In October 2019, when it was cold and rainy in Norway, I took a plane from the Swedish town of Gothenburg and followed the birds. I travelled southwards to the Mediterranean Sea to feel the wings of history and be inspired. My destination was Malta.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to visit this small land, consisting of a group of islands, which is a part of the European Union. Especially the knights have triggered my imagination when I read about their heroic actions.
But when I saw Valletta for the first time with my own eyes, the capital that was founded by these furious fighters, I was thrilled. It is so beautiful, almost magical. A huge fortification of golden sandstone where the yellowish colour fits nicely with the deep blue sea like a sandcastle on the beach.
As we strolled along the waterside, my wife couldn’t resist a bath in the dug-out pools in the bedrock. Then a flashback from the beaches of Normandy came into my mind. The same paradox. The perfect idyll in what once had been a battlefield, just like the collage I made at the top of this article. Present-day Valletta vs Valletta in 1565. Peace can never be taken for granted …
The Great Siege of Malta, 1565
Please take a careful look at the painting above. The peninsula at the top is where the capital Valletta lies today. At that time there was no town there, just Fort Elmo on the right tip. From the left in the middle, the fortresses St Michael and St Angelo, where the harbour is blocked with chains on both sides. The Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette, the leader of the Knights Hospitaller of Malta, had made a lot of preparations before the Ottoman invasion fleet came. He even harvested all the crops and poisoned the wells on these islands, where there is no rivers or lakes, and where it barely rains.
An Ottoman armada of approximately 200 ships arrived on 18 May. The next day they set their foot on land, and the invasion began. It was an uneven situation. The Ottomans had somewhere around 30,000 – 40,000 soldiers. The Grand Master had only 6,100 soldiers, or 9,000 with civilian help, to fight the Ottomans.
Soon the three fortresses were surrounded, and they came under heavy cannon fire. In the beginning, the Ottomans focused on the easiest target. Fort St Elmo, whom they expected to take in a few days. But Fort St Elmo withstood many attacks before it fell, one month later. It costed the Ottomans 6,000 men. The defenders 1,500.
This was a nasty and merciless war. Lots of captured Christians were crucified by the Muslims, and the knights at the fortresses, St Michael and St Angelo, replied with beheading their captured Muslims and shooting their heads back at the invaders with their canons.
3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days after the invasion began — and the Ottomans had launched some 130,000 cannonballs at the 3 fortresses — they were finally defeated by the knights and the brave Maltese civilians.
The Ottomans lost around 25,000 of their men. The Knights lost a third of their number, and Malta lost a third of their inhabitants. This victory gave courage to knights all over Europe for decades. The Ottomans was not undefeatable. Afterwards, some even believe this battle prevented the whole of Europe to fall under Islam, I don`t know. But, however, this was a major victory anyway. A mission impossible, like David against Goliath.
We also travelled around the island with the hop on hop off tourist busses, and this is from the small fishing village Marsaxlok.
Mellieħa, one of Malta’s few beaches. Please, note the old watchtower on the rock. These are spread all around the coast.
The Knights who fell during the Great Siege of 1565 are buried inside the Cathedral of St. John’s, in Valetta. The Order continued to guard Malta and much of the Mediterranean Sea against Ottomans and Berber pirates. They stayed until their stronghold of Malta was captured by Napoleon in 1798 during his expedition to Egypt.
PS. As a little digression. This is another interesting era, the Napoleonic Wars, which I also use in my Historical Fiction books — The Sea Lion, Willy Lauer Series — Okay, back on track.
Napoleon, however, wanted his ships to be allowed to enter the port and to take on water and supplies. The Grand Master replied that only two foreign ships could be allowed to enter the port at a time. Napoleon knew that this would take too much time, and it would leave his forces vulnerable to Admiral Nelson. Therefore, he ordered immediately a cannon fusillade against Malta. The French soldiers disembarked at seven points on the morning of 11 June and attacked. After several hours of fierce fighting, the Maltese in the west were forced to surrender.
Napoleon opened negotiations with the fortress capital of Valletta. Faced with vastly superior French forces and the loss of western Malta, the Grand Master decided to surrender. He resigned as Grand Master on 6 July 1799.
The knights were dispersed, but the order continued to exist in a weakened form and negotiated with European governments for a return to power, which they never achieved as in their glory days. Today, many organizations claim that they originate from the Knights Hospitaller.
There is something fascinating about knights, isn’t it?
In my novel, Kayaweta, I write about mediaeval knights in America …
Thank you for your attention.