The Castle of St. Peter the Liberator of the Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Rhodes - to give it its full, comprehensive title - is Bodrum's acclaimed landmark. Over the period of six centuries it has served as a military garrison, a compound enclosing a tiny village, and even as a fortress prison. Today it houses one of the finest museums of nautical archaeology in the world. The castle is built on a promontory which, according to Herodotus, was a small island called Zephyria at the time of the first Dorian invasions which occurred around the time of the Trojan Wars. By the time king Mausolus (377-353 BC) came to rule Caria and moved the capital from Mylasa to Hallicarnassos, today's Bodrum, Zephyrion was already a small peninsula joined to the mainland by debris and landfill.
This peninsula is believed to have been the location of Mausolus's palace built near the site of an Early Classical temple of Apollo, although some authorities prefer to place the presumed venue of the palace on the mainland just north of the peninsula. The highly strategic nature of the promontory strongly supports the view that it was indeed the site of the palace or citadel, but unfortunately there is no solid proof of this in ancient sources and all possible vestiges have long since disappeared.
The destruction of an edifice on the promontory dating to that early era - if one did exist - may have occurred when the city was captured by the Macedonian forces of Alexander the Great or, perhaps, in the Arab raids in the latter half of the seventh century AD when Rhodes and Cos were overrun, although Hallicarnassos is not specifically mentioned among their conquests. A structure there also may have fallen prey to an earthquake. History does record, however, and our own eyes bear witness today, that a medieval castle was built on the small rocky peninsula on the east side of Bodrum harbor and records show that this castle was built by a company of men collectively known as the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Rhodes.
After the Christian religion was declared legal by Constantine the Great in AD 312 it spread throughout the Roman Empire, and soon thereafter pilgrims began to find their way to Jerusalem to worship at the Christian shrines. Even after Jerusalem surrendered to the Moslem Arab armies of Caliph Omar in the year 638 pilgrim traffic continued to be tolerated, with the exception of the brief reign of the demented fanatic Caliph Hakem. In those centuries Jerusalem saw - in addition to the building of churches and monasteries - the foundation of hospices to house and care for poor and ill pilgrims suffering from the hazards of the long journey and rampant diseases.
The precise date of the foundation of the Order of the Knights of St. John is difficult to determine. Some attempts have been made to trace its origins to a hospice reportedly founded in Jerusalem about AD 600 on the orders of Pope Gregory the Great and to an associated grant of a request by Charlemagne made of Harun al Rashid ca. AD 800 to enlarge it. More plausible, however, is the more generally accepted version which sets its beginnings in Jerusalem in the immediate aftermath of the First Crusade.
When Jerusalem fell to the armed hosts of the First Crusade in July 1099, the victorious crusaders met a most resourceful, energetic and enterprising man named Brother Gerard, superior of a hospice named after St. John the Baptist. The hospice was an adjunct of the Abbey of St. Mary of the Latins and it is believed to have been founded by merchants from the Italian trading city of Amalfi. Brother Gerard's exceptional administrative and organizational abilities were so impressive that the leaders, later followed by the kings and nobility of Europe, showered his mother house - the Hospital of St. John - with extensive endowments. At the same time some of the knights, having fulfilled their crusading vow and having little in their own countries to return to, found an appropriate field of action opened to them by Brother Gerard: they joined the company of like-minded men to form an organization which grew rapidly and was given official status of a knightly religious Order by a papal decree (Bull) issued in the year 1113. Thus the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem was born, and although such details of organization as classes of membership changed somewhat through the years the basic structure remained.
Realistic portrayal of these knights, known in brief as Hospitallers, is made difficult by prejudice. Historical sources and even many modern writers all too often display blindly passionate adulation on the one hand or bigoted hostility on the other, but we can be quite certain that they were men of their times, with all the virtues and vices of their contemporaries. Their initial military role was limited to escorting pilgrims through hostile territory, but it was soon expanded to castle defense and then to offensive action in disciplined formations. This discipline and obedience to orders is what distinguished them from the headstrong and fractious barons ruling the various principalities and fiefs conquered by the crusaders, and these qualities made the Order of great value as a dependable instrument of military power.
The Order was ruled by a Grand Master elected for life and responsible only to the pope; membership was limited to those of noble birth and its multinational, multilingual nature was accommodated by division into seven Langues (or "tongues"), each commanded by a Pillier (or "pillar"). Knights joining the Order were obliged to take vows of obedience, poverty and chastity, but, especially in the following centuries - when even some popes kept mistresses and lived in worldly splendor - it is naive to expect that all members complied with these strictures. Indeed, the Hospitallers also became very wealthy on income derived from their extensive European endowments, but they possessed one asset acknowledged by friend and foe alike: courage in battle. Not even this courage, however was of no avail against the Moslem forces united and inspired by the leadership of the great Saladin who inflicted a crushing defeat on the Christian army at the Horns of Hattin and went on to retake Jerusalem in 1187.
After its fall, notwithstanding some respite brought about by the following Crusades, the Christian position in the Holy Land steadily deteriorated, with the Hospitallers playing a major role as an offensive and defensive rearguard until the loss of the last stronghold, Acre, in 1291. The Knights now moved to their possessions in Cyprus where they were additionally awarded the land holdings of the Templars, a rival Order suppressed and practically exterminated by the pope and the French king in 1307-1312. In the meantime the Hospitallers were starting on a new enterprise: lured by a hypothetical claim of a Genoese adventurer to the islands of Cos and Rhodes, the Knights conquered Rhodes, theoretically on his behalf (1309), and then persuaded the pope to grant them title to this strategic island. By these ethically shady maneuvers Grand Master Foulques de Villaret acquired for the Order a sovereign state, and the Hospitallers, now known as the Knights of Rhodes, were launched on their new course of naval power and expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.
At this time, in the words of H.J.A.Sire, author of a new history sympathetic to the Order: "the Knights of Rhodes rapidly formed a coherent strategy of territorial acquisition"..."seized the small island of Simie (sic), in the very jaws of the Gulf of Doris" and "by 1319 the knights held all the Southern Sporades as far north as Lerro". About the year 1337 the Hospitallers reconquered Lango (Cos), and Smyrna (Izmir) was taken in 1344 by a combined papal, Venetian, Cypriot and Hospitaller force, with a Knight of Rhodes appointed commander. This policy of acquisitive expansion, based on military and naval power - not to mention skill in diplomatic intrigue - brought the Order into rivalry with all of the states, large and small, that were contending over the spoils of the crumbling Byzantine Empire. The first of these spoils was, of course, the island of Rhodes, a titular property of the Byzantines.
Having become masters of an island empire the Knights needed a naval force to defend it, to maintain lines of communication between their far-flung possessions and, according to one source, to protect Christian trade with Turkey. The latter is not as preposterous as it may appear, even considering that the Knights were a militant religious Order, because throughout the ages trade and profit have usually tended to obscure ideological considerations. At the same time galleys flying the flag of the Hospital were also preying on the shipping lanes, justified by a papal ban on trade with Moslem powers. In this fluid and complex state of affairs the Knights of Rhodes prospered, until even a pope complained about their conspicuous consumption. The growing power of the Ottoman Turks that could have threatened the Order's possessions received a serious blow from Tamerlane who crushed the Turkish armies at Ankara in 1402, and the ensuing eleven years of wars of succession weakened Ottoman power further giving the Knights years of respite and time to fortify Rhodes till it was regarded as impregnable.
The sense of security was shattered when news reached Rhodes in 1453 of the conquest of Constantinople. The new sultan, henceforth known as Mehmet the Conqueror, was not one to suffer the stranglehold that the Knights' island empire was exercising on the coasts of Turkey, but his priorities were elsewhere and it was not until 1480 that his forces besieged the city. The Conqueror was not with his men and Rhodes avoided capture, but only just. The sultan's death in 1481, followed by events that placed Prince Jem in the hands of the Order, delayed the fall of Rhodes for nearly a half century and during that period the Knights of Rhodes engaged in conduct that brought dishonor to their knighthood and faith.
Prince Jem, one of the two sons of Mehmet the Conqueror, losing the fight for succession to his brother Beyazit, applied to the Knights of Rhodes for temporary refuge and transportation to Europe. The Order agreed and Jem landed in Rhodes where he was handsomely treated at first and induced to sign a treaty that would give great concessions to the Hospital should he ever regain the Ottoman throne. Then he was transferred to France and detained, then imprisoned and made the subject of barter and trade. Eventually turned over to the pope and then to the French king, the prince was finally poisoned. During the thirteen years of Jem's detention the Order received an annual stipend of 45,000 ducats from the reigning sultan for keeping the unfortunate prince from pressing his claim to the throne. Grand Master Pierre D'Aubusson also managed to extract 25,000 ducats from Jem's wife and mother, resident in Cairo, on the false pretense that the sum was needed to set him free and transport to Egypt. These machiavellian intrigues certainly kept Rhodes safe from invasion while Prince Jem was alive, but upon his death and the death of Beyazit the next sultan was free to deal with the Order and, in the end, the reputedly impregnable fortress was taken by the armies of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in December, 1522.
The terms of surrender - presumably also requiring the evacuation of the other Hospitaller castles - allowed the knights to depart with honor and they sailed to the castle of Candia in Crete. Shortly thereafter (1530) they were given possession of the island of Malta by Emperor Charles V and there, now as Knights of Malta, they built another fortress, one that successfully withstood the Great Siege of the Ottomans in 1565. Sultan Suleiman, then seventy years old, did not command the attacking force in person but entrusted it to a veteran of Rhodes, Mustafa Pasha, a soldier in his seventies, while the naval element sailed under Piale Pasha and was reinforced by Turgut Reis, the Dragut of western lore. In command of Malta was Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette, also a veteran of the siege of Rhodes, whose stubborn, valiant defense won the day. His name lives on in the capital of Malta, Valletta.
The power of the Ottomans was dealt another blow in 1571 when an allied Christian naval force that included ships of the Knights of Malta defeated the Turkish fleet in the battle of Lepanto. After this the Ottoman Turks ceased to be a threat to the Maltese Knights who now devoted themselves to the harassment of the nominally Ottoman possessions on the North African coast from where, in turn, Barbary corsairs harassed the Mediterranean trade of Europe. The Order also became embroiled in European conflicts and its importance steadily declined until it was unceremoniously dissolved by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798.
The Sovereign Order of Malta was eventually revived, but not as a fighting force. It still exists in many countries as a religious and a charitable institution mostly engaged in works associated with the provision of hospital and medical assistance and, through its aristocratic members, it continues to exercise power in the affairs of the Vatican and, in the affairs of the world.