Monday, February 28, 2011

History of the Knights of Malta

Blessed Gerard
In 600, Pope Gregory ordered that a hospital be built in Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, and Christians operated that hospital for about 400 years. Charlemagne even added a library to it.

Then the leader of the Islamic Fatimids, one of the groups opposed to Sunni Muslims, captured Jerusalem, destroyed the hospital and 3,000 other buildings. The Christians who weren’t killed departed hastily.

About 18 years later, merchants from Italian city-state of Amalfi and Salerno got permission from a new Fatimid leader to rebuild the hospital in Jerusalem. Benedictine monks operated it and took in Christian pilgrims once again, and that went on for another 70 years or so until the First Crusade, which tended to inhibit commerce the merchant city-states conducted with Muslim countries and travel by Christians to the Holy Land, unless they were heavily armed.

Now there was an industrious and devout fellow named Gerard who had established a religious order, though scholars still debate exactly where Gerard came from (many say Italy, some say France) or when the order was established (some say before the First Crusade, some say after). Gerard eventally became known as Blessed Gerard, but scholars disagree on many of the details of his life.

What is known is that in 1113, Pope Paschal II approved the new order of hospitallers in Jerusalem founded by him, and that that group, though it has been called by various names over the centuries, still exists today.

A history of the group, titled The History of the Knights of Malta, is the the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. The two-volume set was published in 1718. The notorious pirate Blackbeard was wreaking havoc along the Carolina coast and the city of New Orleans was established that year.

The book was written by a RenĂ©-Aubert Vertot, a French priest-historian, who became a member of a French literary society. He also wrote a history of the Swedish revolutions. An anecdote is shared among scholars that after Vertot had finished the Knights of Malta history someone approached him with more information. He is said to have replied, “My siege is finished.”

Critics suggest that reply demonstrates the author’s disregard for historical accuracy. Others dismiss that claim, interpreting the remark as simply a means to dispatch an unwelcome visitor who had documents of dubious value.

The handsome volumes are full of historical detail about the various leaders of the religious order along with engravings of their portraits and maps of their various locations over the years.

The order. under the name the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, provided care for sick and injured visitors to the Holy Land as well as military support for the First Crusade. The military order Knights Templar, was a contemporary group, and is, perhaps, better known today, owing to books like The Da Vinci Code.

It took the Hospitallers awhile to get to Malta. After the fall of Jerusalem, the order holed up in Tripoli for awhile, then took refuge in Cyprus but got too involved in Cypriot politics and decided to leave. It took two years of battle to get the Byzantine people who were occupying the island of Rhodes to surrender. The Hospitallers built a strong fortress of a city and remained there for 213 years, fighting off periodic attacks from Ottomans and Arab forces, and growing a fleet and battling the Barbary Pirates.

Then in 1522, Sultan Solemn the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire overwhelmed the Hospitallers, now known as the Knights of Rhodes, with 400 ships and 200,000 men. Half of the Knights were killed. Those who survived were allowed to retreat to Sicily, from which they disbursed throughout Europe.

They begged King Charles V of Spain to give them Malta, which he did. They stayed for 268 years and changed their name to the Knights of Malta. There is legend that in exchange for owning Malta, the Knights were to send Charles one Maltese falcon a year. Dashiell Hammett used that bit of ancient history as a key element in his detective novel, The Maltese Falcon.

For much of the time the Knights occupied Malta, they were fighting Barbary pirates and Turkish shipping interests. The Knights’ fleet became one of the strongest in the Mediterranean. Some scholars suggest that some members essentially became pirates themselves, living off the good they plundered from ships they attacked on the premise that they were carrying Turkish goods. Still, their hospital and religious work continued.

The Knights of Malta departed only when Napoleon took over the island as part of his strategic plan to wage war in Egypt. They lived in obscurity for many years, until Pope Leo XIII took an interest in the order, spurring renewed energy as a humanitarian organization. Its headquarters was established in Rome and its hospital work became its main concern.

Today, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, is the successor to the Knights of Malta. It is recognized as a sovereign entity by the United Nations andother international bodies, though some scholars dispute its status. In 2008, it established a presence in Malta where it has a 99-year agreement for the use of Fort St. Angelo, an ancient Roman structure that the Knights of Malta had fortified when they arrived in 1530.

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