012 we had 15,000 visits and that is on par with big European cities. Yes, we were the most successful in the whole of Greece, equal with big cities in France and Holland, Germany and England. And people like it because it is something new, they like the positive energy because we are very dedicated and committed, everyone likes what we are doing, it’s all free, it’s voluntary, but we have this drive to do something nice, and they love it and we have dozens of volunteers, Greeks, and they all love doing it, they mail us and say can we do something, when can I help and how can I help – and that’s really nice.
Apart from the big five, we also organise one-off exhibitions. Last year we had the (Bernard) Rottiers exhibition and this year in May we have a big exhibition about a Swedish doctor who lived here in the 1800s and wrote a book about Rhodes which was supposed to be the biggest book ever written about Rhodes. He sent it to his publisher in Berlin but it was never published, so it has been lying in a drawer for over 150 years and we are putting it back into the spotlight.
This exhibition will be held in the Castellania which is nice because it is rarely opened for the public.
JT: As a non-profit organisation, how do you go about funding all these cultural events?
EB: If you look at our budgets they are extremely small. The whole of the Open Doors event is organised for something like 2,500 to 3,000 Euro. Other organisations see what we do for the amount of money that we get, and they don’t believe us. We try to be as efficient as possible with the limited means we have, and we have achieved a lot, but in order to grow, we need more.
The Peripheria (Rhodes Prefecture) support us now, but we started five years ago by going door to door, shop to shop asking people please help us and they would give us 50 Euro! We want to have what is common in Europe, one or two big sponsors who somehow ‘adopt’ an event and take responsibility for the financing of it. But it doesn’t exist here yet and so new sponsors and donations are very welcome.
JT: Do you have any favourite areas on the island or favourite periods of history here?
EB: Um – no, for me I think they are all equally interesting. Apart from the obvious period of the Hospitaller Knights (the Old Town), the classical period is fascinating because Rhodes was such an important island then. You need a little bit more imagination maybe to find it but once you do it is totally fascinating.
And also the Jewish heritage is interesting. There was a big Jewish community living here for hundreds of years – the biggest one in the Aegean after Smyrna and Thessaloniki.
Also, the Ottoman period because it (Rhodes) was the capital of an Ottoman province and you can see that from the Pashas here, the Beys, they built nice mosques and glamorous public buildings – so it is equally interesting. You know, if you want to go and see a nice Turkish town sometimes it is better to go to Rhodes because it is better preserved here than it is there!
And of course, the Italian heritage is amazing. The Italians didn’t have colonies; they were unified late and when they wanted to have a colonial empire all the other countries had already divided the world amongst themselves so they could only take what remained. The Ottoman Empire was very weak at this moment so the Italians carved out some parts for themselves in Libya and the Dodecanese, and they wanted to make these into the gemstone of their small and short-lived empire. They did so much here so we have this amazing heritage of 30’s art deco buildings.
And also the modern-Greek period is interesting and the Byzantine also. There is this tremendous cultural-historical heritage here in every period, in every religion, and that makes the island unique. So I think for me everything is equally interesting. I do indeed recommend that people start discovering this and look a little bit further than the obvious stuff.
JT: Are there historical attractions on neighbouring islands in the Dodecanese that you think are worth visiting?
EB: Yes, Rhodes is the capital of the archipelago with very interesting islands. Symi of course, with its cultural and architectural interest, is unique; there is nothing like it. When you first arrive in the harbour of Symi it is amazing – there is nothing in Europe that equals the beauty of Symi. I am a big lover of Italy but I haven’t seen anything in Italy that is as beautiful as Symi. And this whole interesting history of the sponge and the traders, the merchant marines and the Greeks, and you find here also classical remains. Then Nissyros with its volcano, and Kastelorizo is amazing. You can easily take Rhodes as a starting point and then go to all these islands. Even Kos, which is often seen as the paler sister of Rhodes, has an amazing agora – it’s like being in a Roman forum!
JT: Unlike in some other areas, Greeks, Muslims and Jews seem to live side-by-side without prejudice in Rhodes. Why do you think this is?
EB: Basically in Rhodes, the original Levantine cosmopolitan society is preserved where all communities live together in harmony and that is one of the reasons that the monuments are in such a good state.
The Jewish community is small, only about 40 people, but they are an active community. They have a very big diaspora and people come from all over the world to conduct Bat Mitzvahs and other important ceremonies here. The synagogue is very popular; it was organised into a private museum in 2005. From an original community of 3 or 4,000, there are only about 40 Jewish residents left so they are a small community, but the ones that are here are very active.
And the Turkish community as well – it used to be much bigger of course but after 74 many left owing to the Cyprus crisis – but the ones who are here enjoy it. I think if you decide to stay you are motivated to be Rhodian. They are used to living together.
JT: Are there any publications about Rhodes that you would recommend for tourists or for residents?
EB: There is now a new Blue Guide for Rhodes and a new English guide for Rhodes that is quite good actually – you would have to buy it from a book shop in Athens.
I can have also written a guide of my own (in Dutch).
*Blue Guide – Greece – The Aegean Islands
**The Blue Guide chapter for Rhodes can also be downloaded for Kindle at Amazon
*** Erik’s book (in Dutch only) is available online
You can find more information about RICHeS and their cultural and educational programmes at http://www.rhodesriches.org/