Rhodes is an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble illustrating the significant period of history in which a military hospital order founded during the Crusades survived in the eastern Mediterranean area in a context characterized by an obsessive fear of siege. The fortifications of Rhodes, a ‘Frankish’ town long considered to be impregnable, exerted an influence throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin at the end of the Middle Ages.
With its Frankish and Ottoman buildings the old town of Rhodes is an important ensemble of traditional human settlement, characterized by successive and complex phenomena of acculturation. Contact with the traditions of the Dodecanese changed the forms of Gothic architecture, and building after 1523 combined vernacular forms resulting from the meeting of two worlds with decorative elements of Ottoman origin. All the built-up elements dating before 1912 have become vulnerable because of the evolution in living conditions and they must be protected as much as the great religious, civil and military monuments, the churches, monasteries, mosques, baths, palaces, forts, gates and ramparts.
From 1309 to 1523 Rhodes was occupied by the Knightly Order of St John of Jerusalem, who had lost their last stronghold in Palestine, St John of Acre, in 1291. They proceeded to transform the island capital into a fortified city able to withstand sieges as terrible as those led by the Sultan of Egypt in 1444 and Mehmet II in 1480. An anachronic vestige of the Crusades, Rhodes finally fell in 1522 after a six-month siege carried out by Suleyman II, heading forces reportedly numbering 100,000 men.
The medieval city is located within a wall 4 km long. It is divided according to the Western classical style, with the high town to the north and the lower town south-south-west. Originally separated from the town by a fortified wall, the high town (Colloquium) was entirely built by the Knights Hospitallers who, following the dissolution of the Templars in 1312, became the strongest military order in all Christendom. The order was organized into seven ‘Tongues’, each having its own seat. The inns of the Tongues of Italy, France, Spain and Provence lined both sides of the principal east-west axis, the famous Street of the Knights, one of the finest testimonies to Gothic urbanism. Somewhat removed to the north, close to the site of the Knights’ first hospice, stands the Inn of Auvergne, whose facade bears the arms of Guy de Blanchefort, Grand Master from 1512 to 1513.
The original hospice was replaced in the 15th century by the Great Hospital, built between 1440 and 1489, on the south side of the Street of the Knights; today the building is used as the archaeological museum. Located north-west of the Colloquium are the Grand Master's Palace and St John’s Church. At the far eastern end of the Street of the Knights, built against the wall, is St Mary’s Church, which the Knights transformed into a cathedral in the 15th century. The lower town is almost as dense with monuments as the Colloquium. In 1522, with a population of 5,000, it was replete with churches, some of Byzantine construction.
After 1523, most were converted into Islamic mosques, like the Mosques of Soliman, Kavakli Mest Chiti, Demirli Djami, Peial ed Din Djami, Abdeldjelil Dj Ami, and Dolapli Mest Chiti. Throughout the years, the number of palaces and charitable foundations multiplied in the south-south-east area: the Court of Commerce, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Hospice of St Catherine, and others. The ramparts of the medieval city, partially erected on the foundations of the Byzantine enclosure, were constantly maintained and remodeled between the 14th and 16th centuries under the Grand Masters Giovanni Battista degli Orsini (1467-76), Pierre d’Aubusson (1476-1505), Aiméry d’Amboise (1505-12), and Fabrizio del Carretto (1513-21). Artillery firing posts were the final features to be added. At the beginning of the 16th century, in the section of the Amboise Gate, which was built on the north-western angle in 1512, the curtain wall was 12 m thick with a 4 m high parapet pierced with gun holes.
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