As you set foot on the island of Malta, you will very quickly notice testimonies of the presence of the Knights of St. John.
Who are they and why did they come to Malta?
Established in the 11th century under the order of the papacy, the Order of Saint John is a religious, hospital and military order. Following the First Crusade, the Holy Land became christian and the Knights Hospitaller settled down there to defend it as well as take care of people who went there for pilgrimage. As a Hospitaller Order, they also assisted any person in need.
But in 1187, Saladin takes over Jerusalem, so the knights are forced to leave the Holy Land. The order go through many changes and displacement. They settled in Cyprus, then in Rhodes until 1522, date in which the Island fell into the hands of Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The Knights had to find a new refuge again.
With the assistance of Pope Clement VII, they received from Charles V in 1530, the islands of Malta, Gozo and the city of Tripoli. In exchange, they should protect the islands, as well as Sicily and Naples from the Ottoman threat. The Knights Hospitaller of the Order of Saint John took the name of Knights of Malta.
They organized the defense of Malta, designated Birgù as capital (more strategic than Mdina which is located in the interior of the island), renovated or built several fortifications like the Fort Saint Angelo or the Fort Saint Elmo.These fortifications helped them to overcome the Ottomans during the Great Siege in 1565. This four months long battle (27 May- 8 September 1536) cansacreted the victory of the Knights over Turks.
The Great Siege: As it happened
The Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent gave the order to attack Malta. However the knights, commanded by the Grand Master Jean Parisot de La Valette, succeeded in repelling the Ottoman troops after being under the siege during four months. It was a heavy defeat for the Ottomans who were superior in numbers. On September.8, The Knights declared victory over the Turks. To date, this day is commemorated in Malta and celebrated with splendour, known as “Victory Day.”
The same year, the Grand Master founded the town that bears his name, Valletta. This victory has had a considerable impact in the Christian world, it had strengthened the role of knights as defender of Christianity.
The presence of the order on the island for three centuries marked the landscapes of Malta. One can observe a lot of fortifications built by the knights like Fort Saint Elmo, Fort Tigné, Fort Manoel, Fort Ricasoli as well as several watch towers around Malta and Gozo.
In 1798, Napoléon Bonaparte managed to seize Malta, chasing the knights. However, the order has not completely disappeared. Today it is no longer a military order, but an international organization that carries out medical, social and humanitarian activities.
photo 1:Re-enactment of 16th-century military drills conducted by the Knights. Fort Saint Elmo, Valletta, Malta, 8 May 2005.
Photo Credits: Creative Commons