Rhodes: The Ottomans were there for almost 400 years, but you wouldn’t know it

During the past two years, I’ve spent a lot of my ‘free’ time delving into Ottoman history. This is the first in a series of posts about my adventures in discovering my Ottoman past and with it unearthing a rather spectacular history that is still largely closed off in the ‘West.’

In 1522, the Ottomans, after a six month siege and under Sultan Suleyman captured the island of Rhodes, from the Knights Hospitallers of St. John. These were knights descended from those who had taken part in the Crusades. The island was strategically significant because it sat on the trade route to Egypt, which then provided significant resources to the Ottoman treasury, particularly with the victory of the Ottomans over the Mamluks in 1517. It was also important, because Muslims, on pilgrimage to Mecca were being captured by the Knights and forced into servitude on the island. The Ottomans were custodians of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina and as possessing the Caliphate, were liable for the welfare of Muslims particularly within their empire. Sultan Suleyman intervened. The city in some places has seven sets of walls. The Ottomans tunneled under the moat, under the walls and sent poisonous gas through the tunnels when it was realised the Knights were also planning to meet them below the surface. The island remained under Ottoman control until 1912 when it was taken by the Italians, who then passed it onto the Germans, who passed it onto the British who, with the 11 other Dodecanese islands, handed control to the Greeks in 1947.

Conveniently, the very popular series ‘(Magnificent Century) – a Turkish soap/drama taking Turkey, the Middle East and the Balkans by storm – began broadcast when I lived in Doha in 2012, and from this series I learnt about the Ottoman capture of Rhodes. If you speak Turkish, the entire series is available online. Rhodes is only a one hour ferry ride from the south of Turkey, and at such proximity, it was time to go. When you read about Rhodes from its tourist guides, the Ottoman history is glossed over. Why? Has modern history led to a censorship of an Ottoman past?
Rhodes was not subject to mandatory population exchange which took place between Turkey and Greece in 1923. When I was in Rhodes and answered the locals “Turkey” when they asked where I was from, I was treated well, with warmth. However, the locals tell a different story. They tell a story of Rhodesian officials trying to push the Turks out of the island, with palpable tension.

A minority Turkish population resides on the island, which is only a one hour boat ride away from Turkey. This population speaks Turkish, are ageing and say they are being forced out by the Greeks. When they seek assistance from Turkey, they are responded to with, “you are not Turkish, you have a Greek passport.” With the aging and disappearance of a people, so too their remants, namely mosques and other cultural institutions built during the 390 years of Ottoman rule.

But what is the status of Turks on the island, and how are Turks treated in this society. What is taught about the Ottomans in Rhodes to the local children? The Knights of St John were on the island for 200 years. The Ottomans were there for nearly double that time, but when you stroll the streets of Rhodes, you see nothing that reflects this. What is promoted of the island and especially the old city. The walls and Palace of the Grand Master (of the Knights) are largely intact. The cannon balls left in the now grassed moats around the old city are Turkish and with some tunnels, are the only remaining hints of conquer or battle.

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