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Beneath Malta’s Beauty, a Tangled History

6th December, 2013
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Nicholas de Piro doesn’t look like a warrior monk. As the bespectacled grandfather padded around his 16th-century palazzo, pointing out curiosities like a gilded sedan chair and silver medical tools, he appeared more likely to offer me a cup of tea than slay anyone in the name of Christ. And yet that is the sort of thing Mr. de Piro’s order, the Knights of Malta (officially the Sovereign Hospitaller Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta), were known for in their heyday.

Drawn from the most noble families of Europe, they left their homelands, took vows of chastity and obedience and dedicated themselves to fighting infidels. The order no longer wages war, focusing instead on caring for the sick and poor. Until I arrived at Mr. de Piro’s doorstep on the Mediterranean island-nation of Malta, though, I’d had no idea that the Knights of Malta still existed.

The history of Malta — actually an archipelago that includes three inhabited islands, just 50 miles south of Sicily — is peppered with violence and disorder. Today, though, it is hard to find a corner of the country that doesn’t feel peaceful and safe. Its crystal-clear, intensely blue waters make for some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in Europe, while its beaches, rocky coves, arid hills and warm weather have long attracted northern neighbors in search of cheap sunshine. And yet not even 2 percent of visitors come from the United States. If you have seen it recently, it was probably in its role as a Hollywood stand-in for places like Athens (“Munich”) and Jerusalem (“World War Z”).

But underneath that tranquil, movie-set-friendly surface lies an astoundingly rich past, even for a region crisscrossed over time by myriad cultures. Settlement on Malta dates back to prehistory; it has been ruled over the centuries by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs, among others. After briefly being conquered by Napoleon around the turn of the 19th century, it spent decades under British rule before achieving independence in 1964.

But the main draw for me was the pivotal epoch of the Knights. The Hospitaller Knights of St. John, founded during the Crusades, settled in Malta in 1530 and stayed until 1798, during which time they left an indelible mark. “It was the greatest thing that ever happened to us,” Mr. de Piro said of the Knights’ rule, during which the cosmopolitan soldier-aristocrats lured artists and craftsmen to their shores and built castles, cathedrals, and the city of Valletta, still the nation’s bustling capital.

Though it covers less than half a square mile, Unesco calls Valletta “one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.” And despite plenty of visitors, it doesn’t have that over-touristed, museum like feel that afflicts some historic quarters. During rush hour, Maltese on their way to and from work stream across the 16th-century bridge that leads from the surrounding neighborhoods into the city. At night they spill out of the Italian-Baroque Manoel Theater, which shows opera and classical concerts, to down quick espressos during intermission. On Friday evenings during the warmer months, the Bridge Bar puts out cushions on the 450-year-old stone steps outside its doors, and a throng gathers to listen to live jazz by candlelight.

My interest in the era began at the age of 10, when a Spanish teacher gave me “El Guerrero del Antifaz” (“The Masked Warrior”), a swashbuckling and olitically incorrect Christians-versus-Moors-themed comic book. It left me with a lingering interest in the fault lines between Christianity and Islam that, as an adult, would take me on trips across the region, from Spain to Syria. But even amid the endlessly complex, warring and trading history of the Mediterranean, Malta, right in the middle, stands out. In 1565 it was the site of an epic clash of civilizations when the Knights faced off against the superpower of the day, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s Ottoman Empire. The gory and hard-fought Great Siege of Malta was the climax of a fight between cross and crescent for control of the region. One of the island’s crucial strongholds, Fort St. Angelo, sat directly across the Grand Harbour from the patio of my hotel, just about within canon range.

Paradoxically, all that conflict left Malta a harmonious mash-up of civilizations, perhaps best reflected in its own sui generis language, rooted in both Arabic and Italian.

“In Maltese, the word for ‘thank you’ comes from Italian, the word for ‘please’ comes from Arabic, and the word for ‘hello’ is ‘hello,’ ” Ray Fabri, the chairman of the National Council for the Maltese Language, had told me over a plate of Roman-quality spaghetti vongole at the Valletta restaurant D’Office. Malta was largely Arab and Muslim between 870 and 1249, a period that left its imprint on the language but was otherwise mostly erased; following conquests by the Normans and the Aragonese, the country was thoroughly Christian by the time Emperor Charles V of Spain gave it to the Knights. Propelling the cultural complexities, the Knights themselves were a multicultural force, recruited from all over Europe. As Mr. de Piro put it, “you only have to look at the telephone directory. We’re a great muddle and mix.”

When I stepped out of Mr. de Piro’s palazzo, which is called Casa Rocca Piccola and is open to the public as a historic home, it was immediately evident that I was in the city the Knights made. The sensible grid system that their architect, Francesco Laparelli (a former assistant to Michelangelo) laid out over a peninsula is very much intact, and makes it nearly impossible to get lost. Baroque facades, many with enclosed wooden balconies, line the roads, with stone steps serving as pedestrian thoroughfares over steeper terrain. Star-shaped Fort St. Elmo, which fell to the Turks early in the Great Siege, still hulks at one end. Newer buildings are nearly always built of the same gray yellow-pink local limestone as the rest of the city, giving an elegant consistency to the whole metropolis. Even the not-yet-complete project that the superstar architect Renzo Piano has designed for the entrance to the city — which includes a new parliament building, a restored opera house and a gate reminiscent of a Mesopotamian ziggurat — is built of two types of Maltese limestone. As I walked around the city after dark, the stone glowed in splashes of light from bars and restaurants.

I had arranged to meet a Maltese friend of a friend of a friend named Giovanni Buttigieg, but a few days before our appointment I ran into him by happenstance — perhaps not all that surprising in a nation of less than half a million. We were at the annual Festival of Mediterranean Literature, held outside the Valletta city walls at the Msida Bastion Historic Garden, a 19th-century Protestant cemetery flanked by Knights-era fortifications. A winesipping crowd of the country’s cultural elite — writers, artists, professors — filled the grassy terrace. In the balmy night air in front of a rapt audience, Albert Gatt, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of Malta, read the words of Khaled Khalifa, a Syrian novelist who was invited but unable to leave his warring country.

“We have a tradition here of trying to be a bridge between Europe and the Arab world,” Mr. Buttigieg told me a few nights later. “Malta considers it part of its mission.” We were dining on Strait Street, a narrow passageway that, until the British Navy left Malta for good in 1979, was noted for its brothels, flophouses and brawling sailors. (Like many places in Malta the street goes by various names; locally it’s most often called by its Italian moniker, Strada Stretta, though in Maltese it goes by Triq id-Dejqa.) Some of the old signs remain, now unlit but still advertising long-defunct dance halls and bars. One newer bar, Tico Tico, kept its predecessor’s name and signage, but the young patrons who now lounge on its pink outdoor armchairs weren’t yet born when the British left. At the restaurant Palazzo Preca, the server brought us an appetizer called bigilla. Mr. Buttigieg explained that the hummus-like spread was made of Djerba beans, which are named for a Tunisian island. “The biggest influence on who we are is our geography, not our colonizers,” said Mr. Buttigieg, who works in the European Commission-League of Arab States Liaison Office. “Being small, being an island, and being on the periphery of both Europe and Africa.”

Nothing gives a better sense of how geography has affected history here than a water taxi ride across the Grand Harbour. It didn’t take military expertise to see why the two-mile-long inlet with deeply indented shores has made a dream home for numerous naval powers. Today its waters are traversed by everything from brightly painted wooden rowboats called dghajsa, which have curved prows that recall their Phoenician forebears, to “disco-on-the-sea boats” (so christened by one of my hotel’s wizened caretakers), which on weekend nights are rented out for parties. From my deck at the British Hotel, with its spectacular view of the harbor, I had heard the thump-a-thump of dance music floating across the water to commingle with the peal of church bells.

Those gently wafting sounds and placid waters belied a brutal past. On a Sunday morning in June of 1565, just over a month into the Great Siege, the bodies of four Knights, decapitated and nailed to crucifixes, washed ashore at the base of Fort St. Angelo. Not to be outdone by this gift from the Turkish commander Mustafa Pasha, Jean Parisot de la Valette, Grand Master of the Knights, decapitated all of his Turkish prisoners and used cannons to lob their heads from Fort St. Angelo back across the harbor. During my trip across the harbor, I counted no fewer than four major fortifications looming above — as well as St. Angelo, there are Forts Ricasoli, St. Elmo and St. Michael. And I saw the steep walls of Valletta from a new angle, rising to 190 feet above me at their highest point, where the Upper Barrakka Gardens offer a conqueror’s view of the expanse below. This is what all those vanquishing forces were after: A well-defended harbour in the middle of a busy sea.

The water taxi dropped me near Fort St. Angelo, and I thought about those floating crucifixes as I walked through the winding medieval streets of the surrounding town, called both Birgu and Vittoriosa. The fort is undergoing a major restoration (scheduled to open to the public in 2015), so I went to meet its curator, Matthew Balzan, in his temporary office, which is housed down a narrow street in the Inquisitor’s Palace. With time to kill I explored the premises, learning from a plaque next to a torture chamber — metal bars, hanging rope, strange and creepy wooden devices — that apparently I had the Inquisition all wrong. “Contrary to popular imagination the Inquisition did not use torture indiscriminately,” it read. It “was reserved for cases of very serious breaches of orthodoxy.” A placard with a list of victims included some of their sins, among them “owning prohibited books,” “sorcery” and “apostasy to Islam.”

In Mr. Balzan’s office a standing fan failed to cool the air (pleasantly warm for most of the year, Malta’s temperatures can reach into the 90s in the summer). I learned that the fort I had been looking at from across the water is a historical layer cake. The first recorded mentions of it date to the 13th century, but its real origins are murky. The Romans may have had a temple on the site. “Legend has it that the fort might have been built by the Arabs or the Normans, but we don’t actually know,” Mr. Balzan said.

While the Knights had only 8,000 to 9,000 fighting men during the Great Siege, the Ottoman force that sailed to Malta counted at least 30,000 men, among them 6,300 Janissaries, fearsome warriors trained as fighters from the age of 7. And yet the Ottomans lost. Historians blame tactical mistakes, among them hemorrhaging soldiers to seize Fort St. Elmo before going after the more strategically important Fort St. Angelo. Mr. Balzan repeated something the Turkish commander was supposed to have said: “If the daughter cost us so dear, what price will we have to pay for the mother?”

From shining armor to model ships, watchtowers to war re-enactments, a full plunge into the Knights’ Malta could occupy an obsessive for months. I had just one more Knight related stop to make, though, at a green-doored palazzo with a modest brass plaque that reads “Notarial Archives.” Joan Abela, a sprightly historian with rectangular glasses and a cherry-red manicure, let me into a tiled entrance hall as romantically dilapidated as Mr. de Piro’s palazzo was lovingly restored. A lone sunbeam pierced the shadow from high above, and I heard a trickle of water.

The palazzo is home to more than 500 years’ worth of legal documents, the majority in Italian and Latin. Some 20,000 volumes burst from binders on wooden tables and lurk on shelves in dark rooms — “and we’re still sorting,” Ms. Abela said. Perhaps not my most tourist-friendly stop, but in those papers lay key elements of the history I sought. (The archives are open to the public, but visitors are advised to call ahead.) “Everyone from every strata of society went to notaries,” Ms. Abela said. “You open up a window on those who are being ruled. Ordinary people, slaves, women.”

I had been wondering about women. The history books, for all their heroic and heinous deeds, seem to have erased the stories of half the population. Yet surely they must have been around?

“In official documents, Knights never married or had children,” Ms. Abela explained. But legal records contradict their vows of chastity. In one, a Knight donates a lavish dowry to his “slave,” giving her dresses of silk, gold embroidery, jewels, household goods and two slaves of her own. Even la Valette, grand master of the Knights during the Great Siege, had a son and daughter.

The Knights, like the Ottomans, were enthusiastic slavers, taking possession of those captured in battle; archive documents detail purchase prices and terms of manumission. Ms. Abela opened up a bound stack of paper, dated 1535, covered in dense calligraphy and crumbling at the edges. She pointed to the text and translated from Latin: A Greek woman was selling a female infidel slave, a Tunisian named Sutlohef, for 40 scudi.

The archives shed light on another fact of life in Knights-era Valletta: When Christians and Muslims weren’t slaughtering or enslaving one another, they sometimes did business. A papal decree allowed this as long as the Knights didn’t sell weapons, and the archives hold trade agreements between Christians, Muslims and Jews. Ms. Abela showed me a document written in Ottoman Turkish and affixed with an elaborately swooping monogram; it was a Sultan’s seal vouching safe passage to the bearer through enemy seas. I realized that I was looking at one of the world’s first passports.

She opened up more volumes for me, and the tangibility of the papers — with their abbreviations, stray marks and still-vibrant black ink — did as much to animate the past as anything else I’d seen. I remembered the papers the next day when I took a bus and a ferry to Gozo, the country’s second-largest island. It’s a quieter miniature of its neighbor, with terraced fields surrounded by blue sea and, in the middle, a hilltop citadel in the town of Rabat. There in its narrow streets I found an archaeological museum that contains a marble slab from the Roman era repurposed as a 12th-century tombstone. The Arabic inscription commemorates the death of a girl, Majmunah, on a Thursday in 1174. The translation reads, in part: “Look around you! Is there anything everlasting on earth; anything that repels or casts a spell on death?” But the streets and hallways I’d walked in recent days, and even the stone in front of me, seemed to do just that.

Author: Elisabeth Eaves

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