The Dodecanese islands have been inhabited since pre-Minoan times. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, they were ruled by Ptolemy I of Egypt. The islanders later became the first Greeks to convert to Christianity, thanks to the tireless efforts of St Paul, who made two journeys to the archipelago during the 1st century, and St John the Divine, who was banished to Patmos, where he had his revelation and added a chapter to the Bible.
The early Byzantine era saw the islands prosper, but by the 7th century AD they were being plundered by a string of invaders. The Knights of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitaller), who arrived during the 14th century, eventually ruled almost all the Dodecanese. Their mighty fortifications have proved strong enough to withstand time, but failed to keep out the Turks in 1522.
The Turks were in turn ousted in 1912 by the Italians, who made Italian the official language and banned the Orthodox religion. Inspired by Mussolini’s vision of a vast Mediterranean empire, they also constructed grandiose public buildings in the fascist style, the antithesis of archetypal Greek architecture. More beneficially, they excavated and restored many archaeological monuments.
After the Italian surrender of 1943, the islands (particularly Leros) became a battleground for British and German forces, inflicting much suffering upon the population. The Dodecanese were formally returned to Greece in 1947.