Built in the 14th century by the Knights of Rhodes, who occupied Rhodes from 1309 to 1522, this fortress within a fortress was the seat of 19 Grand Masters, the nerve center of the Collachium, or Knights’ Quarter, and the final refuge for Rhodes’ citizens in times of danger. It was destroyed by an accidental explosion in 1856 and restored by the Italians in the early 20th century as a residence for Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuel III. The palace contains some priceless mosaics from sites in Kos, after which some of the rooms are named. It also houses two exhibitions — Ancient Rhodes and Medieval Rhodes.
MOSAIC FLOORS AND STATUES FROM KOS
During the restoration of the palace, beautiful Hellenistic, Roman, and Early Christian mosaics were taken from buildings on the nearby island of Kos and used to rebuild the palace’s floors, including those of the Chamber with Colonnades and the Medusa Chamber. The magnificent statues displayed in the Central Courtyard were also brought in from Kos; they date from the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
THE KNIGHTS OF RHODES
Founded in the 11th century by merchants from Amalfi, the Order of Knights Hospitallers of St. John guarded the Holy Sepulcher and defended Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem. They became a military order after the First Crusade (1096-9), but took refuge in Cyprus in 1291 when Jerusalem fell to the Muslim Mamelukes. They then bought Rhodes from the Genoese and conquered the Rhodians in 1309. A Grand Master was elected for life to govern the order, which was divided into seven Tongues, or nationalities: France, Italy, England, Germany, Spain, Provence, and Auvergne. Each Tongue protected an area of the city wall known as a Curtain. The Knights built some fine examples of medieval military architecture, including 30 castles in Greece’s Dodecanese islands.
The Ancient Rhodes exhibition is situated off the Central Courtyard in the north wing of the palace. Its marvelous collection is a result of 45 years of archeological investigation on the island, and includes vases and figurines — dating from the prehistoric period up to the founding of the city in 408/7 BC — excavated from the Minoan site at Trianda. Also on display are jewelry, pottery, and grave stelae from the tombs of Kamiros, Undos, and lalysos, which date from the 8th and 9th centuries BC. In the south and west wings is the splendid Medieval Rhodes exhibition. Covering the 4th century AD to the city’s conquest by the ‘Ottoman Turks in 1522, the displays here provide an insight into trade and everyday life in Rhodes in Byzantine and medieval times, with Byzantine icons, Italian and Spanish ceramics, armor, and military memorabilia on view.
Chamber of the Nine Muses
This room has a late-Hellenistic mosaic and 16th-century choir stalls.
The palace’s heavy fortifications were designed to be the last line of defense in the event of the city walls being breached.
Chamber with Colonnades
An Early Christian mosaic from the 5th century AD decorates the floor of this room. Two elegant colonnades support the roof.
The mythical Gorgon Medusa, with her hair of writhing serpents, forms the centerpiece of this important late Hellenis tic mosaic. The chamber also features Chinese and Islamic vases.
Second Cross-Vaulted Chamber
Once used as the governor’s office, this room is paved with an intricately decorated mosaic from Kos that dates from the 5th century AD.
A copy of the “Laocoon” group, a famous sculpture depicting the deaths of the Trojan priest Laocoon and his two sons, dominates this hall. The original, created by Rhodian artists Athenodoros, Agesandra and Polydoros in the 1st century AD, is in Rome’s Vatican Museum.
This contains a late-Hellenistic mosaic and carved choir stalls.
The Knights Street (Odhos lppoton)
This cobbled medieval street leads to the palace. Along its length are the most important public and private buildings erected by the Knights.
Hellenistic statues taken from the Odeion in Kos line the Central Courtyard. Its north side is paved with geometric marble tiles.
This imposing entrance, built by the Knights, has twin horseshoe-shaped towers with swallowtail turrets. The coat of arms is that of Grand Master del Villeneuve, who ruled from 1319-46.
THE KNIGHTS OF THE ORDER
Men were drawn from noble Roman Catholic families all over Europe to join the Order of the Knights of St John; however, there were never more than 600 knights at any one time. Those who entered the order swore vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty.
THE FIRST GRAND MASTER
Foulkes de Villaret ( 1305-19), a French knight, was the first Grand Master. He negotiated to buy Rhodes from the Lord of the Dodecanese, Admiral Vignoli, in 1306. This left the Knights with the task of conquering the island’s inhabitants. The Knights of Rhodes, as they became known, remained here until their expulsion in 1522. The Villaret name lives on in Villare, one of the island’s white wines.
1300s: The Palace of the Grand Masters is constructed by the Knights of Rhodes.
1856: The palace is accidentally demolished by a gunpowder explosion.
1937-40: The building is restored by Italian architect Vittorio Mesturino.
1988: The Medieval City of Rhodes, including the Palace of the Grand Masters, is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.