S-a-mbracat în zale lucii cavalerii de la Malta,
Papa cu-a lui trei coroane, puse una peste alta,
Fulgerele adunat-au contra fulgerului care
În turbarea-i furtunoasa a cuprins pamânt si mare.

The Maltese Knights dressed themselves in shining armors …

Such retells Mihai Eminescu, the Romanian national poet an episode in the heroic resistance of the Romanian prince Mircea (the Elder) against the Turkish expansion, and this verses learned by heart by any Romanian pupil are stuck in the common memory. Yet, mentioning the Malta Knights or the Knights of St. John in a poem about a battle that happened in 1395 is just a poetical license. Actually it’s only more than one century later, after 1531 that the knights arrive in Malta!

historical fresco in the State Rooms - the Siege of Malta

The Knights Hospitaller is one of the religious orders founded in Jerusalem during the period of the Crusades, more exactly in 1023, with the principal goal of taking care of the pilgrims in the Holy Land. It became a military order (as the Templar or the Teutonic knights) in the centuries to come. With the defeat of the Crusaders the St. John Knights had to abandon the Holy Land and settled in Rhodes but two centuries later that island fell under the Turks, so by 1531 there was no other new home for them in an Europe caught in the conflicts of the Reformation, but to resettle them in Malta. The Turks came after them, but the famous siege in 1565 put a stop to the Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean, in a military event event that marked and remained as milestone in the history of the island.

Grand Master de la Valette

The knights now completely ruled over the island for more than two centuries. They built the fortified city of Valletta with its historical buildings, impressive churches and picturesque streets. They managed the economy and ruled the island based upon the support of the pope and of the Spanish kings, until Europe and the church itself ran into social crisis in the 18th century culminating with the French Revolution and the ascension of Napoleon.  When the French army occupied the island in 1798 they encountered almost no resistance. Part of the knights found refuge in Russia electing for a short time the Czar as Grand Master, the rest found refuge in Rome where the order is headquartered until today, focusing on welfare and hospital activities. Their presence in Malta nowadays is just symbolic.

Grand Master's Palace

A good place to learn about the history of the knights and the relation with Malta is the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta. It is located on the main street of Valletta, not an imposing building seen from the exterior, but with quite an interesting interior. It was one of the first palaces built in the city in the year 1571 by the Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette. The building houses today the office of the President and the House of Representatives of Malta in the State Apartments, and the Palace Armoury in the separate wing. The very impressive corridors are decorated with frescoes and portraits of the Grand Masters, as well as with elaborated ceilings with the symbols of Malta as they evolved in history.

ceiling of the State Rooms

office of the President

interior court of the Grand Master's Palace

The Armoury hosts an impressive collection of weapons and military equipment from the period of the knights. There are some impressive pieces acquired by the knights from the best manufactures of the Western Europe of the period, or captured from the battles with the Ottoman archenemies. The gathering of metallic pieces of armoury or helmets sometimes give the impression of the remains of an ancient field of battle cast in metal or maybe testimony to the visit of an alien race in these places. This is maybe what the knight of St. John were in their passing on the island.

Palace Armoury

helmet

'alien' helmets