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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?