Knights of Malta

What happened to the Knights of the Order of St. John the Baptist after they were forced to leave Jerusalem.

Ancient crusader hospital rediscovered by the IAA 370 (photo credit: Yoli Shwartz/Courtesy of IAA)
Ancient crusader hospital rediscovered by the IAA 370
(photo credit: Yoli Shwartz/Courtesy of IAA)
With the recent finding of the original hospital of the Knights of St. John in the Old City of Jerusalem, it may be interesting to establish what happened to the order after it was forced to leave Jerusalem.
Originally, the Knights of the Order of St. John the Baptist, later the Hospitallers, had come to Jerusalem with the Crusaders in 1099 and formed a kind of medical corps to the infantry. They were monks that turned to soldiers and then practiced medicine to help their wounded comrades and other friendly inhabitants who needed clinical attention.
They were an honorable order that kept to their separate national origins, like the French and the Italians, governed by a grand master of absolute power and restricting entry to young nobles of unblemished Catholic parentage. When necessary, the knights functioned as an army of chivalrous officers.
They were originally quartered in Jerusalem’s Aksa Mosque, after the defeat of the Muslims, stabling their horses in the nearby underground chambers later called Solomon’s Stables. With the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187, the Hospitallers retreated to their hospital quarters in the Muristan or Christian quarter of the Old City (Muristan being the Persian name for hospital), but were soon expelled again by the Muslims in 1244 and escaped to refuge in the islands of Cyprus and then Rhodes.
There they stayed for over 200 years and were busy, as an army, keeping the Turks out of Western Europe. Eventually, the Turks, now the predominant Muslim power, decided to rid themselves of this impediment, and Sultan Suleiman I sent a force of 400 ships carrying an army of 200,000 troops against Rhodes in 1522. The Knights of St. John, with only 7,000 defenders, fought to such good effect that it took the Turks a siege of six months to defeat them and, in recognition of their gallant stand, they were allowed safe passage to leave with their ships and all their men.
They were offered the island of Malta as safe refuge by Charles V of France, but the king offered unacceptable conditions; the commission of knights that went to “spy out the land” reported back with unfavorable views of the island – as being infertile, without trees, lacking in water and difficult to defend. Nevertheless, pope Clement VIII, who had some jurisdiction over the Order of St. John, supported the move, and as there was little alternative, the grand master finally accepted the offer in 1530. The knights were then given Malta in perpetuity for an annual rent of one falcon. In exchange, France and the other European powers relied on the Hospitallers to continue to keep the Turks out of Western Europe, by controlling the Mediterranean Sea routes from Malta.
However, Malta was not free of the Turkish threat, and the first act of the Hospitallers was to form themselves into an effective fighting force and build defenses all around the island. Their original major site was Il-Birgu, one of several promontories projecting into the Grand Harbor off the Mediterranean. It was a desolate area, but the Hospitallers soon transformed it, making a great citadel out of the small, existing Fort St. Angelo on the tip of the promontory, and constructing numerous auberges, or palaces, for the different nationalities of the order – including the French, Spanish, Italians and English.
They also built the gloomy but imposing Palace of the Grand Inquisitor at the end of the 16th century, which had nothing to do with inquiring into the lives of Jews converted by force to Christianity. Rather, it was set up to test the knights, whom the grand master suspected of having come under the influence of the Reformation, and having thus been led into unholy doubts of scripture. It still stands in all its overpowering severity and, ironically, it is today the local tourist information center – though the torture chambers, retaining their original aspect, luckily remain untouched and unused.
The grand Citadel of St. Angelo has stood mute and powerful for nearly 500 years and has earned the accolade of being a UNESCO Heritage Site. It is undergoing renovation while still being inhabited by one of the present-day Knights of Malta, happily in residence in this vast fortress. The town sticks to its original name of Il-Birgu, while later governments, perhaps under the influence of the British occupiers, had changed the name to Vittoriosa. It lies across the Grand Harbor from today’s capital, Valletta, where the Hospitallers had commissioned another headland fortress, completed in the year 1553, to protect that of Vittoriosa from crossfire. They also built a hospital in the town and supplemented it with a medical library and a school of anatomy and surgery, where the bodies of deceased knights were laid out for research and teaching purposes.
Further inland, the order occupied the medieval town of Mdina and made it its administrative capital, as it lay conveniently in the center of the island. The town retains its original name from the Arabs, who were earlier inhabitants of the island and had given the name of Rabat to several towns, including the future site of Valletta. The local population, with its earlier Arabic background, rather resented the Christian Hospitallers but were grateful for their protection when the Turks finally struck again.
It was in 1565 that the Turks came with a fleet of 140 ships carrying nearly 40,000 troops, which landed near Valletta; they were joined soon after by another 40 ships and a further 3,000 men. The Turks started a comprehensive siege of the Hospitaller forts, overcame some of them and massacred hundreds of men, but the order held firm and the Turks turned their attention to the smaller island of Gozo, which they overwhelmed. The defenders in the citadel of its capital, also a Hospitaller construction, managed to escape by abseiling down its mighty walls to a tunnel hidden in the foundations.
The battle of the Muslim Turks vs the Maltese Catholics roused anxiety throughout Europe and even the Protestants, including Queen Elizabeth I of England, ordered prayers to be read in all the churches for the delivery of Malta from the infidels.
The Turkish siege was finally lifted after four months, to wild rejoicing in the capitals of Europe and to consternation in Constantinople – but the Hospitaller forts and citadels of Malta lay in ruins. It was not a new phenomenon on the island, which is littered with ruins, though from a much earlier period. Malta has a long history and the ruins go back to the Neolithic period and earlier.
Valletta is the capital and near it lie the pagan temples of Tarxien, dating to about 2200 BCE. There are two main temples, each consisting of two or three double apses, in a shape not seen anywhere outside Malta. The buildings are of massive stones and, as elsewhere, it is still not possible to say how those early men raised such monoliths of perhaps 20 or 30 tons.
We have difficulty in understanding how Herod’s men lifted similar monsters for the renewed Second Temple 2,000 years later, so how did the Maltese do it? They were lifting slabs of globigerina, soft, honey-colored limestone, to 2.5 meters and more, to form massive entry lintels, and not just once or twice. On the site, explorers have found stone spheres, like small cannonballs, and the theory is that they were used as rollers to move the monoliths along smooth paths. But as for lifting them – that is still a mystery.
What the Hospitallers made of this ancient and pagan past is not recorded, but they took it all in stride, colonizing the island, rebuilding its defenses and settling down to a life of Christian virtue and good deeds. In the process, they probably gave up their vows of chastity, turning the island into a center of Catholic worship with a cathedral in every village, and giving birth to virile youngsters who could aspire to become the future Knights of Malta.
The writer is a senior fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.