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the order of st. john

The origin of the Order of the Knights of St. John dates back to about 900 years ago in Jerusalem. In those days the trade between Europe and the Middle-East was dominated by Italian merchants. The tradesmen of the Italian town of Amalfi obtained permission to erect a chapel and a hospital in Jerusalem, dedicated to St. John the Baptist and intended for the spiritual and physical needs of merchants and pilgrims. When the Crusades started, the crusaders as well could rely on the Hospitallers of St. John. In exchange the Hospitallers received newly conquered territories, which had to be defended. Thus the military task of the Order of St. John developed. In 1113 the Order was recognized by the Pope and it became an official military monastic order.

Cross of the Knights of St. John on a red field Grandmaster De L-Isle Adam receives the city keys of Mdina Cross of the Knights of St. John on a black field

The Order of St. John was driven away by the Arabs, and later on by the Turks, and had to retreat in the direction of Europe. In 1187 they settled in Acre, in 1291 they were driven to Cyprus and from there to Rhodes in 1306. Also Rhodes fell into the hands of the Turks in 1522. Eight years later Charles V offered them Malta, Gozo and Tripoli, for the symbolic price of one falcon a year. In the meantime the Order had developed into a noble monastic order, that is why it is often referred to as the Order of the Knights of St. John.

the great siege

The old city of Mdina was the capital of Malta until the arrival of the Knights. Mdina is situated inland and was not a suitable capital for the Knights, since they possessed a fleet. For that reason they settled in the small town of Birgu, at one of the natural harbours of Malta, the Grand Harbour. Already after several years it became too small and in 1554 the Knights built the city of Senglea, opposite Birgu at the same bay. Confrontations with the Turks were unevitable. In 1551 Tripoli fell into Turkish hands and Gozo was heavily ransacked. This was followed by a severe siege of Birgu and Senglea in 1565, recorded in history as the Great Siege . Malta was within an ace of being occupied by the Turks, but on the 8th of September they withdrew. The fact that the Knights withstood the Great Siege gave them new courage. Already the year after they started building a new fortified city, the city of Valletta, named after the Grandmaster of those days, Jean Parisot de la Valette, the leader of the Order.

Grand Harbour and Fort St. Angelo Jean Parisot de la Valette, founder of the city of Valletta Gardjola - sentry box in Senglea


The city of Valletta was built as a military, well defendable city, strategically situated on a peninsula between the Grand Harbour and the Marsamxett Harbour. The streets of the city were constructed along an almost perfectly rectangular pattern, in those days a novelty in Europe. The city's architect was the Italian Francesco Laparelli, and he was assisted by the Maltese architect Gerolimo Cassar. In the 17th and 18th century many buildings were converted into the baroque style.

The fortifications of Valletta and Marsamxett Harbour Palazzo Ferreria in Valletta

The Knight's Order was divided into eight different groups, the so called langues , after the regions in Europe from where the Knights originated. The French Knights had three langues (France, Provence and Auvergne) and the Spanish and Portugese Knights had two (Castile and Aragon). There was an Italian langue, a German one and an Anglo-Bavarian. The langues each had their own auberge , where the Knights used to live and assemble, although some Knights had their own private residence. Every langue had its own chapel and in St. John's, the conventual church of the Order (nowadays St. John's Co-Cathedral) every langue had another side-chapel.
Many buildings of the Knights still exist in Valletta, amongst others the magnificent Palace of the Grandmaster, from where the Order was administered and where the foreign delegations were received. The splendour of these buildings is remarkable and is almost irreconcilable with the fact that the Knights - being monks - had made the vow of poverty. That might have been the main reason why the Knights lost their popularity amongst the Maltese population in the course of the 18th century. When in 1798 Napoleon's fleet appeared off the harbour of Valletta, initially the Maltese regarded the French as their liberators. Also because a large contingent of the Knights was of French origin and did not intend to fight against their compatriots, Napoleon's troops could capture Malta without a single blow.

 hints for visitors

Fortifications from the era of the Knights can be seen almost everywhere in Malta. Valletta has the most extensive, but you can also get a good impression of city defence in the 16th century in the city of Birgu, one of the Three Cities. These three cities are Birgu (or Vittoriosa), L-Isla (or Senglea) and Bormla (or Cospicua), together also called Cottonera. This area has hardly been discovered by tourists.
In Birgu, apart from the fortifications, you can also visit the Inquisitor's Palace and Fort St. Angelo.
In Senglea it is worthwhile to go to the tip of the peninsula, Senglea Point, to see the Gardjola (sentry box). From there you have a splendid view over the Grand Harbour and the fortifications of Valletta and its suburb Floriana.

Also from Valletta you will enjoy a breathtaking view over the Grand Harbour at many places, but the best point is Upper Baracca Gardens.
In the Grandmaster's Palace you can visit the the Armoury with an extensive collection of armours and weapons and the State Rooms, where you can admire a beautiful set of gobelins , donated to the Order by the Spanish Grandmaster Ramon Perellos.
Valletta has 24 churches and chapels. St. John's Co-Cathedral, the conventual church of the Knights, is not to be missed. The marble tomb slabs, the paintings of Mattia Preti and the rich interior make this church to one of the finest in Europe. In the museum at the church you can admire the most famous painting of Malta, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, by the Italian painter Caravaggio. Also St. Paul's Shipwreck Church is worth a visit.
Art can be seen in the National Museum of Fine Art. There is a rich collection of paintings from the times of the Knights, but also works of older and younger date.
There are several audio-visual shows in Valletta, of which the Malta Experience is the oldest and the most well-known. The show gives you a good impression of Malta's history and is located in the old hospital of the Knights of St. John, the Sacra Infermeria.

Selmun Palace at Mellieha from the times of the Knights 'The allegory of the city of Antwerp' by Theodore van Tulden - the largest canvas of the Museum of Fine Arts

Also outside Valletta and the Three Citites you can find plenty of traces of the Knights. For example, in the village of Attard is San Anton Palace, nowadays the residence of the President of Malta. The Palace itself cannot be visited, but San Anton Gardens are open to the public.

The Citadel of Victoria in Gozo is also a good example of a fortified city. The old city within the walls is in ruins since the earthquake of 1693, but the Cathedral and its surrounding buildings have been rebuilt.

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