In the footsteps of the Crusaders – the Templars and Hospitallers

Sunny skies, clear turquoise waters, and a harbor ringed with medieval fortification walls greeted me when I arrived on the island of Rhodes, former headquarters of the crusading order of the Knights of St. John (also known as the Hospitallers) via cruise ship in June of 2006.

Behind the honey-colored medieval stone walls still surrounding the Old Town of Rhodes, we could see the tops of palm trees, crenellated castle towers belonging to the Hospitallers, and the slender white spire and large domed roof of the Suleiman Mosque, legacy of the Ottoman Turks who drove out the Knights of St. John in the 1500s, and occupied Rhodes for the next 400 years.

Passing under the arched Gate of D’Amboise, the fortification walls so thick that the gate is really a tunnel, forty feet long and with a sharp left turn halfway through, we emerged into the bright sunlit space of the dry moat, now planted with palm trees and flowering plants. More crenellated walls lay ahead, and another arched gateway, until finally, we found ourselves in the narrow, cobblestone-paved streets of the Old City.

Near the reconstructed Palace of the Grand Master, I found myself walking down the Street of the Knights. The Knights of St. John were divided into groups by nationality, and each nationality had its own mini-headquarters and dormitory, as well as its assigned portion of the city walls to defend. Nowadays, the knights’ dormitories house government offices, and in the case of the French knights’ dormitory, the Consulate of France. At least they didn’t have to change the carved marble French royal coat of arms over the doorway!

My walking tour of the Knights’ quarters ended at the bottom of the hill, in a small cobbled square shaded by a walnut tree, surrounded by shops, and fronted by the impressive two-story bulk of the Hospital of the Knights, dating from the late 1400s, which is now the Archaeological Museum.

I had about 45 minutes before the museum closed for a three-hour siesta, so I made a hurried trip through it, more curious to see the inside of a genuine Crusader building than the collection of ancient pottery and sculptures (which was actually pretty good).

It’s a very impressive building, and still in excellent shape. The hospital is built around a central courtyard, with wide arcaded walks on both floors, and stone-walled rooms opening up to the courtyard.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, these rooms served as hostel accommodations for pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land, as well as hospice care for the ill or injured. Nowadays, they house the collection of the archaeological museum.

Spanning the width of the second story, just behind the façade, is the Great Hall, which is dark and mostly empty, except for an exhibit of the marble gravestones of the various knights and Grand Masters.

My first encounter with the legacy of the Knights Templar, who play such a large role in the first volume of The House of the Rose, Glass Souls, was in England in the summer of 2000. Marian and I were in the middle of working on the book, and I was excited at the prospect of actually visiting a genuine Templar building, Temple Church, located in the heart of London.

An unexpected surprise awaited us on an outing to the beautiful city of Salisbury. Touring Salisbury Cathedral, we found an effigy dedicated to the memory of William Longspee the Younger, son of the earl of Salisbury, a minor character in Glass Souls, who died at Al-Mansurah.

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