Why Not Return the Maltese Islands to the Order of Malta?

Valletta, the capital of Malta.
Valletta, the capital of Malta.

Really, why not? Most of the modern attractions of Malta were created by the Knights Hospitaller. Of course, we know that the oldest building of the world is located on Gozo, one of the Maltese Islands, but most of the tourists strive to visit Malta to look at the Grand Master’s Palace, majestic cathedrals of Valletta, the city of Valletta itself, and knights’ fortresses around it.

When you approach Valletta from the sea or from the air, you certainly see the wonderful dome of the Carmelite Church. This is a postcard of Malta. The view of this dome, surrounded by yellow buildings and powerful city walls, is forever associated with Malta in the memory of every traveler who ever visited the island.

However, while the Carmelite Church is wonderful outside you will find a very simple interior. Ten minutes will be enough to enjoy it, and then I invite you to visit a real gem of Valletta. If you had the opportunity or time to visit only one attraction of Malta, I would suggest St. John’s Co-Cathedral.

Interior of St John's Co-Cathedral of Valletta, Malta.

Interior of St John's Co-Cathedral of Valletta, Malta.

The main altar of St John's Co-Cathedral of Valletta, Malta.

The Co-Cathedral was built by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar from 1573-1578, and served as the Conventual Church of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John. You cannot imagine how beautiful the Co-Cathedral is inside. Most of the decorate works were done by Italian knight and artist Mattia Preti. He painted the vaulted ceiling and side altars with scenes from the life of St. John. The carving into the limestone walls of the church is also his work.

Every langue of the Order had its richly decorated chapel in the Co-Cathedral, and you can visit every one of them, but the real treasure lies right under your feet. This is the floor.

Beautiful tombstones in St John's Co-Cathedral of Valletta, Malta.

Beautiful tombstones in St John's Co-Cathedral of Valletta, Malta.

The tradition of burying famous or rich citizens under the stony floor of churches was very common in Europe, but in every cathedral I visited until this moment, those tombs were grey and expressionless. Without hesitation, everyone will step on such a tomb to examine the ceilings or walls of a church. It is quite another matter with St John’s Co-Cathedral of Valletta.

The first thing you see at the entrance is a beautiful, colored mosaic tomb with a “speaking” picture and inscription, “You who tread on me, you will be trodden upon. Reflect on that and pray for me.” In other words: Momento mori. This tomb belongs to the French knight Anselmo de Caijs.

French knight Anselmo de Caijs’ tomb in St John's Co-Cathedral of Valletta, Malta.
“You who tread on me, you will be trodden upon. Reflect on that and pray for me.”

Then you will find out that the whole floor of the Co-Cathedral consists of beautiful pieces of mosaic art—tombs. All 405 are colorful and picturesque. At the first moment, I froze and thought: Where will I walk in here? When you go along a cemetery, you do not step on tombs, you step between them. You understand that under every tomb lies something that at one time was a human being, and one day you will follow his/her path.

Thank God, there were small passages between tombs in the Co-Cathedral, and I could go along this wonderful cemetery and explore every work of art without disturbing all the elite of the Maltese knighthood. When you are in St John’s Co-Cathedral of Valletta, look not up, but down.

Interior of St John's Co-Cathedral of Valletta, Malta.

Chapel of Aragon. St John's Co-Cathedral of Valletta, Malta.
Chapel of Aragon. St John’s Co-Cathedral of Valletta, Malta.

For more information visit the Co-Cathedral’s website.

More beautiful tombstones can be found in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina, the first capital of Malta.

Beautiful tombstones of the St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina. Malta.

Beautiful tombstones of the St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina. Malta.

Beautiful tombstones of the St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina. Malta.

The whole tourist industry of Malta is based on the period of time when the island was the property of the Knights of St. John. You will see the eight-pointed cross of the Order everywhere, starting from the pin on the jacket of the Maltese stewardess meeting you at the airport check-in counter somewhere in Vienna or Frankfurt, and ending in every souvenir shop of the Maltese Islands.

Long before the knights, Malta belonged to many owners, from the Phoenicians to the Spaniards. However, for all of them, it was just a base for sea trade or military expeditions, but not the motherland. Only for the Knights Hospitaller, Malta was a homeland after losing their first one, the island of Rhodes. By the way, in those times, they were called the Knights of Rhodes.

For seven years after the honorable surrender of Rhodes to Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the knights were looking for a new land for their Order. Many European kings offered them lands and privileges because to have such a powerful Order in your country was very profitable in every sense: economically and militarily. But the Order did not want to depend on one crown or another.

At last, the king of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, offered them the tiny island of Malta and several islands around it for a symbolic price: one falcon a year. This deal turned out to be so profitable for the Order of Malta that after several years, knights brought to the king the next payment, a falcon, but this time it was made from pure gold and decorated with diamonds.

As it turned out, that deal saved all of Western Europe from the Ottoman yoke, when 35 years later, 700 Knights of Malta and 8,000 soldiers withstood the 106-day siege by the army of Suleiman the Magnificent, 38,000 strong, and forced them to leave. The sultan was so upset with this failure that he ordered that all high commanders who took part in the siege be strangled.

Knights’ fortresses. Valletta, Malta.

Knights’ fortresses. Valletta, Malta.

Knights’ fortresses. Valletta, Malta.

But Europe rejoiced. Bells of every cathedral rang in honor of the victory of Malta. If not for the Knights of Malta, Western Europe would have experienced all the horrors of the Ottoman occupation, which people of Bulgaria, Greece, or Serbia remember to this day, 700 years later. As Queen Elizabeth of England said, “If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom.”

Malta had lost 219 knights and 9,000 inhabitants. In honor of the victory in the Great Siege, the Order resolved to build a new capital of Malta and named it La Valletta after the Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette who led the defense.

Malta was called a “Sea shield of Europe,” and the biggest Maltese ship, “Saint Anna,” built in the 15th century, was considered the first armadillo in the history of mankind, because she was covered with iron. The Sea Academy of Malta was the best in the world.

In the Palace of the Grand Master, Valletta, Malta.
In the Palace of the Grand Master, Valletta, Malta.

In the Palace of the Grand Master, Valletta, Malta.

Interior of St John's Co-Cathedral of Valletta, Malta.

The Knights Hospitaller lost their motherland a second time in 1798 when “Emperor” Napoleon decided to plunder Egypt, and along the way, Malta. The Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim opened the doors of the Maltese fortresses for Napoleon. Why? Historians say that Hompesch sought financial gain or was coward.

Oh, gentlemen, are you kidding? The Grand Master of the Western Christian military order was a coward?! The only case in the almost 1000-year history of the oldest Catholic Order in the world? How it can be? Do you remember that the Constitutional Charter of the Order forbids its knights to raise a weapon against a Christian? Whether Napoleon was a Christian is another question, but the Grand Master just fulfilled the Charter!

By the way, the Pope never did confirm the displacement of Hompesch from his post in spite of the strong willingness of Russian Emperor Pavel I to take his place. Later, Ferdinand von Hompesch voluntarily resigned as Grand Master, and Russian Emperor Pavel I, in fact, saved the Order of Malta from full extinction. He became Grand Master of the Order de facto rather than de jure.

After the inspection of Maltese fortresses, one French general said, “This is a big luck that we found a man who opened those doors for us.” In other words, if the Knights of Malta had decided to defend themselves, Napoleon would not have gotten to Egypt.

Knights’ fortresses served Malta well again, 144 years later. During the bombardment of Malta by Italian and German Air Forces in 1940-1942, Italian fighter pilot Francisco Cavalera observed, “Malta was really a big problem for us—very well-defended.” The tiny knights’ island again contributed to the salvation of Europe, this time defending against fascists.

After the capitulation, the so-called Christian, Napoleon Bonaparte, robbed all Christian churches of Malta, and not only churches. The Maltese library, for example, contained nearly 900,000 valuable antique texts and was one of the biggest collections in Europe. Napoleon loaded the books onto his ship and headed for Egypt where the ship went down. The contribution of this “Christian” into the culture of Europe is “truly invaluable.”

But it was not enough for him; he deprived knights of their motherland. One part of them went to Western Europe, another took advantage of the hospitality of the Russian Emperor Pavel I. By the way, 53 knights joined the army of Napoleon for the expedition to Egypt. As strange as it might sound, probably, for them, it was the next Crusade to the East.

The Treaty of Amiens, signed in 1802, which established the sovereign rights of the Order over the island of Malta, was never applied. Knights Hospitaller still remain without a motherland to the present day.

Why would the European Union not take the initiative of returning the Maltese Islands to the Order of Malta? And why would France not to be the initiator? It is interesting, would Maltese citizens want to live in a knights’ state again?

The Grand Harbour. Valletta, Malta.
The Grand Harbour
Lower Barrakka Gardens. Valletta, Malta.
Lower Barrakka Gardens
Siege Bell War Memorial. Valletta, Malta.
Siege Bell War Memorial

More historic travels:

Dresden: 68 Years After Bombing
Russian Castle Muromtsevo. Almost Buried Wonder
Montmajour Abbey and the Necklace of the Decapitated Queen

36 thoughts on “Why Not Return the Maltese Islands to the Order of Malta?

  1. There is no question that if the Knights had not come to Malta, there would be no magnificent churches, palaces and fortifications. Indeed without the Knights’ later claim to sovereign status, they set the stage for the independence of Malta. History may repeat itself but it only rolls forward. Voter participation in Maltese elections is the highest in the EU without any penalty imposed for non-particpation (2013 93.8%). I would expect that nearly all my compatriots would give your suggestion a wry smile but none would opt to be governed by a religius order whose head is chosen by some of the unelected members of the same order. We would miss our 5 yearly electoral carnival too much.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The reason is that the bulk of the the maltese where extremely poor and pressure to dislodge the knights seat of power over malta not only came from napoleon but from maltese citizens who were angry about being treated as second class citizens in their own country. Even the few maltese nobles that existed at the time were not allowed to join the order, a very clear statement of segregation if there ever was one.

    Besides malta is a sovreign nation. It is not up to the EU who does or does not get our territory.


    1. Many thanks for your opinion, Maria.
      In those times, all poor people were the second (and even third) class in their own country, in any country.
      I understand that nothing is able to return Malta to the Order. It was just a question.
      Thank you again.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Victor, for being such a small island Malta certainly is plentiful with fascinating sites! I was last there in 2006, and my fondest memory was meeting a local family in Marsaxlokk and being invited into their home for a traditional dinner. I long to return and explore more, then also hop over to Gozo.


  4. Malta is one of the place I would love to visit this year.. Base on what I’ve seen in your pictures, Its very convincing that I should really go there right away.. I hope I could also share with you My experience going to the beautiful places there in Malta and My obsession to taste their foods..


  5. Wow your travels are amazing, in such a beautiful part of the world. We are hoping to visit Russia next year if we can get it organised, with Moscow and St Petersburg top of our list. Keep up the great work fellow traveller, you have inspired us to visit this part of the world. I have nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award 🙂


  6. And, by the way, Malta’s history and culture is hardly limited only to what the Order left. The sacred prehistoric temples scattered over the island, just to mention one example, are of far greater importance, don’t you think?


      1. That’s because the city of Vittoriosa does not have any of the prehistoric sacred places within its walls. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Hypogeum ( http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/130 ) which dates back to 2500 BC is rather close but not within the fortified city itself. The properties in Malta inscribed on the World Heritage List are three – Valletta (built by the Knights), the Megalithic Temples of Malta (7 in all) and the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum.

        This is not to say that the Order’s legacy is not vital, but the idea of a democratic republic submitting itself to the rule of one of the three Orders which have evolved from the original, is ludicrous. Would that be the Sovereign Military Order of Malta in Rome, the Venerable Order of Saint John in London, or the Order of Saint John (Bailiwick of Brandenburg) in Berlin?

        It’s like saying Britain should be offered to Rome because of the legacy the Roman Empire left there.

        Perhaps you ought to suggest that to the Maltese and see whether they’ll be up for a referendum to give up their freedoms and succumb to the Knights rule. History has it that the Maltese were already pretty disgruntled with the Order at the end of their rule, and where initially rather pleased when Napoleon arrived. It was only the subsequent spoils of war that Napoleon insisted on taking that turned the Maltese against him. Napoleon’s siege itself consisted of not more than a few cannonades because the inhabitants (Maltese) did not offer any resistance.

        The Order’s legacy is a European one and that is why Malta fits so beautifully in the EU. But the EU is a democratic economic and political union whereas the Knights are, well… history.


  7. Why not? Because the islands do not belong to the European Union for it to hand Malta back to the Order. I’m not sure what to make of your blog entry. Why would a democratic country offer itself up to a despotic order, however cultured and noble? Perhaps I’m being terribly naive and this is all some sort of ironic entry, a joke.


  8. Thank you for that slice of history. I knew of the role of Malta in WWII but not much about the rest of the background. Lots of Maltese living in Australia, I will pass your article on to one who is a friend of mine.


  9. I’m amazed at how ornate the inside of the cathedral is. The floors with the skeletons lying under them would give me the shivers and a sense of awe all at the same time. Wonderful photos, Victor, and an interesting article on the history of the place.


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