Notes on...

Malta's military marvels

I didn't exactly mean to go there. But if you like your history with a bit of war, there's nowhere more fascinating

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

Fate occasionally leads travellers to places they had never planned to visit. Into this category, for me, fell Malta. I went to Valletta to see my sister, who was at a nursing conference. I wasn’t expecting a wild party; the island has a reputation for being fairly dry compared with its Mediterranean sisters. Yet for a certain type of traveller, with sturdy shoes and an interest in military history, Malta is a matchless trove. I plotted my campaign around the island’s key martial landmarks carefully. Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted. My sister, inexplicably, made her excuses.

Valletta is still dominated by reminders of the Knights Hospitaller, the crusading order that relocated there after being booted out of the Holy Land by the Ottoman Turks. The Knights made modern Valletta, but they had a lot to work with; the harbour is one of the world’s great natural fortifiable seaports, hilly, rugged and with numerous inlets. Alongside the crusader forts, I discovered baroque churches, paintings by Caravaggio and the former Hospitaller and Royal Navy hospitals. Malta was a Royal Navy base for many years, and plenty of naval families have fond memories of the island, including, apparently, the Queen and Prince Philip.


A short bus trip inland, and I arrived at the fortified city of Mdina, with a Carmelite monastery open to the public. When I asked the girl at the ticket office why only a few monks remain, she replied: ‘Too boring.’ For her, perhaps. Tucked discreetly into the walls of Mdina is the Xara Hotel, a favourite of the Pitt/Jolies. Is Brad a fellow military history enthusiast? He spent part of his honeymoon at the Bovington Tank Museum, after all.

The Maltese archipelago’s strategic location in the Mediterranean has made it highly desirable as a maritime base, and many a battle has been fought over the island. Two stand out. The first is the Great Siege of 1565, when Jean de Valette and several thousand Hospitaller knights held out for over four months against thousands of Turks. The forts of St Angelo and St Elmo provide excellent vantage points from which to imagine this conflict. During the second world war, Malta was subjected to an even more destructive siege by German and Italian bombers. Buried under Valletta’s Upper Barracca gardens is the recently opened Lascaris War Rooms, the command centre used by the British to control RAF, army and navy operations using Enigma information received from Bletchley Park. Malta just kept giving.

The crusaders died off, of course, so what happened to the Knights of Malta? They survive, in spirit anyway, in a less militaristic form, with modern objectives supporting medical aid and charity. The inheritors of the Knights Hospitaller tradition are known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a strange supra-national body with headquarters in Rome and an outpost in Valletta’s Fort St Angelo. There are all sorts of membership levels, but it’s hardly egalitarian: participation is by ‘invitation only’ and ‘solicitations are not entertained’. If you are invited, robes and regalia await, so plenty of opportunities for dressing up. I have yet to be asked. I won’t hold this against Malta; the battle-scarred island brought me much unexpected joy.

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  • Malta’s resistance against Islamic Turks and Saracens is an example over sacrifice and bravery that Europeans MUST follow in the next decade if they want to remain a majority in their ancestral lands…
    Wake up Europe

  • Frank

    The Military Order of Malta is a fairly strange outfit – think Freemasons with velvet robes – very odd people turn out to be members!

    • Jean de Valette

      Nonsense. It is now an international humanitarian outfit which does an enormous amount of unsung good. For example, few realise that they do a lot of work caring for Huntington’s sufferers when few others will (owing to the expense and inevitable outcome, I suppose).
      By and large a tremendous force for good and should be recognised as such.

      • Frank

        Jean, thank you for this extra information. I am sure that the Freemasons also do lots of very good thing, they are nevertheless a fairly strange outfit, as is the Military Order of Malta.

        • Jean de Valette

          I know nothing about Freemasons. I can only say that the KOM’s main raison d’être now is to do a great deal of laudable charity work and that they deserve better than to be lumped in with conspiracy theorist bugaboos simply because they do not seek plaudits for those good works.

          • Frank

            Jean, the freemasons are not “conspiracy bugaboos”, but like the KOM they indulge in slightly bizarre rituals / clothing / titles. At the end of the day, it suits some and worries others. Chacun a son gout.

  • cmason

    Islamic now taking over the World by stealth! Agree St JohnMalta, try traveling to East London and most British Cities, now resemble the back streets of Islamabad and Mogadishu, frightening!!

  • Andrew Vella Montague

    For those interested: A bit of history turned into art. Hope you enjoy 🙂 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTSY2qbzWEI&list=UUTBfSd6g-H1F9-R6ma1_Iyw

    • Jean de Valette

      Absolutely fantastic. Thank you for posting this.

      • Andrew Vella Montague

        You’re very welcome 🙂

  • Kevin

    The Knights were ejected from Rhodes by the Turks and the Knights of St. John turned into the St. John’s ambulance brigade – complete with the 8 pointed star representing the 8 nationalities involved in the order. One part of Victoriosa (behind Fort St Angelo – the British Naval HQ) is called ‘Post of England’ as it was defended by an English knight. St. Elmo is where the movie ‘Midnight Express’ was filmed. Legend has it that the area that the ‘prison’ was in (as filmed from above) was filled with Turkish dead during the siege.

    • A.Lex

      The Knights were ejected from Malta by the French in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte

      • Joe Cini

        And soon after, the British turfed them out and stayed on for two centuries.

  • Chris Morriss

    I’ve only been once, on a business trip about 6 years ago. It is a remarkably interesting island with beautiful architecture and history wherever you turn. The old capital of Mdina (pronounced Emdina, not Medina!) is stunning. The drawback to the island is that I have never seen traffic problems that bad anywhere else. The whole south of the island from Valletta to the airport and beyond was at the time, a traffic jam for about 6 hours a day and I guess it’s no better now. It would be a lovely island to visit as a tourist for 3 or 4 days, but you’d be tearing your hair out if it was much longer.

    • Joe Cini

      Of course there’s bound to be traffic snarls with more people per square km than most anywhere else on earth! And yet, the EU, in their eternal wisdom, foist upon us the obligation to settle all who regularly land on our shores unannounced.

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