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Just 50 miles south of Sicily, in the heart of the Mediterranean, lies one of the world’s smallest countries: Malta. But size can be deceiving, because what this archipelago lacks in landmass, it more than makes up for in history and culture.
Malta has been continuously inhabited since 5200 BC, likely by immigrants from Sicily. These original Maltese peppered the islands with distinctive megalithic temples on Gozo, and at Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. However, due to Malta’s strategic location, these ancient architects didn’t control their archipelago for long. Beginning around 1000 BC, a parade of world powers began vying for domination: The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, and Spanish all left their mark. But it wasn’t until the 16th-century that Malta truly came into its own.
After being driven from Jerusalem, Cyprus, and Rhodes, the mysterious religious and military fellowship known as the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (or simply, the Knights of St. John) took over sovereign control of Malta in 1530. Just 35 years later, the Ottomans attacked the island, in what would come to be known across Europe as the Great Siege. After repelling the would-be invaders, the Knights of St. John began a 250-year Golden Age, transforming Malta from a fishing outpost to a hub of fine arts and high society. Eventually, even the Knights’ influence waned, and Malta was overtaken by modern empires: France in 1798 and Great Britain in 1814.
In 1964, the islands finally gained independence—but the vestiges of its colonial past have proven impossible to shake. Like the Knights of St. John before them, 90% of modern-day inhabitants are Roman Catholic. And while one official language is English (thanks to the Brits), the other is Maltese—a dialect with Arabic roots and strong Italian and Sicilian influences.
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Perched on the Sciberras Peninsula between two prime Mediterranean harbors, Valletta is a beacon of Renaissance elegance. But Europe’s southern-most capital hasn’t always been a head-turner. Through the beginning of the 16th century, the only sign of life in the area was a small watchtower built by the Aragonese. And then the Knights of St. John arrived and changed everything.
Following the Great Siege, the Knights began an aggressive building project on the peninsula. Under the command of Grand Master Jean de Valette, the Knights completed 320 civic, religious, and military monuments, from libraries to churches and hospitals. By the early 1570s, the city was almost complete and was christened Valletta in honor of its founder.
Today, Valletta retains most of its original character. A stroll through its compact streets reveals one knightly treasure after another, like the celebrated St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Known primarily for its extravagant interior—which is considered one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in Europe—the cathedral is also home to Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist. And just a few blocks away, another of the Knight’s creations awaits: the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Originally created as a recreation spot exclusively for members of the Order of St. John, the park is now open to the public, and offers panoramic views of lower Valletta, its Grand Harbor, and the Three Cities across the sea.
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Rising from a lofty cliff, the ancient limestone ruins of Hagar Qim silently stand watch over the turquoise sea.
Hagar Qim (HA-jar eem), whose name means "Worshiping Stones" or "Standing Stones," holds the distinction of being one of the best-preserved prehistoric megalithic temples on the island of Malta. Its main temple was built between 3600 and 3200 BC, but other areas of the fascinating site—such as the Northern Temple—are considered to be significantly older.
Discovery and excavation of Hagar Qim began in the mid-1800s. What was revealed was a warren-like temple complex, similar to other ancient sites uncovered on Malta: the Mnajdra, Tarxien, and Ggantija temples. The sophisticated layout includes a forecourt and façade, elongated oval chambers, semi-circular recesses, and a central passage connecting the chambers, which creates a trefoil—or clover-shaped—design. Over the years, numerous statuettes of deities and intricately-decorated pottery have been unearthed here, and many architectural features have led researchers to believe the temple was made to accommodate animal sacrifices, receive burnt offerings, and house ritual oracles.
Together with other Neolithic sites in Malta and the neighboring island of Gozo, Hagar Qim was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
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On the southeastern end of the main island of Malta, Marsaxlokk is a fishing village stuck in time. A vast majority of Malta’s fish are caught here, with swordfish, tuna, and mahi-mahi being the primary catches. To retrieve these these bounties, most Marsaxlokk fishermen use luzzu. This iconic brilliantly-colored fishing boats are Phoenician in origin, dating back to their occupation of Malta in the ninth century BC. The luzzus' bows are adorned with the leering Eye of Osiris, which the Phoenicians believed would protect the boats and their captains from danger.
While Marsaxlokk supplies fish to much of Malta and beyond, the Sunday fish markets make the best of the catch available to the city's own 4,000 citizens. Originally only a place to buy fish, the market now attracts people all over Malta for a wide variety of goods such as honey, jams, wine, and produce.
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Originally founded by the Phoenicians as the town of Maleth, Mdina is a fortified city with only about 300 residents. Due to its strategic location at the top of a hill in central Malta, Mdina served as the capital of the archipelago from antiquity through the 14th century. From the 12th century onward, Malta's noble families settled here, building impressive palaces within Mdina's boundaries, which eventually earned the city its nickname: the Citta Notabile (Noble City). When the Knights of St. John arrived, the capital was moved to Burgu (later Vittoriosa) in 1540. But Mdina never lost its dignified standing.
Today, Mdina is known by another name: the Silent City. Per local laws, cars are not allowed within the city walls, giving Mdina a quiet serenity. Walking down the shaded streets and past the Norman- and Baroque-style palaces and churches, Mdina truly seems to have avoided the passage of time.
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The Three Cities
Across the bay from Valletta lies a trio of picturesque Maltese towns made of sun-bleached white stone and brimming with flowers. Known for their narrow cobblestone lanes and spectacular views of the Grand Harbour, Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua are just a short ferry ride from Valletta, but feel oceans away. Take a quick jaunt across the sparkling blue waters and discover an authentic island charm that visitors to Malta rarely see.
Throughout the Three Cities, Maltese heritage is proudly on display. The cities were renamed following their victories in the Great Siege: Birgu became Vittoriosa (“Victorious”), L’Isla was renamed Senglea (for the Grand Master of the same name), and Bormla became Cospicua (“Conspicuous,” as in courage). Despite this zest for victory, many signs and local people continue to use the cities’ pre-Siege names, showcasing the strong historical tradition in this part of Malta.
Vittoriosa and Senglea occupy thin, adjacent peninsulas that jut into the Grand harbor like two outstretched fingers. Once the capital of Malta, Vittoriosa was built by the Knights of St. John; the city’s skyline is dominated by the impressive Fort St. Angelo, a medieval citadel used during the Great Siege that today gazes watchfully across the bay. A footbridge connects Vittoriosa to Senglea, or L'Isla, a city whose stalwart fortifications rendered it unconquerable during the Siege, earning it the additional nickname of Cittá Invicta, or “Invincible City.” Just south of the Vittoriosa peninsula sits Cospicua, or Bormla. Like its sister cities, Cospicua has a long history of maritime and mercantile activities, and features colorful dockyards.
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Just a short ferry ride from Malta's main island, Gozo is the second largest island in the archipelago, and the mythical home of the nymph Calypso in Homer’s iconic Odyssey. Characterized by rolling hills, rocky shores, and incredibly old religious remains, Gozo is to the history buff a treasure-trove of wonders. Perhaps its most famous historic gem is the free-standing stone temple called Ggantija—which means “giantess” in Maltese. Built between 3600 and 2500 BC, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the second-oldest religious complex known to man, even pre-dating the Egyptian Pyramids.
Two-and-a-half-miles away, on the northern coast is the port village of Marsalforn, whose history is less extensive than that of Ggantija, but no less impressive. During their occupation of the archipelago, the Romans built a network of salt pans on the outskirts of Marsalforn. Sea water would collect in these coastal impressions, then evaporate and leave salt behind for harvest.
Also on the coast, on the opposite side of Gozo, was the Azure Window, a limestone gateway formed by the erosion of a coastal rock formation. For decades, this natural archway attracted tourists and was an iconic symbol of Malta. Sadly, centuries of erosion eventually took its toll, and the window collapsed during a storm in March 2017.
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Learn how this sovereign military order shaped the island of Malta.
The Knights of Malta
A story of crusades and constancy
Karen Hansen, from Dispatches
It may all sound far-fetched, but the true history of The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, to give their full name, is the stuff that legends are made of. And when you visit their historic fortress-city at Valletta, Malta, the legend comes alive. Rising above the Mediterranean, enclosed by limestone walls, this enclave boasts more than 320 bastions, cavaliers, gates, gardens, churches and palaces set within 136 acres. And that’s not even their headquarters. Those are in Rome, in a comparatively much smaller palazzo. How they got there is a long story. So let’s start at the beginning ...
Birth of an order: the Holy Land
The Knights of St. John date back to 1048, when a group of merchants from the Duchy of Amalfi received permission from the Caliph of Egypt to build a church, hospital, and convent in Jerusalem. This charitable center was intended to serve those making the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and was led by Gerard Thom, the spiritual founder of the order that came to be known as “Hospitallers.” The Jerusalem hospice was operated by monks who had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In accordance with their agreement with the Caliphate, they served all in need regardless of race or faith.
But things changed after the First Crusades and the European conquest of Jerusalem. The Order was charged not just with the care of the pilgrims but also with their defense, and the safeguarding of territories that Crusaders had taken from the Muslims. To accomplish this daunting task the order began recruiting Knights from noble families across Europe. Soon their ranks grew, as did their coffers. Increasingly militarized, increasingly wealthy, the Knights Hospitallers became defenders of the faith. But their defense was not enough to stop the Muslim sultan Saladin from retaking Jerusalem, and driving the Crusaders from their last strongholds in the Middle East.
The Order resettled in Cyprus, then regrouped on the island of Rhodes, where they built a formidable naval fleet that fought many decisive battles for Christendom during the Second and Third Crusades. Governed by a Grand Master answerable only to the Pope, the Knights were a force to be reckoned with. But their day of reckoning came in 1523 when the army of Suleiman the Magnificent forced their surrender, and allowed the Knights to peacefully exit from Rhodes. They remained without a territory until 1530, when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his mother, Joanna Queen of Castile, granted them the island of Malta.
Valletta most proud
When the Knights arrived in Valletta there was only a small watchtower on the Sciberra Peninsula. They demolished it and built Fort Saint Elmo in its place. But when the Ottomans came calling in 1565, the fort was overtaken. Under the leadership of Grand Master Jean de Valette, the Order (with the help of the Spanish navy) defeated the Turks.
When news of the great victory reached Europe, money and resources poured in. Pope Pius V sent his best military architect to create a new city named after Jean de Valette, called Humilissima Civitas Valletta—“The Most Humble City of Valletta.” Built according to what was then a novel layout, a rectangular grid with wide straight streets, the city’s stout defenses were contrasted by the baroque elegance of its palaces, churches and gardens. Also in contrast was the nickname bestowed upon Valletta by the European elite: Superbissima Civitas—“Most Proud City.”
The Order remained the pride of Valletta for the next 233 years, defeating Ottoman armies and fending off marauding corsairs. With their most worrisome foes under control, the Knights turned their attention back to the Order’s original aims, building hospitals and medical schools. The Sacra Infermeria or “Holy Infirmary” was a state-of-the-art hospital with more than 600 beds that provided care for anyone in need, including women, slaves and non-Catholics. The skill of the doctors was renowned and many advanced surgical techniques were successfully practiced.
The Knights, who came from all over Europe and were divided into different Langues based on their native tongues, resided with their fellow speakers in different Auberges or hostels, many of which still stand in Valletta today. But the most impressive residence is the Grand Master’s Palace, built in 1571. Today it is home to the House of Representatives of Malta and the office of the President of the Republic of Malta. Its State Apartments are filled with frescoes and priceless Gobelin tapestries. The Order’s military prowess is displayed at the Palace Armory, filled with weapons, armor and heraldry from both the Knights and their Ottoman enemies. It is no wonder that when UNESCO declared Valletta a World Heritage Site, it described it as “one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.”
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte attacked Malta and the Knights, who were bound by oath to never take up arms against fellow Christians, capitulated and left the island. Today, the Knights are headquartered in Rome, but you could say they've come full circle: In 1998, the Maltese government granted them limited extraterritorial status in the city of Birgu. The purpose? To facilitate their humanitarian efforts in Malta that began almost 500 years ago.
A story of crusades and constancy
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