The Cross and the Crescent: Rhodes, 1522 (Part 1)

As often pointed out in this space, we are in the midst of a very old war. Seneca III takes us back almost five hundred years, to the Siege of Rhodes in 1522, one of a long series of hard-won victories against European Christendom by the Ottoman Turks.

This is the first of three parts.

The Cross and the Crescent: Rhodes, 1522
by Seneca III

Part I: Stronghold of the Hounds of Hell

“Allah’s Deputy on Earth, Lord of the Lords of this World, Possessor of Men’s Necks, King of Believers and Unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of East and West, Emperor of the Chakrans of Great Authority, Prince and Lord of the Most Happy Constellation, Majestic Caesar, Seal of Victory, Refuge of all the People in the Whole World, The Shadow of the Almighty Dispensing Quiet in the Earth” had been Sultan and head of the House of Osman for less than two years, yet this only son of Selim the Terrible, Suleiman bin Selim Khan, he whom history would record as ‘The Magnificent’, had already demonstrated the ruthless efficiency that would make him the paramount conqueror of his time.

Following the swift suppression of a rebellion by the Governor of Damascus immediately after his father’s death he had plunged his armies deep into squabbling Christian Europe, taking Belgrade in 1521 only seven months after acceding to the throne. At twenty-seven years of age his star was rising fast; he was feared in Europe, revered in Constantinople and obeyed with alacrity throughout his dominions. And yet to Suleiman, poet, historian and scholar as well as soldier, the brightness of his success was dimmed by the so far unfettered depredations of one small group of men whom he rightly saw as tarnishing the glory of all of his other achievements.

To find these Infidel offenders Suleiman had only to look south from his palace above the Golden Horn. In the Aegean, deep within the underbelly of the Ottoman Empire, only fifteen miles from mainland Turkey, sitting astride the sea lanes of Islam and holding them in an iron grip, lay Rhodes, southerly anchor of a beautiful, broken necklace of bright green islands called the Dodecanese. It was the last bastion of the Crusaders, a state within its own right, home of the fearsome, aristocratic fighting monks of the ‘Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem’.[1]

In the two centuries since their expulsion from Outremer[2] the Brothers of the Holy Religion had used their time well. Reacting to the constraints of their new island home they had broadened their vocation to include naval warfare as well as their skills as armoured cavalry and fortress engineers. They built, manned and deployed their swift galleys so effectively that they soon became the finest fighting units afloat. Crewed by expert Rhodian seamen, and with their fighting platforms thick with the heavily armoured Knights and Sergeants of the Order, each vessel was more than a match for several times its number. These Monks of War, austere, pious, brutally professional and effective out of all proportion to their small numbers, had turned the eastern Mediterranean into their private fief, where they took or sank Suleiman’s ships at will. This wholesale predation upon the maritime commerce of his Empire was an insult that Suleiman was about to avenge in the eminently practical manner of the day… by fire and sword.

So it came to pass that on the 26th July, 1522, the fifty eight year old Grand Master of the Order, Fra.[3] Phillipe Villiers De L’Isle Adam, came onto the balcony of his palace to watch Suleiman’s advance force of thirty galleys sail past Rhodes. At their posts around the perimeter of the massive fortifications, sweating within their armour and heavy, quilted undergarments beneath the sun of high summer, the 500 Knights and Sergeants at Arms and the 1500 trained Mercenary and Rhodian troops who constituted his small force watched with him. And within this girdle of steel men and stone ramparts — a badly drained roughly oval area no more than 500 by 650 metres in size — were crammed the people of Rhodes, their children, their valued possessions and their animals, from which assemblage was already rising a pungent effluvium. Without, the fertile fields and orchards of the island lay stripped bare, blackened by fire and fed now by wells and springs poisoned with the rotting carcasses of slaughtered livestock.

At dawn the next day all eyes turned northwards. With the coming of first light, to the dull reverberation of stroke drums, the crack of overseers’ whips and the creak of oars, over 600 war galleys and transports commanded by the corsair Cortoglu brought Suleiman and his army of 200,000 men to their time of battle. Even taking into account the fact that chroniclers of that time tended towards numerical superlatives when reporting such strengths, it was without doubt a vast fleet and an enormous army, because no one, least of all the brilliant Suleiman, underestimated the difficulties involved in breaching the walls of the most fortified city in the known world, and then engaging in close-quarter combat with those fanatical armoured warriors wielding two handed broadswords that could cleave a man from skull to waist in a single blow.

But that demanding moment was yet to come. Throughout the next few days Suleiman’s colourful horde disembarked at Kalithea Bay. Together with the regiments of Janissaries[4], Sipahis[5], Bashibazookis[6] and gyrating, drug crazed Iayalars[7]came the artillery — mortars, culverin and huge basilisks[8] — cannon of every shape and size with which to bombard the ramparts of Rhodes, ramparts that over recent months had been even further strengthened in preparation for the battering this array of firepower would soon deliver. More ominously for the defenders there came thousands of trained miners, but their intentions had long been anticipated by the experienced De L’Isle Adam, and for them also he was well prepared.

For attacker and defender alike it was a display of bravura and splendour; the shining armour, the raucous cacophony of drum, tambour and horn, the flutter of proud banners, the still, stone faced demeanour of the Knights counterpointing the ostentatious, stylised display of bejewelled wealth paraded by the Pashas and the ritual trading of insults between the common soldiery, unchanged in its exquisite anatomical detail since time immemorial. It was all there, the full charade of panoplies, as ephemeral as the coming battle would be enduring. For all knew that come the morrow, and down all the days that followed, there would be naught but the acrid fumes of burnt powder, the stink of putrefaction from rotting corpses entombed in steaming rubble rendering the air so thick it could be tasted, the agonised shrieks of the mutilated punctuating the thunder of cannon, the sinister crack of the extremely accurate long-barrelled matchlock muskets of Fez, the ring of steel on steel, the hunger and thirst, the whole ghastly Hell’s kitchen of medieval siege warfare — and tomorrow would come soon enough.

To be continued…


1.   To which would later be added ‘and of Rhodes and of Malta’.
2.   Fr. ‘Outre-mer’, overseas, a.k.a. the Holy Land.
3.   Fr. ‘Fra.’, abbr. of ‘Frère’, brother, from which the English word ‘Friar’ is derived.
4.   Janissaries were the elite foot soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. Selected at a early age for their fine physiques from amongst the Dhimmis of the conquered Christian nations under a form of taxation known as ‘devşhirmeh’ (see below) they were isolated under Spartan conditions, forcibly converted to Islam and ruthlessly trained for war in the service of the Sultan. Their conditioning was such that they regarded death as but an entry into paradise, and their claim that “The body of a Janissary is but a stepping for his brother into the breach” was no idle boast.

[Devşhirmeh (blood tax): As explained by Candali Kara Halil Hayreddin Pasha, founder of the Janissaries, devşhirmeh was a correct and legitimate practice according to Islamic jurisprudence because it {Sharia law} stated quite categorically that “The conquered are the slaves of the conquerors, to whom their goods, their women and their children belong as lawful possession.” (To my mind this example of Sharia in action tells us everything we need know in order to understand the Europe-wide epidemic of predation (both upon our resources and our persons), violent rape and the seemingly endless cases of Muslim ‘grooming’ and subsequent sexual degradation of our vulnerable girl children.)]

5.   Whereas the Janissaries could be regarded as an Ottoman Praetorian Guard, the Sipahi were in fact the Sultan’s Household Cavalry (Kapikula Süvarileri Ocaği — literally the ‘Hearth of the Household Cavalrymen of Gate Slaves’). Like the Janissaries they were press-ganged from Christian communities under devşhirmeh and subjected to the same forced conversion to Islam and to similar ruthless training and could perhaps best be described as the mounted knights of the Ottoman Empire.
6.   Bashibazookis (from the Turkish ‘başibozuk’ literally meaning ‘damaged head’) were a collection of disorderly irregular soldiers who, although armed and maintained by the government, were unpaid and fought for plunder, mainly because they were so ill disciplined they were incapable of carrying out organised military undertakings.
7.   Iayalars: The medieval precursor of today’s Al Qaeda and its various clones. In this case they served as the Sultan’s dispensable cannon-fodder, used as the first wave in mass attacks in order to wear down the defenders by attrition before the professional soldiers went in.

“They were a fanatical corps without the Janissaries’ iron training, but with a complete disregard for their own life or any other. Maddened by Hashish, the Iayalars were a fervid sect of Moslems, deriving their blind courage from a blend of religion and Hemp… they induced in themselves a deliberate frenzy which made them oblivious to everything but the lust to kill. They were picked men, clothed with the skins of wild beasts, and having as head covering gilded steel helmets and [were] armed with the round shield and scimitar. In a frenzied wave — seeing only the battlements before them and paradise beyond — the Iayalars came down for the first assault. The pupils of their eyes were like needles, their salivaed lips held only one word, “Allah”!” Ernle Bradford, The Great Siege (Malta, 1565) — Hodder and Stoughton Limited, 1961.

8.   Basilisks: Large, heavy cannon generally constructed of either brass or bronze and firing 50- to 200-pound balls, often of stone. Named after the legendary reptile whose single breath or glance would kill.

N.B. ‘Stronghold of the Hounds of Hell’ is an apt description of the Rhodes of that time and is attributed to the Egyptian and Anatolian Emirates of the Ottoman Empire, whose ships and coastlines bore the brunt of the Order’s entrepreneurial activities.

Caveat: A long and detailed draft for this article, hand written whilst serving in Malta over 40 years ago, has recently surfaced amongst the piles of debris that constitute the contents of a couple of old filing cabinets recovered from the back of my loft during a recent house move. I did not therein cite any sources, or find any associated paperwork so doing (as was and is my practice) and the only sources I can remember offhand are The Monks of War, by Desmond Seward and The Great Siege, by Ernle Bradford, (a tattered copy of the latter has just turned up in the piles). There were others, of course, many others, now long lost in various transits or still on the shelves of Maltese (and later Rhodian) libraries and in the dusty corners of their archives, and I do apologise for any extended quotations, above and following, that, I suspect, being uncited, could border on overt plagiarism.

— Seneca III

For links to previous essays by Seneca III, see the Seneca III Archives.

12 thoughts on “The Cross and the Crescent: Rhodes, 1522 (Part 1)

  1. I’ve always seen the Ottoman’s in the 1500s as the unluckiest Superpower in the world. In the 1450s they finally batter down the Theodosian Walls and control the center of the world–Constantinople. As the Spanish finally kick out the undesirables who flood into Turk service, 1492 Spain, Portugal, France and England discover that they are infact not at the edge of the world and are instead the dead center.

    The Sultans and their hangers on must have been utterly dismayed by this, sometimes the god of history is like Nelson in the Simpsons “Haaa Haaaa!” he chortles as he points his stubby fingers. The Med was really just a side show after the 1492.

    • One should also look at the miltary social and economic impact of Sugar Cane plantations based on Meditteranean islands like Cyprus. Great profits, slaving, uprisings, money grubbing and territory swaps. It’s all there hiding in plain sight.

  2. I also have to mention The Religion by Tim Willocks, which is a fictional account of The Great Siege of 1565, & is a thundering good read – I especially recommend the audio version of that.

    I have to say that the book that started off my interest in Malta (& actually got me to go over there to visit the island) was Fortress Malta by James Holland. Again, the audio version is excellent; it’s read by Joss Ackland – but unfortunately it’s now quite hard to find.

    There is also a great documentary about the pilots who were based on Malta during WWII – Heroes In The Sky. This was made in Malta & you should be able to order it from the guy who owns the company in Malta (as I did.)

  3. Really excellent piece, Seneca! Reminds me of the history books of my childhood; those were very vivid and evocative. Are you a professional author?

    • Not really, Ash, but thank you for the thought. I will, if I don’t have another of those ‘senior moments’, give it some thought and try to give you a more comprehensive idea of why I write thus after Part III. Rgds, S III.

  4. “Sword and Scimitar”by Scarrow is a cool novel based on the climactic Malta Siege.

    It’s interesting mostly because it details the tactics on galleys. Most of the rowers for the Turks were Christians, most of the rowers for Christian navies were common criminals or the occasional captured Turk. These were not popular because they would sabotage the ships.

    The artillery battles were technically well thought out in the novel. Valette was a hard arse. Wow! Top man.

    • Not quite correct, Dan, I ‘m afraid. Both sides extensively, almost exclusively, used captives as galley slaves. Indeed the sheepskin covered wooden benches where these poor souls sat five abreast, naked, feet braced on the back of the bench in front, thrusting those huge, great oars backwards and forwards to the rhythm of stroke drums, whipped unto death when they faltered, rowing hour after hour after hour with bread soaked in wine stuffed into their mouth by the overseers in order to keep them functioning, and killed and cast overboard when they collapsed was the norm on both sides.
      This ‘death in life’ was not the preserve of those few criminals who came to the benches by any means, it was the inevitable fate of any and all who were taken in battle and amongst whom were both Valette and Dragut (Cortoglu’s successor) until they were ransomed as was the custom of the time for those few fortunate enough to have compatriots with the necessary resources. Only the strongest of the strongest survived their time on the benches, but what virtually indestructible men they were thereafter!

      • Aye, the Grand Master himself led from the front of the line during the Great Siege at one point, did he not, despite being of advanced years. Hard as nails and under no illusions as to the nature of his enemy.

        When the Moslems crucified and beheaded his brothers and floated them across the Grand Harbour on wooden crosses, the Grand Master immediately ordered the Moslem captives beheaded, loaded their nappers into cannons and fired them back across the harbour to land on Sciberras, amongst the Moslem forces. No mercy was given, or expected.

        As a young man at Rhodes, de Valette vowed never to see the Knights surrender to the Moslems in such a way again – and as Grand Master of the Knights many years later, he achieved an entirely different result on behalf of the whole non-Moslem world.

        Like the song says, he sent them homeward, to think again.

      • The info in the book appears to suggest otherwise. The jails and dungeons were the source for the Knights most of the time.

        Press Gangs for the Oceanic navies were much more civilized by comparison.

      • 500 Galley Slaves were released during the siege and they fought on the side of the Christians. This is recorded fact.

        They were the scum of the earth: rapists, murderers, theives etcetc but they were our scum. The Turk fleet was never able to mobilize the Christian slaves they had. Part of the efficiency of the Maltese Flotilla was the round-A-bout loyalty of the rowing crews. If the boats were captured the Christian rowers were in even more trouble.

  5. Pingback: The Cross and the Crescent: Rhodes, 1522 (Part 2) | Gates of Vienna

Comments are closed.