Siege of Rhodes 1522 – Ottoman Wars

Siege of Rhodes 1522 – Ottoman Wars. By 1517, the Ottoman Empire had successfully annexed the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and thus had secured control over Egypt, Syria, Hejaz, and the Levant. The Empire nearly doubled in size at this time, but the descendants of the House of Osman would soon hunger for further expansion. A number of events would make the Ottomans vie for naval dominance in the Mediterranean Sea.

Taking Rhodes was the crucial first step for gaining this dominance and that made a war with the Knights Hospitaller inevitable. The Ottoman takeover of Egypt changed the situation in the Mediterranean basin, as European merchants lost their spice trade routes. It was also crucial in terms of Islam, as the last Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil III was captured and forced to surrender the title to Selim I, which meant that the Ottoman Empire sultans now claimed overall leadership over the Muslim world.

European Naval Powers

According to Ottoman sources, that forced the Safavid Shah Ismail I to sue for peace with Selim, but that is not confirmed by Iranian sources. However, we know that a large garrison was left by the Ottoman sultan in Eastern Anatolia on his way back to the capital. During this period, the Ottomans became eager to build a sizable navy, both to defend against the superior European naval powers and to gain new lands in the region.

The expansion of Spain in Northern Africa created another opportunity, as the amir of Algeria decided to invite the Ottoman Empire privateers Oruj and Hayreddin [hey’re’DIN], who would be later known as Barbarossa, to help him against the Spaniards in 1516. By 1518 Hayreddin made Algeria an Ottoman province and although Spain continued to fight him for a few years, the Ottomans now had a springboard to attack both Italy and Spain.

History of Sultan Selim I

In 1520, Sultan Selim I passed away, succeeded by his son, Suleiman, today known as Suleiman the Magnificent. The new Sultan desired to gain more lands in Europe. As the Hungarian kingdom was going through a period of crisis, in 1521 Suleiman restarted the war against it. His goal was the most important fortress on the Danube – Belgrade. We have limited information on the siege, but it started on the 25th of June, and it seems that there were a few hundred strong garrison defending.

By the end of August, Belgrade was captured, opening the heart of Europe to Ottoman conquest. At the same time, Suleiman continued his naval preparations. He wanted to conquer the island of Rhodes, in order to strengthen his position in the Mediterranean. The owners of this island were the Knights of St. John, also known as the Hospitallers. They had been thorn in the Ottoman’s side for more than a century and a failed attack on them had already been made in 1480.

Siege of Rhodes

To understand the Knights of St. John, we must go back a few centuries to their origin. The Knightly order began in the time of the First Crusade, as the Knights Hospitaller operated hospitals in the Holy Land for Christian pilgrims. Later, they transitioned into a military order, and by the time of the Third Crusade had become one of the most formidable fighting forces in the Levant. However, in 1291 the Knights were pushed out of their last bastion on the mainland when the city of Acre fell to the Mamluks.

By 1310 they had managed to conquer the island of Rhodes from the declining Byzantine Empire and had turned it into their new base of operations. By 1521, The Knights of St. John had become notorious pirates, skilled seafarers who were the scourge of Ottoman Empire merchant ships in the Mediterranean. They had been a constant drain on Ottoman resources and an obstacle in the Ottoman attempt to control the Mediterranean Sea.

Ottoman Empire

Thus, it is not surprising that after Belgrade had been taken, Suleiman decided that the Knights of St. John had to be expelled from Rhodes for good. The Fortress in the city of Rhodes was the most fortified bastion in Christendom, designed by the best Italian engineers money could hire. It was easily defendable from all sides, and protected in most areas by three rings of thick stone walls, with protruding bastions which defenders could use to harass attackers from multiple angles.

The battlements were divided up into national segments, with Bastions defended by the French, English, German, Auvergne [orvern’yeh], Provencal, Spanish, and Portuguese chapters of the Knights of St. John. Taking a fortress such as that would require a massive cost, both in materials and human lives. The Grandmaster of the Knights, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, knew that a siege upon his fortress was soon to come. He sent messengers beseeching European leaders to come to the aid of Rhodes, but this bore no fruit.

The Knights

Part of the Venetian garrison on Cyprus joined the Hospitallers, but that was all the help they were getting. By June of 1522, the 400 ships strong Ottoman Empire navy was ready to sail. Led by the Sultan’s brother-in-law, Mustafa Pasha, the massive navy sailed from its base in Gallipoli down to the Island of Rhodes. 100,000 strong, it was made up of laborers, engineers, infantrymen, and the Sultan’s elite Janissary corps.

In contrast, the defenders of Rhodes commanded by de Philippe Villiers L’Isle-Adam numbered only 6703, only 703 of which were actual Knights of St. John, with the rest being the Venetians and the native Latin and Greek population of the Island. The Knights were prepared for a siege by the time the Ottomans had arrived. All the wheat on the Island had been harvested and stored, ensuring the Turks would not be able to live off the land.

Struggles of Sultan

A giant iron chain had been lifted across the city’s harbor mouth, ensuring no access into the city by the sea. They were prepared to see this battle out. The Sultan had set himself up in a ceremonial tent outside of gunshot range, and only then did the siege officially begin. In early August, Ottoman artillery began to bombard the fortress walls. The Turks were at the peak of military technology and used everything from Great Bombards that cracked open stone walls with massive cannonballs.

Despite this, the masterfully designed walls of the Christian fortress held firm. During the shelling, the Ottoman forces had dug in and created a network of protective trenches and wooden palisades surrounding the fortress. In order to undermine the Fortress’ defenses, the Ottoman generals set their sappers to dig their way under the walls and set explosive mines. These sappers were mainly Christians, recruited from the Ottoman Balkan territories, and had a treacherous job.

Ottoman Empire Tunnels

They inched along, yard by yard, digging trenches toward the city walls and protecting themselves with wooden planks and animal hides. Despite this, many sappers were killed by the defenders’ precise gunfire. Many more were blown up, as the Knights had set up an ingenious system by tying a sheet of animal membrane tightly between two wooden stakes with bells so that any vibration below the earth would cause ringing.

This would alert the defenders to sappers below, who would detonate any nearby counter-mines. The defenders managed to collapse over 50 Ottoman Empire tunnels. They had also bored spiral-shaped vents into the walls of their fortress, so the mines that did detonate had their blast force vented out, and the structural damage was reduced. on September 4th, two Ottoman mines beneath the English Bastion detonated, collapsing an 11 m-long segment of the wall and filling the moat beneath it.

The Great Ottomans

With an opening, Ottoman infantry charged into the Bastion and managed to drive off the Rhodian defenders. They planted banners on the battlements to celebrate their victory but were promptly driven off by a counterattack led by the English Knights, and Grandmaster L’Isle-Adam himself. Twice more the Ottomans attacked the breach, but each time the English Knights, aided by their German Brothers, held the line. Both sides took heavy casualties in this exchange.

It is said that the Sultan’s master gunner’s legs were blown off by a Rhodian cannonball, while the Knights had three major commanders killed. By late September, Ottoman Empire morale had begun to decline. Yet on the 19th of that month, Ottoman spies managed to inform Suleiman that the Spanish and Provencal Bastions were less protected than they originally thought, with no inner wall or protective ditch. With new resolve, the Sultan ordered a renewed full assault on these portions of the Fortress walls.

The Grand Vizier Mustafa Pasha

The Grand Vizier Mustafa Pasha led the attack. The bombardment took the Knights by surprise, and the Ottoman forces managed to get over the walls of the Spanish bastion. A fierce melee ensued, with elite Janissaries dueling disciplined Knights. The Spanish bastion changed hands twice, but ultimately, the Ottomans were repulsed from the walls. Furious at this failure, the Sultan demanded that Mustafa Pasha be executed, yet relented upon the pleading of his high-ranking officials to do otherwise.

Nevertheless, Mustafa was shipped off to Egypt and replaced with Ahmed Pasha, an experienced military engineer. Back-and-forth fighting continued throughout the month of October, mostly around the collapsed wall of the English Bastion. The Knights and their Rhodian subjects managed to keep the Janissaries at bay, but each sortie would cost precious lives, lives that the highly outnumbered defenders could not afford to lose.

Ottoman Empire Forces

By December, both the Ottomans and Rhodian defenders were thoroughly demoralized. The Ottomans had experienced a massive loss of life, and disease ran rampant through their ranks, killing many more. Meanwhile, the Knights and Rhodians had few living defenders remaining and with no help on the way, they knew they could not hold out much longer. On December 11th, peace talks between the two sides began.

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Suleiman offered the citizens of Rhodes food and protection if they surrendered, but death and slavery if he had to take the city by force. Negotiations would soon derail when the Latin and Greek citizens pushed too hard for assurances from the Sultan, who ordered his men to resume bombarding the city once more. On December 17th, Ottoman Empire forces once more overran the Spanish Bastion and killed its defenders. This time, it remained permanently in the Ottoman hands. It was the end for the Knights.

Ottoman Empire Losses

There were simply not enough soldiers left to defend the city, and the walls had been all but reduced to rubble after months of constant shelling. A peace was made on the 20th, and the terms were fairly amicable. The surviving Knights would be spared their lives, and be provided ships by the Sultan to sail to Crete. The citizens of Rhodes were promised safety from massacre, the desecration of their churches, and freedom from Ottoman taxation for 5 years.

The Knights departed from their fortress with honor, wearing their full regalia and beating their drums. They embarked on the ships provided to them after a valiant defense and sailed away from the Island. At this point, the Ottoman Empire and the Western sources differ, with the latter claiming that a massacre followed and the Church of St. John was converted into a Mosque immediately. The sources are also conflicted on the number of the Ottoman Empire losses, ranging from a thousand to 20 thousand casualties.

Battle of Lepanto 1571 - The Ottoman Empire
Battle of Lepanto 1571 – The Ottoman Empire
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