Ancient Cos stretches everywhere underneath the centre of the modern town. Much of it was uncovered by the demolition work done after the destruction of the 1933 earthquake. Other parts have come to light as building plots have been cleared at different points in the town. Its central focus was a low acropolis which corresponds to the hill of the ‘Seraglio' area and the Plateía Diagóras of today. This small, raised area was inhabited from before 2000 BC onwards, through the late Bronze Age and Geometric periods, and formed the nucleus of the Archaic and Classical town, known as Cos Meropis, in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Then in 366 BC, Cos Meropis, together other ancient settlements on the island, formed a synoecism—namely they pooled their resources to found a new and greater city, centred around the natural harbour which is today's port of Kos. This prosperous Hellenistic creation spread out all around the acropolis hill and completely filled the area between it and the harbour.
After Mycenaean occupation, the island was colonised, according to Herodotus (Hist. V11. 99), by Dorian settlers from Epidaurus and later belonged to the Dorian Hexapolis (with Halicarnassus, Cnidos, and the three early cities on Rhodes). Homer mentions Cos's participation at Troy in the Catalogue of Ships. Proximity to the mainland of Asia Minor, meant that it was easily subjected to the Lygdamid rulers of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum) in the 6th c. BC; and, at the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, Cos fought for Persia under the command of Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, later defecting in 478/7 BC to become an ally of Athens, with whom it participated in the expedition to Sicily during the Peloponnesian War. At the outset of that war, Cos was devastated by an earthquake in 412 BC and, in this vulnerable condition, was subsequently twice sacked—first in 411 BC by Spartan forces, and then in 410 by the Athenian, Alcibiades, who later fortified and garrisoned the acropolis of Cos Meropis; archaeological evidence of this endeavour has recently been found. Against this grim backdrop, the 5th century saw nonetheless the flourishing of intellectual activity on the island, following the teachings and founding of the medical school of Hippocrates. Cos minted its own silver coinage, generally bearing the image of a crab, the island's emblem, on the reverse.
In 366 BC, the island, which had been previously organised in separate cities, united (in similar fashion to the synoecism on Rhodes of 408–7 BC), to form a single city-state, with a new, fortified capital and port founded on the northeast coast, on the site of the modern city of Kos. Its prosperity and beautiful appearance was commented on both by Diodorus Siculus (Bibl. XV 76.2) and Strabo (Geog. XIV.2.19). The fame of its School of Medicine and Sanctuary of Asklepios spread throughout the Greek world. Apart from a brief period subject to King Mausolus of Halicarnassus, and later in 256 BC to Antigonos Gonatas, Cos remained democratic and independent, allied to the dynasty of the Ptolemies and with strong trading links to Egypt: Ptolemy II ‘Philadelphus' was born on Cos in 309 BC. Cultural and literary links with Alexandria brought the poets, Theocritus and Herondas, to the island in the 3rd century BC: their teacher, Philitas, was a native Coan. It was the people of Cos who commissioned (c. 364 BC) a statue of Aphrodite from Praxiteles, then the most prestigious sculptor alive: when he presented them with a choice of two, one draped, the other nude, they chose the former. The city of Cnidos on the mainland opposite, the island's constant rival, then snapped up the nude Aphrodite, which soon became one of the most celebrated works of its age. The great painter, Apelles, whose Aphrodite Anadyomene adorned the Asklepieion, is said to have died on Cos in c. 308 BC.
Cos was loyal to Rome and was recognised in return as a civitas libera until the end of the Republic. Under Augustus it was incorporated into the province of Asia; a little later, in 53 AD, the Emperor Claudius, influenced by his personal physician, Gaius Stertinius Xenophon, who was from Cos, granted the island (fiscal) immunitas. The island was famous for its wines and dyes: it produced a kind of raw silk from which very light dresses, called Coae vestes, were made.
A tradition holds that St. Paul visited the island in 57 AD; and Kos was, early on, the seat of a bishop who was already sufficiently senior by 325 to have participated in the First Council of Nicaea, and thereafter in most subsequent church councils. The remains of a remarkable number of fine Early Christian churches on Kos are witness to the size and importance of its Christian community.
The basilicas were erected in the 5th and 6th centuries; but most were destroyed in the 7th century during Saracen incursions. The island's mediaeval name was Lango (perhaps on account of its length): it is also referred to as Stanchio (supposedly a corruption of the Greek, ‘Stin Kõ') by the Italians. After 1204 the island was under Venetian control, and briefly under Genoese control in 1304, until it was ceded along with Rhodes to the Knights of St. John in 1306. Only after the fall of Rhodes in January 1523 did Kos come under Turkish rule: their name for island was ‘Istanköy', from the Italian ‘Stanchio.' A number of fine buildings and municipal works (aqueducts and fountains) were erected under Turkish dominion.
After nearly 400 years of Turkish rule, the island was taken in 1912 by the Italians, who began an ambitious project of architectural embellishment as a way of asserting their presence. This was given new urgency by a catastrophic earthquake in 1933, after which a ‘New Urban Plan' was developed; a number of important archaeological digs were begun at the same time. In 1948, Kos was united with the Greek State. The last two decades of the twentieth century have transformed the island's appearance with large-scale construction of tourist and residential buildings.Wikidata ID: Q187027
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)