Built on the highest point of the medieval city in Rhodes, the Palace of the Grand Master dominates the city and the harbour. It played a major role in the defence of the city beginning in the 7th century when it was first constructed on the site of the Byzantine citadel of Rhodes and on the foundations of the Temple of the Sun God (Helios), whose cult was wide spread in Rhodes in antiquity. The citadel’s strong fortifications provided the last refuge for the population in the event of the city falling to the enemy.
The fortifications were incorporated into a palace and administrative centre by the Order of the Knights of St John when they arrived in Rhodes in 1309. Built around a courtyard 50 x 40 metres in size, the building is approximately 80 x 75 metres.
The Order ruled Rhodes as an independent state for over two centuries, developing the palace and converting it into a fortress and administrative centre for their Master (who became known as the Grand Master from 1430). In 1481 the palace was damaged in an earthquake but was repaired by the brotherhood. Rhodes constituted the last Christian outpost in the east.
Due to the knights of the Order constantly attacking Muslim shipping, the Ottoman Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to the island in 1522 with 100,000 men. The Order, with their 7,000 knights and men at arms, withstood the siege for six months until January 1, 1523, when they capitulated and sailed away, taking with them many of the citizens who chose to follow them. They then spent seven years as nomads until 1530 when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) granted them the island of Malta.
During the time in Ottoman possession, the palace was used as a command centre and fortress. It was also used as a prison, and remained so after it came under Italian control.
Over the years it was allowed to deteriorate and in 1856 considerable damage was done to the building when gunpowder stored in an adjacent church exploded due to a lightning strike. In 1912 the island was seized by Italy from the Turks during the Italian-Turkish war (1911-1912). Between 1937 and 1940, during the period of Italian rule of Rhodes, the Italian architect Vittorio Mesturino carried out restoration to the damaged parts of the palace enabling it to become a holiday residence for the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III (r.1900-1946) and later for Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945). Mussolini carried out extensive restoration work and his name can still be seen on a large plaque near the entrance. These works mean that the rooms seen today are a reconstruction.
In 1948, Rhodes and the rest of the Dodecanese were transferred to Greece in accordance with the Paris Peace Treaties of 10 February 1947. The palace was then converted to a museum, and is today one of the most popular tourist attractions of Rhodes.
The main entrance to the palace is located at the top of the Avenue of the Knights which leads from the harbour. Entry is gained through the south façade, which incorporates a gate with an imposing tower on each side. The west façade has a gate in front of which is a tall square tower dating from the end of the 15th century.
On the north side, there are underground rooms that served as storerooms, while the ground floor consisted of many vaulted rooms of various sizes which were used as ancillary rooms. The official rooms were situated on the first floor, which was accessed by a monumental staircase. On this floor are the Great Council Chamber and dining rooms, as well as the private quarters of the Grand Master. Many of the rooms contain mosaic floors of the late Hellenistic, Roman and early Christian times, most of which were brought from buildings on Kos. This floor also contains oriental vases, statues, and furnishings from the palace’s past. To the right of the staircase is a chapel and several rooms that form the museum, which holds exhibitions related to the various periods of the palace.
The palace has 158 rooms but today only 24 are open to visitors.
In 1988 the Medieval Old Town of Rhodes, which incorporates the Palace, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.
Copyright - All Photographs copyright Ron Gatepain