History of Bodrum Castle

In the 13th century, history of Bodrum Castle started in Halicarnassus where this ancient city was under the control of the Byzantium Empire.

Back on those days, the Anatolian Beylik of Mentes was headquartered in Mylasa, today’s Milas, which was just 50 kilometres away from Halicarnassus. Mentes was not happy to be so close to such hostile forces which could threaten their capital anytime. They invaded this strategic port in the mid-13th century and constructed a castle on Zephyrion which is a small peninsula dividing Bodrum Bay into two parts.

Meanwhile, there was another important power in the history of the Mediterranean. They were Knights Hospitaller who are also known as Knights of St. John. Their base was in Rhodes, but they had already constructed castles on strategic locations like in Kos, Crete and Smyrna to gain better control over the area.

A painting by Kamal Al-din Bihzad
Assault on the Fortress of the Knights of St. John at Smyrna.
Painting by Kamal Al-din Bihzad (1450 – 1535)

The beautiful Izmir of the modern Turkey was known as Smyrna back then. Timur’s army attacked this city and destroyed the Order’s one of the most important castle in 1402. This was a milestone in the history of Bodrum Castle.

Knights Hospitaller In History of Bodrum Castle

The Knights had to build another castle to protect the Carian coast facing Rhodes. They already had Narangia Castle in Kos and another one in Halicarnassus, right across the Aegean Sea, would serve pretty well to their cause.

Mehmet I – Mehmet Celebi – was in reign in the Ottoman Empire. Knights Hospitaller expressed their intention to construct a new castle over the old one to the Sultan and took the necessary permission.

Locations of Bodrum Castle and Narangia Castle at Kos Island
Locations of Bodrum Castle at Bodrum and Narangia Castle at Kos Island

They had found a good spot and now they had to find funding and building materials.

The Papacy offered absolution for all the good Christians working in the construction. After Grand Master Philibert de Naillac received funding from Europe, the project started in 1415 under direction of the German architect Heinrich Schlegelholt who was also one of the Knights of St. John and continued until 1513 with various interruptions.

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – was also in Bodrum and it was greatly damaged in 14th century, probably by an earthquake. The Knights used the remaining stones and archaeological fragments of the wonder in the castle construction. Today, many of these fragments and the reliefs can be seen on the walls being as a part of history of Bodrum castle.

Coat of Arms on the castle walls
Coat of arms on the walls of English Tower at Bodrum Castle

Castle of St. Peter was a refuge for Christians in Asia Minor. Faithful Catholics consisting of 50 knights and 150 mercenaries were living in the castle. They neither attempted to occupy lands behind the castle walls nor connected with the local Turkish and Greek population. They were living on their own, but the things were different now between the Knights and the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Emperor Mehmet II attacked Halicarnassus. It was the same year he conquered Istanbul in 1453 but he failed. Years later, he tried it once more in 1480 and was repelled by the Knights of the Order again. His fleet of galleys could only damage the English tower and the seafront walls.

Narangia Castle at Kos Island
Narangia Castle at Kos Island

First fortification in Bodrum Castle history was carried out in 1494. The Mausoleum was once again the source of material. Technology had advanced and the cannons were getting more effective. The walls had to withstand against their attacks.

Suleyman the Magnificent in Action

Suleyman the Magnificent came into reign in 1520. He was the longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottomans. His ambition to expand the empire led Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller to order the strengthening of the castle for one last time. Sadly, almost all remaining blocks, reliefs and fragments of The Mausoleum had been used for this purpose in 1522.

This time the Sultan was not directly targeting Bodrum. He laid siege to the Headquarter of the Knights in Rhodes with more than 200,000 soldiers in 1522. The Knights fell and one of the Suleyman’s terms of surrender was handing over the castles in Kos and Bodrum to the empire.

History of Bodrum Castle shows us that Bodrum was always popular but not always in a good way. During WWI, castle was bombed various times by passing warships. In 1915 French and English battleships gave serious damage to the walls. Bodrum resisted but the castle was evacuated. In 1919, determined Italian attacks paid back and they took the control over Bodrum.

Suleyman the Magnificent
Drawing of Suleyman the Magnificent

As a result of the Turkish War of Independence, which was led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of Republic of Turkey, Italians withdrew their soldiers to Kos and Rhodes on 5th of July 1921. From then on, Bodrum was a part of the young republic offering a brighter future.

In the second half of the 20th century, archaeologists and travellers discovered something new about this small fishing town: Aegean Sea surrounding ancient Halicarnassus was keeping its own secrets. These secrets aligned the history of Bodrum Castle with History of Museum of the Underwater Archaeology.

In 1962, restoration of Bodrum castle started and it has opened its doors to visitors as the Museum of Underwater Archaeology in November 1964.

Recent Restoration at the Castle

In 2017, the Turkish government decided to start a restoration project at the Bodrum Castle. However, the decision was made without consulting the local authorities, scientists and any other related parties. It was just an out-of-the-blue decision.

Since the government rejected to make the project accessible, The Chamber of Architects has brought it to trial. At first, the local court has made its conclusion in favour of the chamber, but a higher court cancelled the sentence and the construction work has begun in 2017.

Restoration at the Bodrum Castle
Restoration at the Bodrum Castle

The castle was fully covered with huge canvases. All we could see was the large trucks carrying building materials. No one knew what was happening there.

In May 2019, a small part of the castle has started to accept visitors. I was curious and went there on the first day. The changes were huge and for me: not in a good direction.

The plan was supposed to finish all work by May 2020, but at the time of writing this piece, which is July 2020, the work still continues.

I have not seen the castle for 6 months now. However, I keep reading news about how the spirit and the originality of the castle has been lost compared to old times. Archaeologists and tourist guides seem to meet at this conclusion.

In 2-3 months, I will be in Bodrum again. After visiting the castle, I will share an update.

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I am Akinsal and I am here to guide you on your search for finding your own Bodrum.