The Greek Island of Rhodes is one of the 15 Dodecanese islands in the Southeastern Aegean in the Mediterranean. The area is renowned as a world class sailing destination. In part due to the Meltemi Winds. The Meltemi is created by high pressure over Greece and Low Pressure over Turkey causing a strong north easterly wind through much of July and August, giving superb sailing. Predictably unpredictable!
For those looking for slightly less ‘sporty’ sailing or more relaxing boating trips, the East coast of Rhodes provides excellent protection, and the promise of many hidden coves.
Those of us lucky enough to sail rhodes or go on boating trips from Rhodes to Lindos will get to experience multiple historical sites. These are undoubtedly best viewed from the sea. Not just for aspect and clarity, but the soothing wind and cool air makes a sail rhodes trip so much more enjoyable than joining the queues on land.
Rhodes has been the region’s dominant location since antiquity as it is the crossroads between Europe, the Levant and Africa. With Sail Rhodes we start in Lindos, one of the 3 key cities formed in 408BC.
The ‘newcomer’ to Lindos is the Medieval Castle built within the site of the Ancient Acropolis and using material from an earlier Byzantine fortification. Each evening the castle is lit up and from Sail Rhodes anchorage in Lindos bay there is a stunning view of the castle, acropolis and lindos village.
A very popular stop with boat trips from Rhodes and sailing trips from Lindos, Kiotari, Lardos and Gennadi is St Paul’s Bay. Sail Rhodes tend to do a quick turnaround in the bay as it can be extremely busy at peak times with a very narrow entrance. However, the views are worth it. Looking up from the glorious ancient anchorage you see just how imposing the citadel and acropolis of Lindos are.
The castle became the home of the Governor of the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. One of the most eminent knights was a highland Scot named Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy who became the famous / infamous Black Knight of Rhodes.
The fall of Christian Rhodes
Anyone fortunate enough to be joining a boat trip or sailing holiday from Mandraki Harbour in Rhodes will sail past the imposing St Nicholas Fortress. This guard tower was constructed in the 15th Century by the Grand Master Piero Raimondo Zacosta, a Spanish knight of Aragon who served as the 38th Grand Master. Thanks to his intervention the invasion of 1480 was thwarted in part by a giant chain extended across from St Nicholas preventing the Ottomans from landing supplies. That it still stands today, after several bombardments and earthquakes, is testimony to the calibre of engineering.
There are so many boat trips from Rhodes, Mandraki and the New Marina that it can sometimes look like a flotilla. However, the numbers are tiny compared the enormous Ottoman fleet that sailed off Rhodes on 26th June 1522. Over 400 vessels must have presented a terrifying sight to the defenders. 2 days later, Sultan Sulieman arrived with an invasion army of 200,000 men and began the siege of Rhodes.
Amongst the 200,000 army were the feared Janissaries. This was an elite Ottoman fighting force made up of children taken from Christian slaves. They were the first standing army in modern Europe and became the Sultan’s personal bodyguard and household troops. They were renowned for their fanatical devotion to Islam and their hatred of Jew and Gentile alike.
Facing off against this enormous invasion force was the garrison of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem. The garrison consisted of 5,000 men at arms and 703 Hospitaller Knights, with men from Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Scotland, England and Ireland. The outcome, you would think was a foregone conclusion. However, the Hospitaller Knights fiercely defended the garrison and went on to inflict horrendous casualties on the Ottomans, with various reports suggesting over 114,000 Turkish dead.
The Knights of St. John, or Knights Hospitallers, had captured Rhodes in the early 14th century after the loss in 1291 of Acre, the last Crusader stronghold in Palestine. From Rhodes, they became an active part of the trade in the Aegean sea, and at times harassed Turkish shipping in the Levant to secure control over the eastern Mediterranean.
Although the Knights Hospitallers was originally formed as a nursing order for pilgrims to the Holy Lands, a military arm was added in 1130 for self-protection and it developed into a highly efficient force. While the other two major crusading and nursing orders, the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights, declined amid internecine political struggles, the more pious and prosperous Hospitallers became a bulwark in the East for European interests.
Basic survival was the impetus for the order’s most important change: it’s improved military technology and efficiency. The order needed such martial traits to maintain an edge against the vast numerical superiority of their Muslim foes. Both traits took a huge leap forward when the order seized Rhodes, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. With an island base, the Knights quickly saw the potential for a much larger sphere of influence. Their strategy and tactics now focused on integrating marine warfare with their legendary battle readiness.
A first effort by the Ottomans to capture the island was repulsed by the Order but the continuing presence of the knights just off the southern coast of Anatolia was a major obstacle to Ottoman expansion. An earthquake shook the island in 1481.
After the siege and earthquake, the fortress was greatly strengthened against artillery according to the new school of trace italienne. In the most exposed land-facing sectors, the improvements included a thickening of the main wall, doubling of the width of the dry ditch, coupled with a transformation of the old counterscarp into massive outworks (tenailles), the construction of bulwarks around most towers, and caponiers enfilading the ditch. Gates were reduced in number, and the old battlement parapets were replaced with slanting ones suitable for artillery fights. A team of masons, labourers, and slaves did the construction work, with the Muslim slaves charged with the hardest labor.
Even more than their military technology and efficiency, the key to the Knights’ success was an unshakable psychological resolve built on stalwart religious faith and an elitist esprit de corps.
Thus, we have two highly trained, devoted and fanatical bodies facing off against each other: the Janissaries verses the Hospitaller Knights.
These were so-called “nursing priests” who did not marry and had to obey strict monastic rules—although those rules suffered much stretching. The “Brother Knights” were a caste of European nobles who had worked their way up to a final level of knighthood known as the “Grand Cross,” which permitted them to wear the order’s white eight-pointed Maltese Cross on a red surcoat.
The Grand Master was the elected leader of the order, chosen from the upper echelon of experienced Knights. Below him were various officers who formed the order’s highly structured pecking order. Commoners of good background were allowed to join the order as “brother sergeants” or “servants-at-arms.” Both groups underwent five years of intense weapons training. Knights were also expected to be experts in fortification, siegecraft, and ordnance.
Gunpowder technology was in the forefront of the order’s innovative approach to weaponry. Artillery was already an important defensive mainstay and the redoubts were reinforced accordingly.
In 1521, Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam was elected Grand Master of the Order. Expecting a new Ottoman attack on Rhodes, he continued to strengthen the city's fortifications, and called upon the Order's knights elsewhere in Europe to come to the island's defence. The rest of Europe ignored his request for assistance, but Sir John Rawson, Prior of the Order's Irish House, came alone.
The city was protected by two and, in some places three, rings of stone walls and several large bastions. The defence was assigned in sections to the different Langues. The harbour entrance was blocked by a heavy iron chain, behind which the Order's fleet was anchored.
The English, Scottish and Irish Post, the scene of the heaviest fighting; the tenaille is on the left and the main wall is further behind it, visible in the background; on the right of the wide dry ditch is the counterscarpthat the attackers had to climb down before storming the city wall. The ditch is enfiladed by the Tower of St. John, its bulwark and lower wall providing vertically stacked fields of overlapping fire. The stone cannonballs seen in the ditch are from the fighting.
The Turks blockaded the harbour and bombarded the town with field artillery from the land side, followed by almost daily infantry attacks. As you join a boat trip from Rhodes gaze back at the walls around the city. The towers immediately behind Mandraki belonged to the French. The tower on the far right that of Italy. They also sought to undermine the fortifications through tunnels and mines. The artillery fire was slow in inflicting serious damage to the massive walls, but after five weeks, on 4 September, two large gunpowder mines exploded under the bastion of England, causing an 11m portion of the wall to fall into the moat. The attackers immediately assaulted this breach and soon gained control of it, but a counterattack by the English brothers under Fra' Nicholas Hussey and Grand Master Villiers de L'Isle-Adam succeeded in driving them back. Twice more the Turks assaulted the breach that day, but the English and German brothers held the gap. The Black Knight of Rhodes, became infamous for the amount of Ottoman blood spilled on the counter attacks.
On 24 September, Mustafa Pasha ordered a massive assault upon the bastions of Spain, England, Provence, and Italy. After a day of furious fighting, during which the bastion of Spain changed hands twice, Suleiman eventually called off the attack. He sentenced Mustafa Pasha, his brother-in-law, to death for his failure to take the city, but eventually spared his life after the pleas of other senior officials.
Mustafa's replacement, Ahmed Pasha, was an experienced siege engineer, and the Turks now focused their efforts on undermining the ramparts and blowing them up with mines while maintaining their continuous artillery barrages. The regularity of the locations where the mines were detonated under the walls (which generally rest on rock) has led to the suggestion that the Turkish miners may have taken advantage of ancient culverts of the Hellenistic city buried beneath the medieval city of Rhodes.
Another major assault at the end of November was repelled, but both sides were now exhausted—the Knights were reaching the end of their strength with no relief forces expected, while the Turkish troops were increasingly demoralised and depleted by combat fatalities and disease in their camps. Suleiman offered the defenders peace, their lives, and food if they surrendered, but death or slavery if the Turks were compelled to take the city by force. Pressed by the townspeople, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam agreed to negotiate. A truce was declared for 11–13 December to allow negotiations, but when the locals demanded further assurances for their safety, Suleiman was angered and ordered the bombardment and assaults to resume. The bastion of Spain fell on 17 December. With most of the walls now destroyed, it was only a matter of time before the city was forced to surrender. On 20 December, after several days of pressure from the townspeople, the Grand Master asked for a fresh truce.
On 22 December, the representatives of the city's Latin and Greek inhabitants accepted Suleiman's terms, which were generous. The knights were given twelve days to leave the island and would be allowed to take their weapons, valuables, and religious icons. Islanders who wished to leave could do so at any time within a three-year period. No church would be desecrated or turned into a mosque. Those remaining on the island would be free of Ottoman taxation for five years.
On 1 January 1523, the remaining knights and soldiers marched out of the town, with banners flying, drums beating, and in battle armour. They boarded the 50 ships which had been made available to them and sailed to Crete (a Venetian possession), accompanied by several thousand civilians. We can only guess at the frustration felt by Suilleman when he saw just how small the defending force was.
The siege of Rhodes ended with an Ottoman victory. The conquest of Rhodes was a major step towards Ottoman control over the eastern Mediterranean and greatly eased their maritime communications between Constantinople and Cairo and the Levantine ports. Later, in 1669, from this base Ottoman Turks captured Venetian Crete.
The Knights Hospitaller initially moved to Sicily, but, in 1530, obtained the islands of Malta, Gozo, and the North African port city of Tripoli, following an agreement between Pope Clement VII, himself a Knight, and Emperor Charles V.
Today, the order is titled the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and on 3rd May 2023 elected it's first non European Grand Master - Fra’ John Dunlap, a Canadian has been elected Prince and 81st Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
If you are lucky enough to sail from Rhodes to Valetta in Malta you will see many signs and symbols from the Knights of Rhodes.
There are many locations in the world that offer great sailing and scenery, but few can compete with Rhodes for the incredible history that sits on every corner of this wonderful island. Sail Rhodes offers daily boat trips and luxury sailing trips from Lindos Bay. Impromptu history discussions on the castles and sites along the coast are always welcomed.