First published in the Wall Street Journal by Joshua Hammer
These days, it’s a popular destination for sun-seekers. But for fans of fiery swashbuckling history - booty and all - the tiny island nation of Malta has much more to offer.
The 16th-century Church of St. Gregory, in a sleepy village on Malta’s southeast coast, hardly looks like the flashpoint in a clash of civilizations. A squat, stone Romanesque edifice in the town of Zejtun, it pales in comparison to a dramatic Baroque church a few 100 yards away. Yet it was at St. Gregory’s, in 1614, where the Ottomans fought an epic battle—one of several—against the island’s Christian defenders, the Knights of Malta.
Adrian Strickland, a British Maltese of aristocratic bearing and a friend of a friend, recounted the Knights’ story as we toured the church. “This church was their fortress,” he said, then showed me the entrance to one of the tunnels hidden behind the building’s thick walls. Rediscovered in 1969 by a teenage boy doing maintenance work, the network of secret passages was so extensive El Chapo would’ve envied them. Excavators found a cul-de-sac crammed with human skeletons, possibly victims of attacks by Barbary pirates looking for slaves and booty. Some might well have been Knights of Malta.
A tiny archipelago nation in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta has been a geopolitical prize and a bloody battleground for thousands of years. Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Ottomans, Spaniards, French and British have all battled to control it. During World War II, when the archipelago was an Allied stronghold, the Italian Air Force and the Nazi Luftwaffe bombed it mercilessly. No rulers have been more closely associated with Malta than the Knights, otherwise known by their full name, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. An aristocratic order founded by a Benedictine monk in the early 12th century to protect Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land, these “fighting monks” were expelled by the warlord Saladin at the end of the 1100s. They spent the next 350 years seeking refuge in different islands around the Mediterranean.
Where to fortify yourself on the Fortress Island
Getting There: Turkish Airlines offers three flights a day from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport to Malta International Airport, with a layover in Istanbul. Delta and Alitalia also fly out of JFK, with a stop in Rome.
Staying There: The British Hotel in Valletta has basic rooms and glorious views of the Grand Harbor (from $107 a night for sea-view rooms, britishhotel.com). In Sliema, the nicest place to stay is the Victoria Hotel, which has comfortable rooms and a rooftop bar and pool with panoramic views of the city and the sea (from $158 a night, victoriahotel.com).
Eating There: For lunch in Valletta, try D’Office Bistro, which features aljota (Maltese fish soup), spicy fried squid and other local dishes in an attractive setting (d-officevalletta.com). Da’ Pippo Trattoria is a cramped, lively lunch spot in central Valletta (136 Melita St.). In Sliema, Ta’ Kris serves Maltese cuisine, such as octopus stew cooked in beer, mint and lemon zest (takrisrestaurant.com).
But knights, apparently, don’t take easily to the quiet island life. They spent their years in exile plundering Arab vessels and fighting repeated battles against Arab armies. In 1523, Charles V, the King of Spain and Sicily, granted them one of his fiefdoms: Malta, a sparsely inhabited patch of rock. Malta remained under the firm rule of the Knights for more than 250 years, until Napoleon invaded in 1798—part of his plan to extend his control across the Mediterranean to Egypt—and sent them packing.
Today, based in Rome, the order numbers about 13,000, no longer requires that members be of noble birth or celibate, and dedicates itself to humanitarian work. Slowly—very slowly—resurgent on Malta, the order counts a total of 110 knights on the archipelago, including Mr. Strickland, the son of a former Maltese Prime Minister.
I first visited Malta in spring 2015, while reporting on the efforts of a Malta-based American to rescue refugees who were attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya in rickety fishing boats. During that stay I became intrigued by the Knights and their rise from wandering exiles to rulers of a wealthy Mediterranean state. Two and a half centuries after their expulsion, the influence of the Knights of Malta remains ubiquitous on the island: from the numerous forts and 13 coastal watchtowers erected in the 17th century to the Baroque churches that dominate the skyline of the capital, Valletta, founded by the Knights’ Grand Master in 1566.
Malta is certainly not preserved in amber, however. Urban sprawl covers much of the three inhabited islands (which combined are smaller than Atlanta, Ga., and have a population of 450,000), and the country has become a popular beach destination for Europeans. Architect Renzo Piano has a major project under way to redevelop the Royal Opera House and the Valletta City Gate, the main entrance to the walled capital.
On this last visit, a few months ago, I stayed in Sliema, a quaint neighborhood of narrow streets and limestone townhouses built a century ago as a weekend spot for Valletta residents. Early each day I walked downhill to catch the first ferry to the capital across the harbor and watch the dawn break over the church domes that rise above Valletta’s dense cityscape. From the harbor, a steep, 10-minute climb—past rows of centuries-old apartment buildings adorned with colorful wooden balconies—brought me to Via Republicca, a pedestrian promenade lined with edifices from the Knights’ glory days. The centerpiece is the sumptuous Grand Master’s Palace, now the offices of the president and the House of Representatives, as well as a museum.
Down the street is St. John’s Co-Cathedral, famous for its Baroque grandiosity and its two paintings by Caravaggio. Curator Cynthia de Giorgio led me into a gilded oratory and pointed out “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist,” a large, lurid masterwork. The tormented genius of the Italian Renaissance was ordained as a Knight. “But the other Knights considered Caravaggio a rogue, a persona non grata,” said Ms. de Giorgio. After brawling with two high-ranking Knights, the artist was imprisoned at the island’s Fort St. Angelo, then escaped to Sicily. He died a year and a half later, some say murdered by vengeful Knights.
A short stroll from the church stands Casa Rocca Piccola, built by a Knight in the late 16th century. Packed with paintings and antiques spanning 450 years, it’s perhaps the finest example of the wealth that Malta enjoyed during its centuries as a sovereign power under the Knights. (Some of the money came from piracy; the rest from profits the aristocratic knights earned from land holdings in Continental Europe.) “We had one of the largest navies in the Mediterranean. We were the last bastion of Christianity,” said the current owner, Nicholas de Piro, whose ancestor, a commoner, accompanied the Knights from Rhodes in 1530 and ran their arsenal.
My last stop was the National Archives, a short walk from Mr. de Piro’s mansion. In the main reading room, a stiflingly hot, vast chamber lined with thousands of dusty volumes, an archivist brought out the most valuable artifact of all: a 2-foot-long parchment written in Latin in 1522, conferring upon the Knights the lands of “Tripolis, Melibeti et Gaudissi” (Tripoli, Malta and Gozo, the northern island in the archipelago). “The Grand Master didn’t want [Malta],” she told me, “because it was a very barren rock in the Mediterranean, very different from Rhodes.” The Grand Master, however, knew that it was an offer that he couldn’t refuse: A wax pendant seal showed Charles V on horseback and the signature scribbled at bottom read simply, “Yo, El Reye,” or “I The King.”