Siege of Rhodes
Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands in the eastern Mediterranean and lies about 10 miles from Anatolia. The Knights of St. John (Hospitallers) controlled Rhodes in the 16th century, the last Christian holding in the eastern Mediterranean. The Knights of St. John had been in possession of Rhodes since 1310, and over the years they fortified both its harbor and its high ground. The knights used the island, astride major Ottoman shipping lanes, to raid Muslim shipping throughout the eastern Mediterranean. This led Sultan Mehmed II (Mehmed the Conqueror) to mount an unsuccessful three-month siege of the island in 1480.
Continued raiding from Rhodes induced Ottoman sultan Suleiman I (Süleyman I) to plan a major effort against the island. In 1522 Suleiman assembled some 400 ships, 100,000 men, and siege artillery. On Rhodes the grand master of the Knights of St. John, Auguste de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, commanded only about 5,700 men: 700 knights drawn from all over Christendom, 500 mercenaries from Crete, 500 Genoese, 50 Venetians, and 4,000 men-at-arms from other places. The knights did what they could to prepare for the attack. They closed off the entrance to the port with great chains, laid in supplies, and even demolished some buildings to create better fields of fire. Each of the principal defensive positions on the island was held by a particular language grouping.
The Ottoman host arrived off Rhodes on June 26 and anchored off Parambolino in the north, where the Ottoman troops landed uncontested. Among the artillery brought ashore were 40 bombards and 12 large basilisks. The Ottoman engineers took about a month to position their ordnance, opening fire on July 28. The Ottomans fired explosive shell, the first recorded use in battle in history. When this shelling failed to have the desired effect, at the end of August the Ottomans commenced mining operations. The defenders were well aware of this and dug countermines, setting off explosions against the Ottoman tunnels and venting them to disperse the blasts. Attempts to take the principal Christian stronghold, commanded by the grand master in person, were unsuccessful. The knights also launched a number of effective counterattacks.
Suleiman’s forces had suffered heavily, and morale among them was low; Suleiman is said to have lost upwards of half his force. In recognition of both the tremendous costs of the siege and the heroic Christian defense, on December 10 he offered to discuss a Christian surrender on honorable terms. The onset of winter, their own precarious position, dwindling numbers and supplies, and unrest among the civilian population all prompted the knights to negotiate. On December 21 agreement was reached. Suleiman allowed the knights to depart the island with the full honors of war, their arms, their religious relics, and the treasury of the Order. Such civilians as wished to leave could also depart and take with them portable possessions.
The knights departed Rhodes on January 1, 1523. The siege had lasted 145 days. Suleiman had removed, at least temporarily, the last serious threat to Ottoman naval power in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. For five years the knights were homeless, but they eventually took up residence in Malta, from which they continued to harry Ottoman shipping. This induced Suleiman in 1565 to order military operations against that island, although these operations were unsuccessful.
Brockman, Eric. The Two Sieges of Rhodes: The Knights of St. John at War, 1480–1522. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1995.
Kinross, Lord [John Patrick]. The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. New York: William Morrow, 1977.
Prata, Nicholas C. Angels in Iron. Huntingdon Valley, PA: Arx Publishing, 1997.