Today in European history: the Siege of Rhodes ends (1522)

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:


The feud between the Knights Hospitaller (aka the Knights of Rhodes and, later, the Knights of Malta) and the Ottoman Empire follows the standard big budget movie trilogy playbook, assuming you’re OK with casting the Knights as the protagonists. The saga begins with the Ottoman siege of Rhodes in 1480, from which the heavily outnumbered Knights were able to emerge victorious. They likewise won the finale, the 1565 Great Siege of Malta, mostly by just surviving long enough for a Spanish relief army to come to their rescue. But the middle chapter, the 1522 Siege of Rhodes, went to the Ottomans, who drove the Knights off of Rhodes and eventually on to Malta.

Ottoman Janissaries attacking the walls of Rhodes, from a manuscript of the contemporary Süleymanname by Ottoman chronicler Fethullah Chelebi Arifi (Wikimedia Commons)

The Knights Hospitaller established themselves on Rhodes in 1310. Their journey began when the last Crusader kingdom in the Levant, Acre, fell to the Mamluks in 1291. At first they’d tried making a new home on Cyprus, but they quickly got sucked into a bunch of courtly drama there, and decided to head off to a more...hospitable locale. “Hospitable,” get it? Because their name is...ah, whatever. To be honest, Rhodes wasn’t all that hospitable, seeing as how it was owned by the Byzantine Empire and the Byzantines had no interest in giving it up. But the Knights landed on its shores in 1306 and were finally able to claim it after a lengthy military campaign.

This map shows why the Knights’ presence on Rhodes was pretty intolerable for the Ottomans. Rhodes is really close to Anatolia, and it’s very well-positioned for any group that, hypothetically mind you, might want to, I don’t know, disrupt Ottoman ship traffic in the eastern Mediterranean. As it happened, the Knights were interested in doing just that, viewing it as a religious obligation in addition to a way to make some money. Getting the Knights off of that island was among Mehmed the Conqueror’s first priorities after he captured Constantinople in 1453. His armies besieged the city of Rhodes in 1480, but they failed because the Knights were well-fortified and the Ottomans underestimated their foe. Mehmed sent an attacking force of maybe 70,000 men at most, and probably more like 20,000 or 30,000. Even at 20,000 men, though, that meant Ottomans outnumbered the Knights about 10-to-1, to give you some sense of how impressive the Knights’ victory was.

When Mehmed died in 1481, the Ottomans seem to have moved “capturing Rhodes” down on their list of priorities. His successor, Bayezid II (d. 1512), was preoccupied with consolidating the empire in the wake both of its recent territorial expansion and the nasty civil war that followed Mehmed’s death. Bayezid was followed by Selim I (d. 1520), who focused on fighting other Muslims—the Safavids and the Mamluks, specifically. It fell to his successor, Suleyman (d. 1566), to complete Mehmed’s work and drive the Knights of Rhodes off of Rhodes. Learning from his predecessor’s mistake, Suleyman sent at least 100,000 men to take the island in June 1522. Despite the fact that the Knights had made several improvements in their fortifications since 1480, and despite the fact that their Grand Master, Philippe Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (d. 1534), sussed out ahead of time that an Ottoman attack was imminent, the Knights simply couldn’t withstand a siege of that magnitude.

To be sure, the Knights did the best they could, holding out for nearly six months and repelling at least two major Ottoman assaults against parts of their walls that had been collapsed by artillery fire. In late September, Suleyman, who was there to personally oversee the siege, fired (and nearly executed) his top commander, Choban Mustafa Pasha, because he hadn’t yet taken the city. In his place Suleyman appointed one Ahmed Pasha, who had a great deal of experience as an engineer. Ahmed Pasha’s plan was to undermine the city’s walls and destroy them from below. That plan worked, and the Ottomans systematically destroyed Rhodes’ walls, but they still couldn’t take more than an isolated rampart or two before meeting stiff resistance. Say what you will about the whole Crusading enterprise (I have, several times), but the Knights Hospitaller proved themselves a highly capable military force in these sieges.

By December, everybody had pretty much had enough. The Knights, who’d started out with around 7500 men and had lost 4/5 of them, simply couldn’t maintain their resistance, and there was no Christian relief army on its way as there would be at Malta four decades later. The Ottomans, despite having a ridiculous edge in both guns and manpower, were frustrated and tired of taking casualties without making any real progress. And, by the way, the people living on the island of Rhodes were tired of suffering collaterally while these two armies battered one another. So Suleyman proposed a deal: the remaining Knights could leave a place that they could no longer defend, and Suleyman would let them go in peace, with their weapons and religious items. Further, the Ottomans would promise not to enslave the people of Rhodes nor to convert any churches on the island to mosques. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam agreed, if for no other reason than the Rhodian people might well have turned on the Knights themselves if he hadn’t. The Knights asked for a ceasefire on December 20 and accepted the Ottoman offer on December 22.

The capture of Rhodes consolidated Ottoman control over the eastern Mediterranean, and for an empire that had only just added Egypt to its domains in 1517, taking Rhodes and clearing up the direct shipping lanes between Egypt and Constantinople was a very big deal. The Ottomans eventually conquered Cyprus in 1571, and thereby turned the eastern Mediterranean into something resembling an Ottoman lake. Today, of course, Rhodes belongs to Greece, after a meandering journey that began when Italy captured it during the Italo-Turkish War in 1912 and involved World War II occupations by both Germany and, later, Britain.

Every good second part of a trilogy has to set up the third and concluding part, and that’s exactly what happened here. Suleyman gave the Knights a couple of weeks to collect their things, and they finally departed for Venetian Crete on January 1. The search for a new island was on, and the stakes were enormous—the Knights knew that without a new home, they’d have to just go by “The Knights,” and that’s really a pretty silly name. They wound up settling on Malta—they could call themselves the Knights of Malta, so disaster averted—as vassals of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Malta, coincidentally, was also very well-positioned for anyone who wanted to harass Ottoman shipping, in this case to and from Tunisia, or for anybody who might want to resist an Ottoman naval advance into the western Mediterranean. So it was inevitable that the Ottomans would eventually chase the Knights there and resume their conflict.