The Siege of Rhodes 1522

The Siege of Rhodes of 1522 was the second and ultimately successful attempt by the Ottoman Empire to expel the Knights of Rhodes from their island stronghold and thereby secure Ottoman control of the Eastern Mediterranean. The first siege in 1480 had been unsuccessful.
1480 Siege of Rhodes depictions by Caoursin

Suleiman had just finished his conquest of the Balkans with a victory over Hungary at the terrible siege of Belgrade. Now, at last, he would destroy Rhodes. Suleiman sent a letter to the Grand Master urging his friendship (meaning submission or surrender), and with intimidation cited the Sultan's "...triumph over the Hungarian King, whom we have stripped of the strong fortress of Belgrade, after having wasted his territories with fire and sword, and carried away many of his people." The Grand Master replied courteously, but noted the Order's determination to always defend its homeland. The Sultan's reply was a declaration of war.

As in the great siege 42 years earlier, the villas were leveled, and all the population of Rhodes, together with all available food and forage, were brought within the walls of the city. Under the command of the outstanding Knight Commander Anthony Bosio, vessels were dispatched to Candia (Crete), Sicily, Naples and France for whatever additional supplies, armaments, and men could be obtained. For example, on Candia, Bosio was able to enlist 500 Cretan archers.
Rhodes - 1522

The Knights of St. John, or Knights Hospitallers, had captured Rhodes in the early 14th century after the loss of Acre, the last Crusader stronghold in Palestine in 1291. 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. A first effort by the Ottomans to capture the island, in 1480, 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.
The tower of St. John at the East end of the English sector. The tower was built under Grand Master Antonio Fluvian (1421–37), and it had a gate. Later a barbican was built around it under Grand Master Piero Raimundo Zacosta (1461–67). Finally the large pentagonal bulwark was built in front of it c. 1487, and the gate was removed.

Since the previous siege the fortress had received many upgrades from the new school of trace italienne, which made it much more formidable in resisting artillery. In the most exposed land-facing sectors, these 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, the Muslim slaves were charged with the hardest labor.
Gun-wielding Ottoman Janissaries and defending Knights of Saint John at the Siege of Rhodes, miniature from Süleymannâme

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, work that had begun after the Ottoman invasion of 1480 and the earthquake of 1481, 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 some Venetian troops from Crete joined the knights, and 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 of the walls and bastions was assigned in sections to the different Langues into which the knights had been organized since 1301. The harbour entrance was blocked by a heavy iron chain, behind which the Order's fleet was anchored.

The Sultan assembled his fleet some 700 ships of which more than 100 were fighting galleys. He gathered his army more than 200,000 trained troops and as many as 100,000 sappers (slaves who were used to burrow under fortifications and set explosives). The armada set sail, and arrived at Rhodes on June 26, 1522. After sailing past the city to strike terror into the hearts of the defenders, a deserted area was chosen for disembarkment. It took thirteen days to unload the army, the supplies, and the hundreds of cannon some capable of firing balls nine feet in circumference.

Defending Rhodes were some 500 Knights and their servants of arms, probably fewer than 1,500 mercenaries and perhaps 4,000 Rhodian troops. There were several thousand inhabitants of Rhodes who at the arrival of the Turks entered the walled city for protection. Most lacked military training, and many were women and children. They could, however, help rebuild the walls, carry water, deliver supplies, and pray. This was, indeed, a small force to oppose the gathered might of the greatest Empire in the history of Islam. In fact, the forces of the Order at this time were slightly smaller than in the previous siege of 1480. The city, however, was at its strongest, encompassed by a double wall with thirteen towers, numerous bastions and special fortifications, a deep wide ditch around all, and the entire area commanded by cannon positioned for both frontal assault and crossfire. Every possible preparation and precaution was taken. Even the Latin and Greek Archbishops were instructed to give sermons regarding the necessity and merit of courageous resistance. Public prayers were offered imploring victory for the champions of the Cross.
Cannon of the Hospitallers at Saint-Nicholas Tower (Tour Saint-Nicolas), 1510, Rhodes. Arms of Emery d'Amboise, with Ottoman Turkish inscription. Latin inscription TURIS + S + NICOLAI + PRO + DEFÉSOR, "For the defence of Saint-Nicholas Tower". Caliber: 23.0 centimetres (9.1 in) length: 255 centimetres (100 in) weight:1,427 kilograms (3,146 lb). Remitted by Abdülaziz to Napoleon III in 1862

Almost immediately after disembarking, the bombardment began, and daily assaults were made against the fortified city attacks which failed and cost the Turks dearly due to the precision of the Rhodian cannoniers. So heavy were the losses that the invaders wanted to abandon the siege. However, after so many Turk defeats by the Order, this time the Sultan himself would command the siege. Suleiman came ashore on July 28th. His first act was to assemble his entire army, unarmed. Then he surrounded them with 15,000 of his personal guard, and because of their failures and their desire to disengage, he threatened to execute every tenth man. They prostrated themselves before him and begged mercy. There was never again talk of abandoning the field.
The spanish/french defence bastion ( also used by the english during the 1522 siege). Notice the possible siege tunnels at the bottom of the picture.

A violent, continuous, general bombardment now began. It is difficult to grasp the intensity of this siege. Once the cannonade began it rarely let up. The battle raged day and night for five months. During the day the walls would be battered into rubble, while engagements took place all around the city as thousands of Turks assaulted various fortified positions. Then, during the night, even under bombardment, the walls were rebuilt. Buildings throughout the city would be torn down and the stone used to rebuild the fortifications.

Typical of the warfare throughout this siege was the repeated heavy assault on the bulwark of the English Knights, which was several times mined. On September 4th, this wall was successfully mined and exploded, destroying 36 feet of the wall. The Turks soon gained control of this position and planted their standard. The Grand Master, praying prostrate before the altar of Saint Mary of Victory, hearing the explosion, rushed to the wall, led a furious fight to the top, and personally tore down the Turk banner. In the battle that continued for hours, more than two thousand Turks were killed. Rhodian musketeers along the wall shot down hundreds, while Knights in armor met steel with steel in hand-to-hand combat. In this engagement alone, forty-eight Knights fell. It was a heavy loss for the Turks and an irreplaceable loss for the Order, but again the Cross had held against the Crescent.
Bombard-Mortar of the Knights of Saint John, Rhodes, 1480-1500. Founded at the request of Pierre d'Aubusson, the bombard was used for close defence of the walls (100–200 metres). It fired 260 kg granite balls. The bombard weighs 3,325 kg. Musée de l'Armée.

A few days later a similar assault was launched against the bulwark of Italy, with almost identical results. Four days later, Mustapha Pasha with four battalions again assaulted the English bastion, and then the bastion of Spain. The fighting defies description, and this time the Turks lost more than three thousand brave Janissaries.
The town of Rhodes from a 15th century drawing

Then on September 24th, an all-out attack by tens of thousands was simultaneously launched on the bulwarks of Italy, Spain, England, Provence and Auvergne. Minute details of all these separate battles can be found in the Order's archives. The resistance, the heroism, almost exceeded human capabilities. Often only a few against hundreds in hand-to-hand combat. In addition, the Order's sharpshooters, even using the crude harquebus muskets of that era, were deadly. One French Knight, Francis Fornovi, shooting from the Tower of Saint George, killed more than 500 Turks during the siege.

Thus the battle continued, almost without respite, from June into December. At one stage the Grand Master, dressed in his armor, slept for thirty-four successive nights behind the entrenchment on the Spanish bastion, ready to repulse the next attack.

Eventually, nearly every principal bastion was beaten into rubble by the Turk cannon, only to find that the Order had dug new ditches and built new walls behind those that were destroyed. Moreover, while the courage and fanaticism of the Turk troops was astounding, the heroism of the Knights and the Rhodians who were fighting for their lives and for their women and children (who would be violated and put to horrible deaths if Islam prevailed) was even greater.
Rounding up captives at the siege of Rhodes

But the prolonged siege took its toll. By mid December, only a few Knights were still alive. Tens of thousands of Turks were dead. The stench of rotting bodies of men and animals hung all over the inland. Unsanitary conditions contributed to much disease. The suffering and dying of the thousands of wounded was almost unbearable. Finally, with winter approaching, the Sultan offered a truce. He had no idea how many Knights remained, and if a considerable number were still alive, and they continued to fight as they had done, the siege would be too costly for him to continue.

Similarly, the Grand Master was faced with rebellion by the civilian Rhodians and Greek citizens, and demands by the clergy for a truce. With few Knights still able to resist, L'Isle Adam agreed to negotiations.
A confusion of influences assail the senses on a walk through theold town. The stoic grandeur of the medieval fortress-like buildings seem at odds with the narrow alleyways and homespun architecture

Filled with awe for the Knights, and in sharp contrast to the usual cruel Muslim behavior, Sulei-man was magnanimous. If the Order would surrender Rhodes, the Sultan promised that the churches would not be profaned, no children would be taken from their parents, all citizens would be allowed free exercise of their religion, any and all residents of Rhodes would be free to leave the island with the Knights, those who remained would pay no tribute for five years, the Knights would depart in their own galleys and be supplied by the Turks with additional ships if needed, the Order could embark with all its property relics, consecrated vessels, records, and the artillery on board its warships, and the Turk army would retire several miles from the city while this evacuation took place. Suleiman himself came into the city to salute the Grand Master and addressed him by the title of "Father." On the first day of January 1523, L'Isle Adam and his intrepid Knights put to sea on fifty ships loaded with the Order's property, together with all those who fought with the Order, and all Christians who wished to accompany them.
Field sketch of the Fortress City of Rhodes as in 1522,
showing the initial deployment of the opposing forces 
(S III, Rhodes, c 1978)


    1. Post of France 9. Ayas Pasha
    2. Post of Germany 10. Ayas Pasha
    3. Post of Auvergne 11. Ahmed Pasha
    4. Post of Aragon 12. Qasim Pasha
    5. Post of England 13. Mustafa Pasha
    6. Post of Provence 14. Piri Pasha
    7. Post of Italy 15. Fort St. Nicholas
    8. Janissaries 16. Boom Defences

In the same year, 1523, a former Knight of the Order "who had laid aside the sword for the cowl and rosary" Cardinal Julio de Medici, was unanimously elected Pope Clement VII. In the procession following his election the great standard of the Order of Saint John was carried before the new Pontiff.

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 with them their weapons and any valuables or religious icons they desired. 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.

Ancient Rhodes

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