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In the early 11th century, a group of merchants from the Amalfi Coast of Italy received permission from the Caliph of Egypt to rebuild a church and hospital in Jerusalem to care for pilgrims to the Holy Land.
They called themselves The Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
Fast forward almost one thousand years later, and this group still exist. Not only do they still exist, but they have a unique status in the world of international diplomacy.
Learn more about the Knights of Malta and their thousand-year history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
There are very few organizations that can claim a lineage of almost 1,000 years. Most countries aren’t even that old.
Yet, there is one organization that can make that claim. They are officially known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta.
The origins of this order date back to the year 1048, almost 50 years before the start of the first crusade.
I point this out because Christian monastic military orders are strongly associated with the crusades. However, the hospitallers were founded well before the crusades began.
The first hospital in Jerusalem was constructed in the year 603 by the order of Pope Gregory I. Its purpose was to take care of pilgrims to the Holy Land. A hospital at this time was more than just a medical building, but was an entire compound with churches, housing, and commercial quarters.
Emperor Charlemagne expanded it in the year 800, adding a library and other structures.
However, in 1009, it was destroyed by the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah.
In the year 1020, the new Fatimid caliph, Ali az-Zahir, gave permission to a group of merchants from the Amalfi Coast to rebuild the hospital.
Monks of the Benedictine order managed the day-to-day affairs of the hospital, and they named their order after Saint John the Baptist and became known as the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
In 1080, a monk by the name of Gérard de Martigues, known to history as Blessed Gerard, became the rector of the facility. Under his guidance, the order became independent of other monastic orders.
With the start of the first crusade in 1096, the hospital took on increased importance. More Christians and pilgrims began flooding into the Holy Land, which was in need of service.
The early 12th century saw the rise of other monastic military orders in Jerusalem, including the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights, both of which will be the subject of future episodes.
In 1113, Pope Paschal II issued a Papal Bull titled Pie postulatio voluntatis which established the order as a military monastic order directly under the authority of the pope and allowed them to elect their own leaders. It also effectively made them independent of all local church authorities.
Over the next several centuries, the order grew in scope and size. They established hospitals all over the holy land and throughout Europe.
With the Fall of Acer in 1291, the crusaders were removed from the Holy Land, and with them went the Order of Saint John. The order briefly moved its headquarters from Jerusalem to Cyprus before moving to Rhodes in 1310.
The mission of the order changed now that they were evicted from Jerusalem. They still were to protect Christian travelers but now had to do so at sea, so they created a naval fleet. They now went by the name the Knights of Rhodes.
The order was organized by groups which were known as Langues or tongues. The primary divisions of the order around Europe were by language, so German, French, Spanish, Italian, etc.
The leader of the order was now also the Prince of Rhodes. The order became very independent, having its own military, coinage, and diplomatic relations with other states.
This was the foundation of the order being considered a sovereign entity, a subject I’ll be discussing more in a bit.
The orders time in Rhodes lasted a little over 200 years. In 1522, the island was conquered by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
The Knights of Rhodes, now without Rhodes, spent several years in the wilderness before they were given the islands of Malta by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1530.
The former knights of Rhodes, formerly the knights of Jerusalem, were now the knights of Malta.
The condition upon which they were granted Malta was known as the Tribue of the Maltese Flacon. One of the conditions was that the knights had to pay a tribute every year to Charles V and his mother, Queen Joanna of Castile, who was the sovereign of Sicily. In addition to money, every year on All Saints Day, they had to provide a falcon.
Once again, the Ottomans attacked the knights as they did in Rhodes and tried to take Malta. From May to September 1586, the Ottomans conducted what became known as the Great Siege. This time, unlike in Rhodes, the knights managed to defend the island successfully.
The knights managed to rule Malta for 268 years. Under their rule, Malta became a prosperous little country in the middle of the Mediterranean.
However, the Protestant Reformation and changes in Europe weakened and reduced the size of the order. Chapters in many countries closed, and some just flat-out converted.
There was some expansion into the New World. In 1651, they purchased the islands of Saint Barts, Saint Kitts, Saint Croix, and Saint Martin from the French, and they ruled them for fourteen years.
The rule of Knights of Malta over Malta ended in 1798 when the islands were invaded by Napoleon. The knights were overwhelmed and surrendered the island, and the French expelled all the knights.
In 1799, the Grand Master of the Order resigned.
This put the Knights of Malta in a very unusual position. They were a sovereign military order. They ruled a country, issued their own currency and had diplomatic relations with other countries.
Now, they had no country, but they still had their diplomatic status.
For years the order floundered in limbo. They were given refuge in Russia, for which they elected the Russian Tsar Paul I, the orders Grand Master.
They were offered the island of Gotland in Sweeden as a replacement for Malta, but they rejected the offer because it would require renouncing their claims to Malta.
In the 19th century, the order continued to contract with priories closing across Europe. The order didn’t even have a Grand Master from 1805 to 1879. It was run by lieutenants of the Order.
In 1834, the order formally moved their headquarters to Rome. In particular, two buildings, the Palazzo Malta on the Via Condotti and the Magistral Villa on the Aventine Hill. Both of these are still in use by the order today.
The Magistral Villa on the Aventine Hill is the location of one of the most iconic photos of Rome. The keyhole of the main door lines up perfectly with an arch in the garden and the dome of Saint Peters Basilica.
In 1879, Pope Leo XIII reestablished the Grand Master of the order.
The 19th century saw great changes the in the order. Having no territory of their own, they shifted the focus of the order back toward their original mission of helping those in need. The entire organization was reorganized, replacing the tongues with national chapters.
While the word “military” remained in the title of the organization, they no longer had any actual military force. Their only involvement in military affairs is serving as medical units during conflicts.
Despite all the changes, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta still has the word “sovereign.”
Sovereignty is a very tricky concept. It is usually defined as being a supreme authority, and the ultimate test case for this is the Knights of Malta.
The Knights of Malta haven’t controlled any territory of their own for over two hundred years. However, the sovereignty they had from controlling territory never disappeared.
Today, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta has diplomatic relations with 112 countries and official relations with five other countries. They also have observer status in the United Nations General Assembly, UNESCO, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the World Health Organization, the Council of Europe, and many other international organizations.
They issue their own stamps and passports, and even their own currency, the scudo, which was the currency when they controlled Malta. The coins they issue today are mostly for collectors.
Their buildings in Rome have been granted extraterritoriality, which means they have the same status as an embassy. Extraterritoriality is also extended to Fort St. Angelo in Malta.
Today, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is primarily engaged in humanitarian operations. The closest comparison would be the International Red Cross, although the organizations are run very differently.
The Knights of Malta are still a religious order. There are three different classes of knights, with 13,500 members worldwide. They also have 80,000 volunteers and over 25,000 staff, most of whom are medical professionals.
They provide disaster relief, help refugees, and send food shipments to war zones. In many countries, most people are familiar with the Order of Malta as they run the ambulance service.
They also manage hundreds of medical centers, 20 hospitals, and over 100 homes for the elderly.
They are far more active in Europe than they are in North America, so Europeans listening to this are probably far more familiar with them than Americans or Canadians.
The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta is a unique institution in the world. Its thousand-year history, its unique international status, and its humanitarian mission make the Knights of Malta unlike anything else.