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The lower town is almost as dense with monuments as the high town. In 1522, with a population of 5000, it had many churches, some of Byzantine construction. (..) Its history and development up to 1912 has resulted in the addition of valuable Islamic monuments, such as mosques, baths and houses. After 1523, most churches were converted into Islamic mosques.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of the Medieval City of Rhodes which in 1988 was added to the World Heritage List.
Rhodes in addition to the buildings related to the Knights of St. John, retains many memories of the Greek, Ottoman and Jewish communities who lived there for centuries.
In 1480 Sultan Mehmet II, who had conquered Constantinople in 1453, did not succeed in doing the same with Rhodes: two years later, his son Prince Cem made his grand entrance into Rhodes: not as a conqueror, but as a guest. In 1481 Sultan Mehmet II died while he was on his way to make another attempt to seize Rhodes: his son Bayezid II was declared Sultan, but Prince Cem, one of his younger brothers, who was ruling two provinces in central Anatolia, proclaimed himself Sultan of Anatolia: however his troops were soon defeated and Prince Cem fled to Egypt. In 1482 he landed again in Anatolia and tried to raise a revolt against his brother.
This second attempt also ended in failure and Prince Cem sought refuge in St. Peter's Castle (today's Bodrum), the fortress the Knights of Rhodes had on the Asian coast opposite Kos.
Grand Master d'Aubusson invited him to Rhodes where he was received with great honours: a XVIth century miniature shows his arrival at Emporium: St. Catherine's Gate and the fortifications of the harbour are clearly visible.
The dynastic quarrel between the two brothers was a golden opportunity for the Christian nations to weaken the Ottoman Empire, but they missed the chance. Sultan Bayezid II bribed Grand Master d'Aubusson to convince him not to help Prince Cem in making a third attempt to threaten his throne: the prince was sent to a castle d'Aubusson had in Auvergne where he was kept as a prisoner of high-rank. It was not until 1489 that d'Aubusson was forced by Pope Innocent VIII to free Prince Cem who was allowed to reach Rome. In return the Pope rewarded d'Aubusson with a cardinal's hat: this explains why the Grand Master's coats of arms after 1489 have the insignia of a cardinal.
The Pope had in mind to propose Prince Cem join an alliance with the kings of Naples and Hungary against his brother; the latter however was swift to react and by a stroke of genius he managed to bribe even the Pope by sending to Rome part of the lance by which St. Longinus pierced the side of Christ on the Cross. The crusade to free Constantinople never materialized and eventually Prince Cem died in Naples in 1495 (he was buried in Bursa).
In 1516-1517 Sultan Selim I expanded his empire eastwards by conquering Syria and Egypt: this made it crucial for the Ottomans to control the route between Constantinople and Alexandria: the route was threatened by the Knights of Rhodes, who often acted as Christian corsairs and attacked the Ottoman convoys. In June 1522 Sultan Suleyman declared war on the Knights of Rhodes and soon after a large Ottoman army landed on the island: the invaders occupied a hill to the west of the town (the site of the acropolis of Ancient Rhodes) where they placed their cannon.
The Knights defending Rhodes numbered 650 and they could rely on an overall force of approximately 7,000 soldiers; the Ottomans were estimated at more than 100,000.
The fortifications withstood the effects of the Ottoman cannon and the whole summer passed without the attackers making significant progress; by the end of September the Knights thought they had managed again to survive a siege: the Ottoman army was usually disbanded at the end of summer and reconvened the next spring; in addition Pope Adrian VI appealed to the Christian nations to help the Knights.
Sultan Suleyman understood that by withdrawing from Rhodes he was putting his own authority at risk and he kept on with the siege; the Christian nations were more divided than ever because of the Reformation: the papal calls fell flat.
By December the Ottomans breached the walls near St. Athanasius' Gate and were ready to launch a final assault: Suleyman however knew that in 1480 in a similar situation the assault ended in defeat; in the other camp Grand Master Philibert Villiers De l'Isle Adam was left with only 180 knights and little hope of receiving help. The two sides started negotiations and on December 20 an agreement was reached: on Christmas' Day the Ottomans entered Rhodes and on January 1, 1523 the Knights and the Catholic inhabitants left the town carrying with them their banners and their holy images; the terms of the agreement included also the surrender of the Knights' fortresses in Kos and St. Peter's Castle.
(left) Old market street, the main street of Burgo; (centre) Ottoman houses; (right) Agŕ mosque
There are but very few Turks except in the city, the island being inhabited by Greek Christians. There is a great plenty of provisions here, tho' it is a mountainous country, but it produces very little wine. (..) The French only
have a consul at this island, and there is a small convent of capuchins.
Richard Pococke - A Description of the East and Some Other Countries - 1745
Friday, November 24th, 1815. In the city are only Turks and Jews; (..) of the Turks there are about 5,000, and of the Jews 1,000.
William Turner - Journal of a Tour in the Levant - 1820
The Ottomans settled in the walled town while the Greek inhabitants had to move to Neo Chorio (new town) the site of today's modern Rhodes. The churches were turned into mosques: the main street of Burgo became the heart of the town; typical Ottoman balconies were added to the houses.
(left) Ottoman Library; (centre/right) fountain and window in Muslim properties
While on many Aegean islands (e.g. Chios and Mytilini) Muslims were forced to leave by the 1923 agreements between Greece and Turkey for the exchange of population, in Rhodes there is still a Muslim community with their own cultural and religious institutions.
The gates of the city are closed at night,
and no Christians are allowed to remain within the
walls, so that the Greeks, who occupy shops there,
are obliged to quit the place at sunset.
Henry Fanshawe Tozer - The islands of the Aegean Sea. Publ. 1890, but Tozer began his travels in 1874.
The Byzantine churches which were turned into mosques or madrases (Islamic schools) have been brought back to their original appearance, although in some cases a portal or a truncated minaret shows their use during the Ottoman period.
Jewish quarter: (left) fountain with an inscription to General Ameglio, the first Italian military commander of Rhodes;
(centre) monument to the 1804 Jews of Rhodes and Kos who died in the concentration camps; (right) the only remaining synagogue
We walked to the Jews' quarter, which contains
by far the best and widest streets of the city. Turner
There are also many Jews, who are each night locked within their own quarters of the town.
Charles Fellows - An account of discoveries in Lycia - 1841
The Jewish quarter contains many of the handsomest of the old dwellings, which are solidly built and elaborately decorated, and is especially picturesque on a Jewish festival day, as in one of our rambles we saw it, when its occupants are dressed in their rich holiday costumes. The Jews are allowed to reside within the walls, because the Turks regard them as too timid to be dangerous, and also to some degree as being their allies from their traditional animosity to the Christians. Tozer
A 1929 Italian tourist guide so described the Jewish quarter of Rhodes: Beyond the Admiralty we enter the Jewish quarter where the atmosphere is so different from that of the Muslim quarter: the latter is very silent with family life going on behind closed doors, the Jewish quarter is happily noisy with children screaming and the open doors allow to see women doing their chores in rooms and courtyards.
That is all gone: on July 23, 1944 the Nazis raided the quarter and deported all Jews; the quarter was bombed during the last months of WWII which in Rhodes ended only in May 1945.
The image used as background for this page shows Agia Triada and its truncated minaret.
Rhodes: the Gates
Rhodes: the Fortifications
Rhodes: the Town of the Knights
Rhodes: modern Italian architecture
Kos: the fortress
Kos: the ancient town
St. Peter's Castle (Bodrum)