April 3, 1856: Palace of the Grand Masters Explosion, Rhodes

On this day in 1856, an unfortunate lightning strike obliterated a good part of the population of the Greek island of Rhodes.

During these days, Rhodes was controlled by Ottoman Turks, who used the 14th-century Palace of the Grand Masters and its attached church, the Church of St. John, as a massive ammo dump, while keeping the complex open to the public. The large complex could hold thousands of people, and did on this day when a storm approached the island.

It was “scientifically” believed that the ringing of church bells could disrupt the formation of lightning, and on this strategy the lives of thousands of people depended. Alas, one lightning bolt got through (!) and touched off a fire that detonated what must have been tons of explosives. The resulting explosion killed 4,000 people in and around the Palace, reducing it to a pile of rubble that sat on Rhodes for almost a century.

The Palace of the Grand Masters was rebuilt by Mussolini in the 20th century, and is a popular tourist attraction on Rhodes, but nothing of the original building is left. The population of the old town of Rhodes today is only back to 6,000.

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