You are here: Home ￫ click here to EXPLORE Rhodes ￫ the Old Town ￫ the walls & within Northern sector: The 'Collachium' area N of Sokratous str. ￫ hIstory & structure of the walls
The itineraries below divide the old town into three areas: northern, central and eastern (see map on pp. 30–31).
Churches and their saints have been given Latinate names where they relate to foundations or examples principally of the Hospitaller period. In some cases, however, Greek names have been kept for those saints who are more familiar through the Orthodox tradition.
NORTHERN SECTOR: The ‘Collachium’area, north of Sokratous Street
There is no more majestic way to enter the walled, mediaeval town of the Knights of St John than through the magnificent *d’Amboise Gate (1512) in the northwest corner of the city, directly below the Palace of the Grand Master. Forbidding to the stranger and reassuring to the inhabitant, it is the finest of the landward entrances to the city—seen at its most impressive by night. About 200 paces separate the outer approach from the fourth and final inner gate, a distance that was originally punctuated by three drawbridges, a double-bend within the thickness of the first bastion, an independent advance wall, and three dry moats: most of the gates consisted of double sets of doors furthermore. This gives not only an immediate measure of the sophistication and complexity of the city’s massive defences, but also of the perceived magnitude of the Turkish threat in the sixteenth century and the seriousness with which Rhodes was considered as the crucial Mediterranean outpost of the Christian West. The design of the walls was a specific response to the nature of the Turkish war machine and to the revolutionary changes that warfare had undergone since the arrival of gunpowder and the invention of cannon. It is important to remember that these fortifications were also the central hub of a further twenty fortresses all over the island and of an extensive network of castles and towers on the other islands in the area, from Kastellorizo in the east as far as Leros in the north. Rhodes was the fortified flagship of a navy of lesser islands riding at anchor off the coast of Asia Minor.
History and structure of the walls
(The walls are best visited after sundown, by taking the -pathway through the entire length of the moat from Plateia Alexandrias round to the Acandia Gate. This is open day and night (free admission) and constitutes a uniquely instructive and evocative walk—especially by moonlight. The one-hour tour of the top of the walls, from the Grand Mas ter’s Palace to the Gate of St John which used to be offered to the public on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons at 3 pm has unfortunately been suspended for the moment. For further information, telephone 22410 23655)
The primary importance of the site of Rhodes town was not—as is often the case elsewhere—the presence of a good natural acropolis, but rather its group of natural harbours positioned strategically on the passage of one of the Mediterranean’s most important sea-routes. In Antiquity the city of Rhodes had such a large population and extension that it was able to use the summit to the west of the city (Mount Smith) as an acropolis, and the city’s habitation amply filled the space between it and the port. As the population of the city declined dramatically after the fall of the Roman Empire, this arrangement became less and less practicable: the hill was too far from the port. And so an area was fortified closer to the harbours. Arab chroniclers of the late 7th century refer to such a fortress at Rhodes and archaeology has shown that it existed in the area under, and to the south of, the Palace of the Grand Master. Its ramparts are visible today, to a considerable extent, in Theophiliskou Street. The form of the mediaeval and modern city dates from this fundamental shift in centre of gravity to the area immediately by the port.
The Byzantine fortress—to which the whole population would retreat in times of danger, such as in the attacks de scribed by the Arab chroniclers—covered a roughly rectangular area which was later to be called the ‘Collachium’ by the Knights; it stretched from the commercial harbour up to the Palace of the Grand Master, and was bounded to the north by the line traced by the existing walls and to the south by the ashlar stone ramparts visible in stretches along The ophiliskou and Agesandrou Streets, where some of the regularly spaced towers along these walls are still recognisable. To the south of this fortress area, and at a later date (most probably in the 11th or 12th century), more walls were add ed to enclose a lower residential and commercial town. These stretched as far south as Omirou Street, and were bounded to the west by the approximate line of Ippodamou Street; to the east they are still clearly visible in excavations near to Pythagora Street and below ground level to the north of the Mosque of Ibrahim Pasha. These walls were substantial enough to resist the siege by the Knights of St John on their arrival in Rhodes in 1306 for over two years. Until the city fell to them in August of 1309, the Knights were based at Philerimos, 10km to the southwest of the city (see below).
The need for change. These Byzantine fortifications be longed to a world of warfare which was suddenly outmoded by a revolution in military technology in the 15th century, namely the arrival of gunpowder and cannon. The amazing speed and success of the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France, using yet more accurate cannon-balls made of iron, showed that the traditional premises of mediaeval defence and fortification were obsolete. The ongoing project embarked on by the Knights of St John to re-equip the city and harbours of Rhodes for the new realities of war reflected these fundamental changes. In the last phase, Italian engineers who had become acknowledged experts in ballistics and fortifications after their experience of the French inva sion were employed, and the Knights became their most in novative clients. The result is what we see today—one of the most impressive and best-preserved fortified settlements in Europe.
The new enceinte of walls projected by the Knights now totalled nearly 4km in length. In 1465, to facilitate the onerous undertaking of its fortification, the Order divided its length into eight sectors, each designated to a different nationality or ‘Langue’ (‘Tongue’) of Knights within the Order (see plan on pp. 30–31). These became the battle-stations of the different Tongues who were each responsible for the defence and maintenance of their own sector. The harbour fortifications were assigned to Castile; then, in clockwise direction from the harbour’s southeastern corner, came the landward sectors of Italy, Provence, England, Aragon, Auvergne, Germany and France, whose remit encompassed the Master’s Palace and finished at the de Naillac tower at the northwestern side of the port. (The positions of England and Aragon were exchanged shortly before the siege of 1522 to the above order, from their original allocations designated by Grand Master Zacosta in 1465).
The existing walls. The current appearance of the fortifications is the result of two principal periods of construction: the first dating from the 14th and early 15th centuries—be fore the unsuccessful Turkish siege of 1480 and the destructive earthquake of the following year left them in ruins; the second from between 1481 and the second Turkish siege of 1522 under Suleiman the Magnificent. Later Ottoman re pairs (and Italian restoration) were extensive, but alterations to the design were hardly made at all; by then the battle-line between Christendom and Islam had shifted far to the west and the Ottoman Empire relied on its naval power to defend its Aegean possessions. During the whole of the second period of the Knights’ re-fortification, however, the threat of attack was so constant that the walls could never be taken down so as to be rebuilt to more modern specifications, but had constantly to be modified and added to instead.
Since the city occupied a sloping terrain with no obvi ous natural defences, the first necessity was to protect the landward side with a wide, dry moat between the walls and the rising ground beyond. A ditch, at first averaging 15m wide and 10m deep, was cut in the early 14th century: this effectively trapped any enemy attempting to scale or mine the walls in a deadly gulley under the fire from the defenders. The stone and earth from the ditch in turn formed the mass of the defensive walls, which were further protected by two important innovations:
*crenellated fausse-braies, built out from the base of the curtain walls whose purpose was both to protect their vulnerable lower area from damaging artillery fire and mining, as well as to increase the scope of defenders’ fire (this is best seen in the sector of the Tongue of England, between the Gates of St Athanasius and St John, on the south side of the city);
*a chain of square towers, built in front of the walls and independent of them (as if they were miniature for tresses in themselves), which enormously enlarged the field of fire, covering even the walls themselves if these should happen to be overrun. The towers were joined to the walls by removable bridges, and their independence as structures prevented either tower or wall from being brought down by the collapse of the other. This feature of design is less obvious today because part of the modifications undertaken subsequently involved these towers being incorporated into massively strengthened semi independent bastions instead, which were buttressed against the walls so as better to resist cannon fire.
Miraculously these walls, with their new elements of design, held out against the forces of Mehmet the Conqueror for over four months in 1480 when they laid siege to Rhodes with the heaviest artillery ever yet deployed against a fortified city. After the siege was lifted, an earthquake in the following year did the remaining damage which Mehmet’s forces had not been able to inflict. A complete rethink of their design was now in order.
The second phase of building and post-1480 alterations, involved: *increasing the height of the walls themselves to match that of the now incorporated towers and substantially enlarging them on their inside: first from about 2.5m to 5.5m, and then later to 12m in thickness.
*adding long slanting parapets which served to deflect missiles, and angled gun-ports—both new elements of design—at the top of the fortifications;
*broadening the moat significantly so as to put greater distance (often over 50m) between the walls and the attacker’s artillery and cannon positions. The earth removed from the moat was also used to increase the height of the facing counterscarp and retaining wall on its outer side. This helped to mask the lower areas of the city’s walls from fire—in part because the design of early cannon was such that if the barrel was pointed horizontally or below, the ball could lose contact with the charge, thus aborting its propulsion;
*constructing in the middle of this broader moat, long, free-standing advance walls which ran along the axis of the ditch wherever there were long stretches of exposed wall (e.g to the south and southwest). These enabled the defenders to fire on the enemy from all sides, and severely hindered any attempt to undermine the walls. They also concealed from view further batteries behind them.
One of the particular characteristics of the fortifications of Rhodes is the constantly changing design from one sec tor to the next, reflecting the different siege-experience of the nationalities entrusted with their construction and of the engineers employed by them. In some cases, there are small variations in the period of construction which, in an age of rapidly changing war technology, counted for a lot. The radical differences in design between, for example, the facetted Bastion of St George of the Tongue of Auvergne, enlarged in 1521/2, and the slightly earlier, cylindrical del Carretto Bastion (c. 1517, Tongue of Italy) are instructive. The latter, which has something of the intimidating appearance of a modern submarine, was designed by Basilio dalla Scuola, engineer to Maximilian I. It is a sophisticated version of the briefly fashionable ‘rondel’ type of bastion, with unusually angled artillery embrasures both at the rim and the level of the moat floor. But its smart design did not fully prove its worth in the siege; while the improvised, and more traditional-seeming, bulwark of St George did. Its angled front proved crucially more flexible for enfilading. Its design was adopted in Malta, when the Knights once again began their fortification works—this time with the experiences of Rhodes fresh in their memory.
On the harbour-front, by contrast, the defences still consisted of a curtain wall with parapet and virtually no batter. But three forward fortresses had been built to protect the harbour entrance: first, the Tower of Grand Master de Naillac (1396–1421) on the north mole of the Main (‘Commercial’) Harbour; and subsequently the Tower of the Windmills to the east, and the Tower of St Nicholas to the north of Mandraki Harbour built under Grand Master Zacosta (1461–67). A chain closed the entrance to the main harbour; and sunken rock debris was used to fill and close the narrow entrance to the boatyards of Mandraki harbour.
Specialists in defence methods were brought in secret to Rhodes at the last moment. The famous Venetian engineer, Gabriele Tadini da Martinengo, defied the specific proscription of his city by coming to the aid of the Knights in Rhodes . He perfected a subterranean warning device—a stretched diaphragm which picked up the least sound or movement and set attached bells ringing. This enabled him to locate undermining and to bury the attackers in their own work by digging transverse tunnels across their path.
In the end, it was not any inherent deficiency in the design of these defences, but the treachery of individuals and exhaustion of manpower that delivered the city to the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1522. The city was, for its time, a uniquely well-designed and well-tuned military machine; it was not designed for a warfare of stealth, but of intimidation. To those who visited in the 15th and 16th centuries it must have appeared a wonder of technology. For the visitor today that wonder has mellowed into a more elegiac and aesthetic appeal.
The outer doorway of the d’Amboise Gate, set between two forbidding semicircular bastions, is surmounted by a marble relief bearing its date of completion, 1512, be low the armorial bearings of its builder, Grand Master Emery d’Amboise (1503–12) which, together with the arms of the Order, are held by an angel while Christ the King blesses from a nimbus above. A wide vaulted pas sage leads through the thickness of the outer walls and bastion, crosses a second bridge and turns onto a shaded, free-standing advance rampart with moats to either side, towered over by the west face of the Grand Master’s Pal ace to the left. The last of the four sets of gates that comprise this entry into the city is the Gate of St Anthony. Above it is a damaged relief sculpture of the saint in red trachitic stone, which has the appearance of porphyry from a distance. To the right of the gate as you approach, steps lead down into an enclosed area littered with large, stone cannon balls. It was against the destructive force of these flying, sculpted boulders that the walls had to resist: some of them measure more than 50cm in diameter and weigh upward of 160kg. Opposite the foot of the steps, in the far corner is a postern-gate in the form of a vaulted tunnel which leads into the outer moat underneath the second enceinte of walls. The exterior entrance to this was originally protected from view by a wall which has since been demolished and whose foundations only are visible. The passage enabled the defenders to make surprise sallies against the enemy and to clear debris from the moat which might be used by attackers to fill it. The three shafts which pierce the ceiling of the tunnel could function both for supplying munitions when it was in the possession of the defenders and for attacking intruders if the passage way fell into the hands of the enemy, at which point the tunnel functioned as a trap.
The gate of St Anthony leads into Orpheos Street, a lively thoroughfare which cuts through one of the most interesting and varied corners of the city. It is bordered to the right by shops and to the left by the line of the Byzantine walls of the city; further to the left is the Grand Mas ter’s Palace and beyond it the Street of the Knights. Ahead lie a number of important Ottoman monuments—the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Islamic Library and the Turkish School; and to the right, between the fortifications and Orpheos Street, and bounded by Apollon iou Street and the Bastion of St George to the south, is a collection of buildings and excavations which vividly encapsulate the historical variety and layered density of the city. These are best reached by taking the second narrow entrance to the right which leads into a loop formed by Ierokleous and Menandrou Streets. A few metres down Menandrou Street on the right is the 14th century church of St Mark. The Holy Icon of Philerimos was placed here for a period during the siege of 1522 and survived unscathed when the western projection of the church was destroyed in the bombardment. When the Turks later came to construct a new wall to close the damaged church on its western side and to convert it into a small mosque (‘Satri Celebi Mescid’), tombs were discovered in the floor. In order not to disturb these burials, the floor was re-filled and a low arch constructed over the area to support the wall above, obviating the need to dig invasive foundations. This is visible low down in the west wall. The church has unequal arms which meet at a vaulted crossing with no cupola. Two mihrab niches are still pre served, and there are vestigial remains of wall-paintings in the interior.
The late 18th century Ottoman mansion, to which the garden formerly belonged, is the adjacent building to the south: it has recently undergone extensive restoration. With its unique combination of Ottoman and Hospitaller architectural elements in wood and stone, it constitutes one of the finest examples of its kind in the city. The main southern selamlik room still conserves a carved and painted wooden ceiling. The mansion and the garden occupy land which was originally part of the late 14th century *monastery of St George. Some of the monastic outbuildings (now restored) have survived, since the monastery continued to function as the ‘Kurmali Medrese’ throughout the Ottoman period. The church itself, of quatrefoil plan, surmounted by an unusually elongated cupola, articulated externally by a crown of 20 blind arches decorated with simple cord-line carving, is the most elegant and sophisticated of the 14th century churches of Rhodes . Its plan is similar to the rural church of Aghios Nikolaos Foundoukli near Eleousa, in the centre of the island; but St George’s perfectly balanced pro portions, spacious volumes, graceful lines and fine stone work, have a greater, cosmopolitan sophistication which speaks of an architect of considerable skill and pedigree. It is perhaps the most harmonious church in all of Mediaeval Rhodes . (Opening times are still to be established by the authorities. From the entrance on Apolloniou Street something of the individuality of the exterior can be appreciated, even when closed.)
The interior, though plain, is luminous and gives an impression of space in excess of its actual size, because of the absence of supporting columns. The floor is in Lardos marble, with inset square and octagonal medallions of rosso antico and porphyry. The mouths of earthenware jugs immured in the walls in the corners of the building so as to enhance the acoustics for chant can be seen. In the southeast corner, below the level of the interior, the foundations of the apse of an Early Christian structure have been brought to light; some carved marble fragments from the same period have been placed in the east end of the church—amongst them a fine marble relief (? 10th century) depicting the Virgin Mary with hands raised, between her nephew, John the Baptist, and her Son. To its west the church is preceded by a narthex, probably added in the 15th century, entered from the external courtyard through a door surrounded by a stone cornice carved with running vine-motif. An area of excavation immediately to the east and northeast of the church has brought to light both the paving and form of a Hellenistic street, as well as the foundations of an Early Christian basilica, a large area of whose fine polychrome marble floor in opus sectile is visible.
Apolloniou Street leads down to the 15th century bastion of St George, of the Tongue of Auvergne. This was one of the landward entrances to the city which was prudently closed by Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson in the interests of greater security in the year before the siege of 1480. In 1521 it was enlarged into a massive bastion which completely encircled the original square tower and had an innovative and influential design with angled façades permitting enfilading from all sides. The west face of the original tower displays a fine early 15th century relief in Lardos marble of St George killing the dragon.
At the end of Orpheos Street by the junction with Apolloniou is the late 18th century building of the Hafez Ahmed Agha Library (open Mon–Sat 9.30–4. Free admission), set in a walled courtyard of citrus trees and surrounded on all sides by chochlakia (black and white pebble inlay) paving. The library was founded in 1793 as an act of beneficence by one of the Sultan’s equerries. It was intended for public use and may once have contained as many as 2,000 Arabic, Persian and Ottoman manuscripts and volumes. The rectangular building is divided into two domed, luminous chambers. A number of Ottoman stone inscriptions have been collected together to the west side of the building.
Directly opposite the library is the handsome Sulei maniye Mosque—a faithful early 19th century re-build of the mosque which Suleiman the Magnificent purportedly ordered to be constructed on the site of the Church of the Holy Apostles after his victorious entry into the city in 1523. The building has been brought back from a state of dereliction by the recent consolidation of its structure and ornate minaret, and the restoration of its mostly 18th and 19th century decoration.
The broad design and dynamic roof-scape of rising, shallow domes is typical of 16th century Turkish architecture in the Ottoman capital. The *entrance doorway is particularly fine, and is constructed from the frame and arcosolium of an early 16th century marble monumental tomb of a nobleman. The soffit of the arch above the door is delicately carved with flowers and the sides of the pilasters are decorated with relief depictions of weapons, foliage and ornaments. The doorway is deeply shaded by a long porch roofed with small domes and supported on monolithic marble columns which may come from the dismantled Church of the Apostles: the porch is further extended by a wooden veranda. Opposite is the domed shadirvan, or ritual fountain.
A mosque of this importance was commonly built along with a complex of other religious and charitable structures. On the corner opposite (southeast) is the mosque’s Imaret or Alms-house (now a cafe), built around a tranquil courtyard where a few ancient architectural fragments and Ottoman cannon-balls have been collected. The site is believed to be that of the important Hospitaller church dedicated to the Holy Apostles: a cross-vaulted apse belonging to a Gothic structure was recently uncovered behind the baking ovens of the Imaret which would appear to belong to the original church.
Raised up on a surviving 7th century bastion of the original Byzantine walls to the northwest of the Sulei maniye mosque is the Clock Tower, or ‘Roloi’, whose eclectic architectural mix has been widely, and perhaps un deservedly, vilified (open June, July & Aug 9–5, 9–1). It was erected by Ahmet Fetih Pasha in the year after the gun powder explosion of 1856 beneath the church of St John, which wrought widespread damage in the surrounding area. From below the tower (east side), Theophiliskou Street, lined attractively with overhanging wooden bal conies, stretches due east along the line of the walls of the Byzantine city which are visible at many points along its length: the regularly projecting towers (approximately every 25–30m) can also be discerned, often with medi aeval houses erected on top of them. In an area of ex cavation at the intersection of Theophiliskou and Panaitiou Streets, the talus of the ramparts can be seen; other sections are visible further down at the intersection with Lachitos Street, whose line passes through where the city gates would have stood.
Panaitiou Street returns north towards the Grand Mas ter’s Palace, heading into the heart of the area devastated by the explosion of the gunpowder cache which was ignited by a lightning strike in November 1856. Since there was, early on, a shortage of ammunition for the Knights during the siege of 1522, it remains a mystery why this cache was still here unused in the vaults of the Order’s principal church. Nor was the quantity negligible: its explosion destroyed the church of St John, the bell-tower and observatory to the west, a large part of the Master’s Palace and the buildings at the upper end of the Street of the Knights. What we see today in the area is resto ration, although recent excavations have begun to reveal the foundations of the church of St John whose three aisled nave lay in the area under where the neoclassical Turkish School building to the left now stands and whose transepts were where the street now runs. The church was founded in 1309/10 and was probably completed by 1325. It was of the severest simplicity as befitted a military church, and contained the sepulchres of the Masters of the Order of St John. Gustave Flaubert, who visited in 1850 shortly before its destruction, noted eight columns of porphyry inside—four to each side—surmounted with Corinthian-style capitals. After 1523 it was converted into a mosque. The Metropolitan Church of the Annunciation, constructed by the Italians in 1924/5 beside Mandraki harbour, is a close copy of its original form.
The church and the Grand Master’s Palace were once joined by an arched portico or loggia. In 1937 a replica was built up by the Italians on the column-bases remain from the destroyed 15th century structure. It now crowns the rise of the Street of the Knights.
Rhodes Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.