A golden island basking in the liquid light of the Mediterranean sun, Malta was once known as the mighty stronghold of the Knights of St John. Today, this vibrant nation has become an internationally-renowned vacation destination, where travellers go to unwind on golden beaches and summertime fiestas go on long after dark.
Reliving the Great Siege of Malta
Imagine your mind’s eye swooping down on over a brilliant cerulean sea, stretching countless miles beneath a clear blue sky. Far off on the horizon is a little speck of land, a dark rocky island, baking hot under the merciless sun of a Mediterranean summer. Sweeping across the waters is a vast armada of 200 galleons and warships, carrying an army of over 48,000 battle hardened warriors swiftly towards the island. The year is 1565. The island is Malta.
It was classic David versus Goliath: on the one hand, a colossal army of battle hardened warriors under the orders of Mustapha Pasha, one of the greatest generals of the Ottoman Empire, all bent on extending the Empire’s grip on the Mediterranean; on the other, less than 600 fighters, some of them barely trained, the last remnants of the once great Knight Hospitallers, now reduced to a struggling force guarding the last outpost of the Christian Empire in the East.
Retracing The Events
The outcome should have been obvious – and yet the unthinkable occurred. The stunning defeat the knights handed the invading forces has entered history as one of the most triumphant victories of that age. Today, the sites where the events of that long ago siege took place are among the most popular tourist attractions in Malta, as modern visitors try to recapture the spirit, valour and sheer epic drama of the Great Siege of Malta.
For a quick and comprehensive trip through the events of the siege, the best place to visit is the quirky but fascinating Vittoriosa 1565 Museum in Vittoriosa, where much of the fighting took place. Here, visitors can see dioramas of the most important events of the siege, take a guided tour and even comfortably watch a video presentation of the entire episode.
For a more intimate, first-hand idea of what the Knight defenders must have endured however, the best place to start is Fort St Elmo, a small, star-shaped fortress standing guard on the entrance to the Grand and Marsamxett Harbours. St Elmo, together with the Fort of St Michael and the Fort of St Angelo, comprised the three principal defenses of Malta; if the invaders could have taken these three forts, the island would have been theirs.
The Taking of St Elmo
So visit the Fort of St Elmo early in the morning, just as the sun is rising. Stand on the battlements during a quiet moment and gaze out to sea. Imagine the surrounding waters churned by hundreds of warships, while the tiny beach below swarms with men. Imagine the air filled with the unending thunder of cannon fire, and screams, and a tiny group of knights desperately battling on the battlements.
The trained knights protecting the Fort of St Elmo numbered barely 100. They were cut off from all reinforcements, and vastly outnumbered. To the men who once stood on those very battlements, resistance seemed futile. It must have seemed that way to the Ottoman too, for they estimated they would take St Elmo in three days. In fact, it took them five bloody weeks before unrelenting cannon fire finally pounded the fort into rubble and the defenders were massacred. By that time, the Ottomans had lost well over 10,000 men – and the siege had only just begun.
After the siege was lifted, the Knights rebuilt Fort St Elmo to its former splendour. Today, it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Malta, and the city’s most visible legacy of its Knightly past. For many visitors the most popular activities here, apart from strolling along the battlements, is watching see the colourfulIn Guardia performances, regular reenactments of an inspection of St Elmo, complete with period costumes and dashing swordplay – and about as close as most people will ever come to seeing the Knight Hospitallers of old in all their military glory.
A Disaster At St Angelo
The Fort of St Elmo was one of the most fiercely contested prizes of the siege, but it was only secondary to the main target of the invading forces – the massive Fort of St Angelo(pictured above), the spiritual heart of the Knight’s order and the home of the Grand Master. It was this fort which the Turkish forces were determined to take and at the same time as the onslaught on St Elmo, a preliminary sneak attack was made on St Angelo. It ended disastrously however, as a hidden battery at the base of St. Angelo decimated over a thousand Janissary troops attempting to sail past the fortress and attack it from the rear.
Unfortunately, the battery which once wrecked such havoc has long disappeared, and the Fort of St Angelo itself is today closed to the public, but visitors to Valletta today can still see the fortress itself. In fact, one of the more popular activities for tourists is to walk around the walls of the Fort, and for some, to retrace the steps of those unfortunate soldiers.
The Unconquerable City
Recovering from their disastrous sortie against St Angelo, the attackers turned their attentions to the nearby Fort of St Michael, which guarded the nearby walled town of Senglea (pictured above). The fort was the weaker of the two, and it should have been an easy conquest, but it was here that the Ottomans ran up against another formidable defense: the people of Malta themselves.
Throughout the entire three month siege, the Maltese proved their courage and loyalty to the Knights again and again, and nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in Senglea.
To see the firsthand evidence of this, visit the charming Basilica of Blessed Lady of Victories, and gaze up at the frieze across the front of the parish church, which recalls “the Glorious Victory of 1565″. There would have been no chance of victory for the Knights if the native Maltese had not stood beside them, and fighting so well that the town remained unconquered. So valiant was the defense that when the Great Siege was finally lifted, the leader of the defense forces Grand Master of Jean Parisot De La Vallette gave the Senglea the name Civitas Invicta, or “the unconquered city”, a name it still bears.
The courage shown by the people of Malta was more than matched by the valour and commitment shown by the few Knights that remained. At the lowest point of the fight for Senglea, when the badly wounded forces were about to be overwhelmed, the few defenders left in the nearby St Angelo made a desperate sortie to Senglea to boost their defenses. It was a breathtaking dangerous move, lead by the legendary Vallette himself, a seventy-one year old man, who was himself injured. Legend has it that when Vallette joined the raging fight on the battlements of St Michael itself, the defenders saw a golden flag of St John waving above him, and rallied to his side. Whether the story is true or not, there is no disputing the fact Vallette’s unflagging courage inspired the defenders to repel the Ottoman attack. It was his all-conquering dedication and genius, and his stature as the hero of the Siege of Malta, which later lead to the island’s new capital city nearby being named Valletta, in his honour.
By the third month of the siege, the invaders were rapidly losing heart. The remarkable resistance, the hostile terrain of Malta itself and the appalling rate of casualties, all combined to drag down the morale of the troops. The final straw came when word reached the forces of reinforcements arriving from Sicily to augment the Maltese defenders, the Ottomans finally gave up their siege. On the eighth of September, 1565, on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the invaders began their long journey home, with less than a third of the forces that had first set out to Malta. The war-weary citizens rejoiced and even today in Malta, the eighth of September is a still major public holiday, as the people celebrate that long-ago victory.