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Knights of Rhodes

Rhodes has seen many changes over the centuries as a strategic maritime center that has placed it at the center of many historic developments. One of the most significant was the arrival of the Knights of Jerusalem at the end of the 13th century. Their presence on the island renowned as a pirate stronghold saw building on a scale that had not been seen for 1000 years, and major changes to the governance of Rhodes. But who were the Knights and what remains of their legacy today?

Early History of the Knights

The Knights of Rhodes are also known as the Order of St John, the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights of St John. During the middle Ages they were among the most famous military Christian orders in the world. When Pope Gregory ordered the building of a hospital in Jerusalem in 632 AD to care for pilgrims to the Holy Land, a monastic order and foundation was established. Two hundred years later the hospital was destroyed by Caliph Al Hakim along with thousands of other buildings in Jerusalem. It was rebuilt and run by Benedictine monks. During the Crusades the Order of St John provided armed escorts as well as care to pilgrims. When the Islamists entered Jerusalem in 1300 the Knights Hospitaller were expelled and came to Rhodes, beginning a new chapter in their history.

The Knights of Rhodes

The Knights arrived on Rhodes in 1309 and thus began an era of development and innovation on the island. They also secured the ports of Bodrum and Kastelorizo in Turkey. Today, the huge castle dominating Rhodes Town is a legacy of that time. The rival order to the Knights Hospitaller, the Knights Templar, was dissolved by Pope Clement in 1312 with a series of Papal Bulls. This included transfer of property to the Knights of Rhodes. The properties were held in eight tongues with included Provence, England, Germany, Italy, Castle, Crown of Avignon, and Auvergne. Each tongue was headed by a prior. In Rhodes the resident knights of each tongue were ruled by a bailiff.

The Knights of Rhodes became a military force and most of their time was spent fighting the Barbary pirates that sailed in the Mediterranean. During the fifteenth century the Knights defended Rhodes from two invasions. One was from the Sultan of Egypt in 1444 and the other by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1480. Following the capitulation of Constantinople the Knights of Rhodes were a priority target for the sultan. In 1494 the Knights of Rhodes created a stronghold on Bodrum using parts of the Mausoleum which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes

In the Fourteenth century the Knights of Rhodes built the huge medieval palace which is one of the few remaining examples of gothic architecture in Greece. This functioned as the headquarters, as a palace, and as a fortress for the Knights. Today the distinctive character of Rhodes can be seen in the architecture and especially the old town. From churches to arches and doorways, the Byzantine style and reminder of the Knights of Rhodes is everywhere.

Grand Masters of the Knights Hospitaller – Headquarters on Rhodes

Nightlife in Rhodes

Defeat and Exile

In 1522 another force laid siege to Rhodes, this time under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent who sent a massive force of 100,000 men to the island. The Knights were led by Grand Master Philippe Villiers De L’Isle-Adam who had 7000 men and the fortifications. The siege lasted six months after which the Knights were permitted to withdraw to Sicily, after having ruled for 213 years. During the conflict both sides recognised the valour of Villiers De L’Isle-Adam who was later declared a Defender of the Faith by Pope Adrian VI. The Palace was taken over by the Ottoman Empire and was largely destroyed by an explosion in the nineteenth century. It was later rebuilt by Italians, but even today remains a dominant part of the landscape and a reminder of the Knights who once ruled the island. As for the Knights, they went on to Malta with the blessing of Charles V and the Pope, and set up their headquarters in Valletta, another episode in the extraordinary history of this famous order.

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