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
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
monastic order, that is why it is often referred to as the Order of the
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
. 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.
The city of Valletta was built as a military, well defendable city,
strategically situated on a peninsula between the Grand Harbour and the
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
converted into the baroque style.
The Knight's Order was divided into eight different groups, the so called
, after the regions in Europe from where the Knights originated. The French
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
, 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
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
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
Cospicua), together also called Cottonera. This area has hardly been discovered
apart from the fortifications, you can also visit the
Fort St. Angelo.
it is worthwhile to go to the tip of the peninsula, Senglea Point, to see the
(sentry box). From there you have a splendid view over the Grand
Harbour and the fortifications of Valletta and its suburb Floriana.
you will enjoy a breathtaking view over the Grand Harbour at many places, but
the best point is
Upper Baracca Gardens.
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
, donated to the Order by the Spanish Grandmaster Ramon Perellos.
Valletta has 24 churches and
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
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
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.
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
San Anton Gardens
are open to the public.
The Citadel of
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.