Letter from a Knight on Rhodes

Diether von Michelstadt, Knight of the Holy Order of St. John, quartered on the Isle of Rhodes, to his dear cousin and brother in the Lord, Wolfgang Capito.

Greetings to you my dear friend, and all the blessings which God can bestow. Your recent letter reached me just yesterday with the arrival of our supply galleys from Venice.

Selim I

This past year, a new and vigorous Ottoman Sultan arose, who goes by the name Selim. He deposed his father Beyezid, whom he considered too weak. Selim quickly killed all his brothers and nephews.  He remembers the challenge to his father’s rule by his uncle Djem, who fled to our protection on Rhodes.  (Beyezid made an agreement with the Pope to keep Djem in luxurious restraint until he died, thereby preventing a civil conflict in Constantinople.)  The new Sultan is called “Selim the Grim.”

Local Greeks report that Selim seeks to unite the many Islamic realms by force, to present a united front against us. Selim claims the title of “Caliph of Islam.” Our spies report that Selim prepares his forces for a clash with Ismail, Shah of the powerful Safavid Empire of Persia. Selim is a fervent Muslim of the Sunni faction, and passionately wants to surpass the Shi’ites of Persia, and assume their leadership. He is well aware of Ismail’s power and resilience, but he places much hope in his corps of Janissaries, who are well trained in the use of firearms, a device which Ismail holds in contempt. If Selim gains Syria and Mesopotamia, he will be nearly impossible to stop.

Our spies also suggest that he may move against the Mamelukes, the Islamic slave-soldiers who have ruled Egypt for centuries. By my faith, control of Egypt and the Holy Land would give Selim the lucrative pilgrimage road to Mecca and Medina, and the title Defender of the Holy Places, which carries enormous religious prestige even among the Shi’ites.

Since the Turks have long since gained control of most of Greece and the mainland of the Levant, we alone on Rhodes remain as an armed outpost of Christendom. Our fleets of war galleys terrorize their spice convoys from Asia and shipments of grain from Egypt. They do not wish us well, and when the day of reckoning comes, the fighting will be severe. Let us hope that our walls will defeat the hoards of unbelievers, as happened in 1480. May God and Holy Mary continue to protect us.

In these present days, all is quiet on our beautiful island, but the threat of invasion is never absent. My fellow brothers in the Order’s German langue never stop their training and preparations for the assault which we know must come. We have amassed vast stores of food, powder, shot, arrows, and counter-siege apparatus.

Our fortifications are no doubt the finest and best crafted in the world, and yet we continue to strengthen our masonry, deepen our moats, and multiply our cisterns. We boast to the other seven langues that our German bastion is the best defended section of the walls, and that we hope that the Turks make their first assault against us, so that we may teach them a lesson.

Last week I accompanied three of our galleys on a raid to capture stores of powder in the magazine of a Turkish village. We spared the women and children, as well as men who raised no weapons. While I do not agree with Erasmus that a Christian should not go to war, I do agree that if we slaughter the innocent, as the Turks do, then we have become Turks of the spirit and not Christians.

I am disturbed to hear your news of the bickering among theologians in your district. Their issues mean very little to me. I understand the need to stamp out corruption and greed among the clergy, but why fall into hostile factions over theories that no normal person wishes to understand? If only your friends could see the great threat posed by the Turks against our poor outpost here on the East of the Great Sea. There has never been a time in history when devout Christians needed to honor their common beliefs more than now.

With all that said, my brother, do not worry about my welfare. Our situation on Rhodes is most pleasant for now. Like all the other auberges of the Knights, our German residence palace is comfortable and strong, a true fortress within a fortress. Our supply of food and wine is generous and delicious, more than you could wish.

We maintain our rhythm of prayer as devoutly as our military preparations. The spirit among our Knights and our other helpers is warm and fraternal, as I wish that your own companions might be. As I fondly remember your kindness to my own dear mother, I wish you the Lord’s choicest blessings.

From your own, Diether

Diether von Michelstadt created by Leopold Glueckert, O.Carm.,Ph.D

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