Rhodes, Greece; Valleta, Malta
The Knights Hospitaller was the largest chivalrous order in the history of Europe. Except for a brief period during the Crusades when they were temporarily eclipsed by the Templars, they have also been the most important. The Hospitalers, more than any other organization or nation, fought the long, slow retreat against the Ottoman Turks. To this end they built a series of daunting fortresses prawled out along the islands of the Mediterranean. The greatest of these were the mighty walled cities of Rhodes on the island of the same name, and Valletta in Malta. Both cities witnessed ferocious battles between the Crusaders and the Saracens, and both have survived as two of the western world’s most amazing fortifications. Both the Old City of Valleta and the Medieval City of Rhodes are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Knights Hospitaler were the first true Christian order of knights to be founded, and has been the longest to survive. At first established in the early 11th century as an aid society for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, it evolved into a full-fledge military order during the Crusades. The Hospitalers were prolific builders, constructing a series of fortifications and headquarters that stretched across the Mediterranean region. In the Holy Land their holdings included the Krak Des Chevaliers and the fortifications of the City of Akko.
In 1291, Akko, the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land, was captured by the Turks, and the Hospitalers and other crusaders driven out. The knights regrouped on the island of Cyprus, which was still held as a Crusader kingdom. However, the Hospitalers found the island wracked with political intrigue, and decided they needed a new home of their own. In 1309 they seized the island of Rhodes and established it as their new headquarters. Rhodes would remain the chief Hospitaler base of operations for the next two centuries, during which time the order became known as the Knights of Rhodes.
While on Rhodes the knights built daunting fortifications around the city of Rhodes, including the massive Bodrum Castle. From Rhodes the Hospitalers fought an ever more desperate campaign to hold the Ottoman Empire and other enemies at bay. However, in 1522, the Ottomans arrived with an immense force, laid siege to Rhodes, and ultimately took Rhodes, the last Christian stronghold in the Eastern Mediterannean. The Hospitalers withdrew further west and established themselves on the Island of Malta, where they took yet another new name, the Knights of Malta.
In 1530 the Hospitalers occupied the 13th century Fort St. Angelo, which became their new headquarters, and went on to completely renovate and strengthen the walls of Valleta. When the Ottomans arrived in 1565, the knights defended Malta with tenacious fury, for many considered it to be the last stand of their once mighty order. Miraculously, the knights held off the Ottomans and eventually forced them to withdraw. The Hospitalers continued to occupy the island for two centuries more before it finally fell to Napolean. Just a few years ago, after nearly two centuries in exile in Italy, the Knights of Malta were permitted to return to the island, where Fort St. Angelo has been restored as the order’s unofficial headquarters once more.
The Walls of Rhodes are a jumble of thick fortifications and massive gates with alternatively pristine sections and sections that are crumbling into ruins. They surround the entire old town of Rhodes on the extreme northern tip of the island of the same name, protecting the beaches and harbor as well as the landward approaches. The centerpiece of the city’s defenses is the Citadel of the Grand Master, a massive fortress of square towers and keeps that more resemble an ancient Roman fortification rather than something built in the late Middle Ages. Much of the fortress was rebuilt in the earlier 20th century after much of it was heavily damaged by an explosion in the 1850s. It is now used as a museum featuring exhibits on the history and arachaeaology of the island.
The Walls of Valleta are similarly impressive, and perhaps even more dramatic thanks to the more rugged terrain and the towering Cathedral of St. John in the heart of the city. The walls which guard the landward side, and the walls of Fort St. Elmo which guard the northeastern end of the city, were rebuilt in later years to better counter gunpowder weaponry. Fort St. Angelo itself is actually not part of the city walls but helps to protect the harbor of Valleta from a nearby peninsula. The white stone fortification resembles a cross between traditional medieval castle architecture and an early version of the high-walled, earth-backed and un-towered fortresses of the colonial period. On the upper level of the fortress can be found the old Grandmaster’s Headquarters, once again in use after more than two centuries. There are currently plans to massively renovate the fortress and re-open it as a major historical and pilgrimage destination.
The town of Rhodes is located on the northern end of the island of Rhodes close to where it meets mainland Turkey but nearly 250 miles over the sea southeast of Athens. The city is an open site. The Citadel of the Grand Master crowns a hill near the harbor. As of this writing hours of operation were not available. Admission is E6.00. The city of Valleta is located on the northest coast of the island of Malta, approximately 80 miles south of the island of Sicily and 100 miles east of the coast of Tunisia. The city is an open site. Fort St. Angelo is not currently open to the public due to renovations, but is expected to be open sometime in the near future. Web: www.greeka.com/dodecanese/rhodes (official tourism website of Rhodes); www.visitmalta.com (official website)
The islands of the Mediterranean remain strewn with the remains of old crusader fortresses. Kyrenia Castle on the island of Cyprus is one of the best in the east, although its current excellent state is due more to reconstructions by the Venetians. Also on Cyprus is Kantara Castle, which was used as a crusader base for Richard the Lionheart.