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St. John Defend Rhodes, Knights of

The Knights of St. John defended the garrison of Rhodes from the Ottomans between May 23 and August 17, 1480. The garrison endured months of intense bombardment, but the Turks were repelled again and again. On the 28th of July, 1480, the Turks finally breached the city. Although they were outnumbered, the Knights of St. John successfully drove the Turkish soldiers out of the garrison. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, but the Ottoman fleet was forced to retreat.  These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History during that time.

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The Order of St. John of Jerusalem

During the late 11th century, a group of men and women established a hospital in Jerusalem to care for sick pilgrims and the city’s poor. Most of the caregivers came from Western Europe, and they belonged to the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. The Roman Catholic Church officially recognized the order in 1113. European knights also joined the order, and they later participated in the Crusades. The order then became known as the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. From then on, the order had two branches: the religious and the military.

In 1291, the Mamluks of Egypt captured Acre along with a great part of the Levant held by the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. This drove the members of the Order to the island of Cyprus which was ruled by Henry II of Jerusalem (a member of the House of Lusignan). They established their base in the Cypriot city of Limassol and opened a new hospital there.

The order apparently had the talent of landing on its feet as it found another source of income. The knights’ new job was to escort and protect Holy Land-bound pilgrims who traveled by sea. Apart from this, they also engaged in piracy. This gave the Mamluk and Ottoman pirates some serious competition in the Mediterranean. The Genoan and Venetian merchants, meanwhile, profited from the knights’ domination in the eastern part of the Mediterranean.

The knights tried to recapture the Holy Land under the leadership Grand Master Guillaume de Villaret but they failed. Over the years, the members of the order also felt increasingly unwelcome in Cyprus because of the high taxes imposed upon them. For de Villaret, it was high time for the Order to look for a new home and the island of Rhodes seemed perfect.

The island of Rhodes had once belonged to the Byzantine Empire. It was taken by the Crusaders in 1204 and became a part of the Latin Empire. It was then occupied by Genoa, and taken once again by the Byzantine Empire during the latter part of the 13th century. The crumbling Byzantine government, however, maintained only a nominal control of the island. The island was ruled by independent Byzantine governors who also welcomed Ottoman and Mamluk merchants or pirates.

Guillaume de Villaret soon started the plans for the knights of the Order to conquer Rhodes. The grand master himself surveyed the strongest and weakest points of the island on board a ship. He returned later to Cyprus to make preparations to conquer the island. However, his grand plans would be carried out by another as he died in 1305.

He was succeeded by his nephew, Foulques de Villaret who continued the plans to conquer Rhodes. Pope Clement V himself sanctioned it as a crusade and provided the funds. Many Europeans joined this “crusade”, and the conquest of Rhodes finally started in 1307. The Order’s troops and the Crusaders soon conquered a large part of the island, except for those that were occupied by Muslim merchants and pirates. The Byzantine troops sent by Constantinople also joined the battle, but they were not there to help the Knights.

The Knights of St. John and the Crusaders now faced two enemies: the Muslims who held out on the island and the Byzantine troops. Many of the Crusaders were discouraged when the Byzantine troops arrived as they were not expecting to fight fellow Christians. The Crusaders went home one by one until only the Knights of St. John remained in Rhodes.

During the summer of 1310 the Knights’ fortunes changed. None of the Crusaders returned for the second attempt to conquer the whole island, so the Knights hired mercenaries instead. It was successful, and they finally drove off Muslim merchants and pirates out of the island. Apart from Rhodes, they also ruled the nearby island which belonged to the Dodecanese group in the Aegean Sea. These included Nisyros, Leros, Chalki, Kos, and Tilos. The Knights established a church, a palace, and a convent in Rhodes. They also built fortifications on the island and maintained a small fleet to protect them from the Mamluk and Ottoman raiders.

The Siege of Rhodes (1480)

Castle of the Knights of St. John at Rhodes.

In Anatolia, the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmed II had reached the peak of empire building. They had toppled the weakened Byzantine Empire in 1453 and conquered much of the Balkans. The Ottoman navy also started to attack the islands off the coast of Anatolia including the islands of Tilos (1470) and Chalki (1475). The Knights knew that the Ottomans would soon attack Rhodes, so they prepared by building and repairing the fortifications in the island over the years.

The French knight and the Order’s Grand Master Pierre d’Aubosson sent spies to Istanbul sometime before the invasion. With the information the spies sent to him, he knew that the Turks would invade the island soon. In the early months of 1480, he ordered the locals to harvest the crops and bring them inside the fortress as provision for the oncoming attack. Fruit trees planted near the coast were cut down. Houses that stood outside the fortress were destroyed so that the Turks would not be able to use them.

On the 23rd of May, 1480, the dreaded Turkish fleet finally arrived near the coast of Rhodes. It was composed of hundreds of ships loaded with as much as 80,000 men who were led by Pasha Mesih Palaiologos (a relative of the dead Byzantine emperor). The Turks camped out on the hill of San Stefano and promptly started the bombardment of the fortress on the 24th of May.

As expected, the Knights were outnumbered and outgunned. 400 knights under Pierre d’Aubosson plus 200 members of the Order led the defense of the fortress. The rest were hired troops (around 2,000 men) and locals who decided to help the Knights. The Turks, meanwhile, were bolstered with 100,000 reinforcements led by Ali Pasha. They were composed of irregulars (bashibazouks who were feared for their cruelty), Janissary corps, and regular Ottoman soldiers.

The residents of Rhodes endured 60 days of unrelenting bombardment until the Turks decided to row for land. On July 28, they entered the garrison and wave after wave of Turkish soldiers poured inside. The Grand Master and several Knights engaged the Turks in a hand-to-hand combat, but the sheer number of attackers overwhelmed the defenders.

However, luck was on the side of the Knights as the invasion suddenly turned into a melee for the Turks. The attackers at front retreated in a confused mess, but those at the rear of the crush kept pushing back at them. Many were already hurt, so the Knights took advantage and picked them off one by one. In the end, thousands of Turkish soldiers were either wounded or killed. Mesih Pasha did not have a choice but to order a humiliating retreat. Rhodes would remain in Christian hands for another 42 years until the arrival of Suleiman I’s fleet.


Picture by: Antiquarian at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, Link

Buttigieg, Emanuel, and Simon David Phillips. Islands and Military Orders, c.1291-c.1798. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013.

Packard, Barbara. “The Sieges of Rhodes: Print and Propaganda.” Museum of the Order of St John. Accessed March 20, 2017.

Porter, Whitworth. A History of the Knights of Malta: or, the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Setton, Kenneth M. The Papacy and the Levant (1204-1571). The fifteenth century. American Philosophical Society, 1978.

Vann, Theresa M., and Donald J. Kagay. Hospitaller Piety and Crusader Propaganda: Guillaume Caoursin’s Description of the Ottoman Siege of Rhodes, 1480. London ; New york: Routledge, Taylor & Group, 2016.

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