Maltese Heritage: The Trail of The Knights of St. John
A Brief History of the Knights Hospitalliers
During the early 11th Century, the Order of the Knights Hospital of Saint John in Jerusalem was founded. They were a chivalrous order that originally began as a hospital to treat and care for Christian pilgrims who visited the Holy Land.
Eventually, in 1099, Jerusalem was conquered by the Christians and the Hospitallers became a military, religious order under the Pope. They were to defend and care for The Holy Land. This position was short – lived as the Islamic forces would expel the knights from Jerusalem.
The Order would then retreat to Rhoades from where they attempted to reclaim the Holy Land. They would remain sovereign over Rhoades, defending multiple sieges and becoming skilled ship builders and soldiers. Unfortunately, they would still be conquered and removed by Islamic forces yet again though. Without a home the Knights would move around Europe for around 7 years, until King Charles V of Spain offered the Order permanent residence on Malta, Gozo and the North African Port of Tripoli.
Offered as a fiefdom in exchange for the annual fee of one Maltese Falcon. These pieces of land would still belong to the Kingdom of Sicily, but the Knights would be free to do as the wished in Malta. Initially the Order declined this offer as Malta had very few fresh water sources and would not be easy to defend. With very few options however, the Knights would eventually have no choice.
The 3 Cities
First settling in the town of Birgu. The biggest draw for the Order was the deep harbours which could accommodate their large navy of ships. They didn’t settle in the old capital because of the how far away it would be from the harbours and their navy.
Birgu was made the new capital city and heavily fortified, with the ancient castle of Castrum Maris being rebuilt as Fort St. Angelo. The previously abandoned fort had large bastions erected for defensive purposes. St. Anne’s chapel was also refurbished for the knights who maned the new fortress. Many other defensive and residential buildings were also constructed. The Order continued to attack Muslim ships in the Mediterranean with a view to reclaim the Holy Land still in their minds. These attacks drew the attention of the Ottomans who were now ruling the Muslim forces. This led to an attack on fort Saint Angelo and then a complete enslavement of the population of Gozo.
After this the Order had to build several forts to defend the Grand Harbour surrounding Birgu. Fort Saint Elmo was also built on the opposite peninsula across the Grand harbour to defend both sides of the entrance. The star shaped monument on Sciberras Peninsula houses the National War Museum today which holds artifacts from WW1 and WW2.
Fort Saint Michael were erected as well as a new city named Senglea. Here you can find the Gardjola Gardens perched right on top of the bastions of the fortress. There is a guard tower built on the edge of the gardens overlooking the Grand harbour, to keep watch for any invaders. Today it can be used to view the spectacular panoramic view.
Birgu and Senglea make up 2 of what is today known as the 3 cities of Cottenera.
The Great Siege
In 1565, the Suleiman of the Ottoman empire sent an invasion force of around 40,000 men to invade Malta and remove the Knights once again.
It must be said Malta is in a very strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea. Making it a beautiful holiday get away today with the temperate weather and the heavenly beaches.
During the 16th century however, this made Malta a perfect target for the Ottomans to invade and use as a base to invade Europe. The Knights with barely 2,400 soldiers would eventually withstand the siege and prevent the Ottomans from invading.
An incredible achievement that would become one of the most celebrated Victories in all of 16th century Europe. The famous philosopher Voltaire even said “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta”.
During the Siege the Grandmaster of the Order, Jean Parisot de La Vallette had to eventually instruct his forces to give up the Forts they had erected.
Although this was a move that did end in victory, it showed the lack of strength of their fortifications. This meant a new city would be need to be built. Across the Grand Harbour on Mount Sciberras. Named in honour of the grandmaster who won the great siege, Valletta.
Today’s modern capital was built to house most of the Order with several buildings built to accommodate their ranks. Designed by papal architect Francisco Laparelli on the Hippodamian, Gridiron plan. This is most irregular in Malta because most the architecture from all eras doesn’t follow a system nearly as uniform. Cities in Malta had been developed over many centuries, having winding streets as well as collachio’s, areas reserved for important buildings. Mdina was Malta’s first capital and is a great example of this style of building. Most of the architecture in
Valletta is in the form of the Knights favoured Spanish – Baroque style. As opposed to the traditional collachio’s the buildings are laced throughout the city regardless of importance.
Buildings which can be seen are the Auberge de Castille, St. John’s Co Cathedral, The Barrakka Gardens, The National Library, and the Grandmasters Palace.
Although well-fortified Valletta would never see combat under the Knights but nevertheless the architecture is definitely, culturally significant and houses much history even after the Knights. The French and the British both occupied the city, with many buildings having true, administrative purposes today.
The city is especially interesting for showcasing newer architecture alongside historical buildings.
Buildings such as the New Parliament Building, the New City Gate and the new Pjazza Teatre Rjal, have been built recently.
Clearly the history around these cities is vast and complex so having a professional guide to walk you through each monument or building would greatly enhance your experience. You can see these cities and walk in the very footsteps of the knights and the Turks on our walking tours; Valletta – The Capital, Valletta – Birgu – Senglea, Valletta – Mdina, and Birgu – Marsaxlokk – Mdina.
Our tours come with a professional local guide to take you through the buildings and monuments as well as give insight into the history that surrounds them.
Mdina - The First City
One of the oldest settlements in all of the islands, being founded in the 8th Century BC. Mdina was founded as “Maleth” by the ancient Phoenician settlers. Mdina’s position was naturally defensible, situated on a large elevated plateau. The island itself is in a spot perfect to trade across Europe and Africa which is why so many peoples have wanted to rule it.
In 218 BC Mdina was invaded by the Roman Republic and renamed “Melite”. The city at this time was far larger extending into the town known as Rabat today. According to interpretations of the bible, this is the time when Paul the Apostle was shipwrecked in Malta. He would be greeted by the Roman governor of Mdina. The spot in which this is said to have occurred is the location for St. Paul’s Cathedral. This baroque style Cathedral can be visited today as can most of the now “Silent City”.
Mdina then shrunk to the size it remains at today when Aghlabids invaded Malta after a lengthy siege. The inhabitants were massacred and churches looted. The marble from these churches was used to build the castle of Sousse in Tunisia.
The Arabs didn’t inhabit Mdina, leaving it deserted until the early 11th Century. A Muslim community settled here during this time and founded a new city name Medina. This when the bastion defences we see today were first constructed. There are in fact many instances where you can see the Arab influence on the buildings, persevered even until today.
A short siege in 1091 then led to the city’s surrender to Roger I of Sicily. This made Malta a part of the Kingdom of Sicily, which was then a collection of feudal counties ruled by Lords. Roger I was later succeeded by Charles V who was the King of Spain, King of Aragon and the Holy Roman Emperor at the time.
In 1530 the Knights of St John were given Malta by King Charles V of Spain. The knights had an extensive navy and required deep harbours to hold their ships. Mdina has no harbours and is landlocked, this meant that the title of capital city was now given to Birgu. The city does have some influences from the knights in the form of bastions and other buildings in Spanish – baroque style.
On June 10th 1798, the French empire captured Mdina. Met by very little resistance from the knights at all. The French stationed a garrison in Mdina but due to their looting of religious buildings and unfavourable rule, the Maltese locals attacked the garrison killing 65 men. This would start a 2-year blockade within the city, ending in 1800 with Malta becoming a British Protectorate.
Today Mdina is unsurprisingly a major tourist attraction, having around 750,000 visitors a year. No cars are allowed in the city’s narrow winding roads, which is why it is known as the “Silent City”. Due to all the different influences Mdina shows a peculiar mix of Norman and Baroque architecture, with several palaces (most now private homes) undergoing extensive successful restorations over recent years, making the city as glorious as ever.
Among other attractions, you can see the Vilhena gate and St. Paul’s Cathedral. It can be confusing and complicated to view Mdina with so much to see in the ancient city. Which is why we have our sightseeing tours. Having a professional local guide to explain the history and show you the best and most important monuments and buildings would make the experience so much more worth your while. On our guided walking tours; Valletta – Mdina and Birgu – Marsaxlokk – Mdina.