The Knights of Malta: a thorn in the Ottomans’ side

The Knights of Malta: a thorn in the Ottomans’ side

Niki Gamm ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
The Knights of Malta: a thorn in the Ottomans’ side

The Castle of St. Peter in Bodrum today is a major tourist attraction and houses one of the finest underwater archaeology museums in the world. AA Photo

If any of you happened to be watching “euronews” just three days before Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, you might have seen a long procession of men wearing black cloaks with white Maltese crosses slowly moving into the St. Peter’s Basilica for a meeting with the pope. These were today’s Knights of Malta, officially the Order of Malta, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. The occasion was the 900th anniversary of the presentation of the Papal decree in 1113, which gave the order official status, although it was founded 60 years before that. Seeing them conjured up memories of the kingdom of Jerusalem, the Saracens and Saladin, Cyprus, Rhodes and finally the Battle of La Valletta on the island of Malta where some 30,000 Ottoman soldiers met their deaths in 1565.

The order’s existence predates the Ottoman era and originated in Jerusalem in the second half of the 11th century when a monastery and hospital were established near the Holy Sepulcher around 1048.

The monks under the guidance of a Brother Gerard became independent of other religious and lay authority, an independence confirmed by the Papal Bull issued on Feb. 15 , 1113, by Pope Paschal II.

Although the order’s primary task was to see to the hospital, it added military duties in the 12th century so it not only guarded hospitals but also the main roads in order to see that pilgrims and the sick were protected against attacks from the Saracens. The members of the order who were called knights and had to be of noble birth served under a grand master and took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. For their services, they were often granted gifts of land rather than money and so had extensive holdings in numerous places throughout Europe.

After Saladin conquered Jerusalem in 1191, the knights were no longer needed there so they turned on Acre which they conquered and held until 1291. But with the loss of the Holy Land, the knights retreated to the island of Cyprus where they had already established themselves with property and concessions, including trading rights. They established their headquarters and hospital at Limassol on Akrotiri Bay in southern Cyprus and was given the command of outposts and small castles like Buffavento in the mountains running along an east-west axis on the island. Originally charged with protecting pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, they extended this to providing protection on the sea and developed a significant fleet during their time on the island.

Rhodes became their next target and the Hospitallers conquered it in 1310, calling themselves the Knights of Rhodes for two centuries. A change had occurred as the Hospitallers turned into knights.

Their goal became the protection of Christianity by engaging Muslim fleets attempting to expand beyond the eastern Mediterranean. At the same time they were enjoined by the pope at that time to attack Muslim merchant ships. In 1341 the knights captured and plundered İzmir and Alexandria (Egypt) in 1365. It was during the knights’ sojourn on Rhodes that the order attained the structure that it more or less maintains today with a grand master and knights divided into groups depending on their native language.

The second half of the 14th century saw the rise of the Ottoman Turks in western Anatolia and the knights were hardly oblivious to threats coming from that area. Thanks to their strong fleet, they controlled the southern Aegean and set up fortifications on the island of Cos. In 1402, they erected the Castle of St. Peter in Bodrum which today is a major tourist attraction and houses one of the finest underwater archaeology museums in the world. No one seems to know why the castle was dedicated to St. Peter when the order’s patron saint was St. John.

Knights on Rhodes feel threaned

Actually, it wasn’t until 1453 and the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks that the knights on Rhodes began to feel threatened; however, Fatih Sultan Mehmed had many more matters to attend to, although clearing the sea lanes through the Aegean and into the Mediterranean was undoubtedly one of them. In 1480, he sent a fleet and army to capture Rhodes but they failed and the following year he died. Fatih’s two sons, Bayezid and Cem, contested for the throne and when Cem saw that he would fail, he sought asylum with the knights at Bodrum in 1482. He was invited to
Rhodes and betrayed. The knights agreed to accept an annual gift of gold to keep Cem out of the way. Among the gifts was a relic said to contain the arm of St. John the Baptist.

The next attempt at conquering Rhodes was made by the 140,000-man army and a fleet of 400 ships of Süleyman the Magnificent in 1522. The siege lasted six months until the knights were quite literally starved into surrender. They were allowed to leave with their arms and the sultan even provided the ships for them to retreat.

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted the knights the island of Malta for their home in 1530 where they contributed to the defense of the western Mediterranean in particular against the Barbary pirates, many of whom were sailing under letters of marque and reprisal from the sultan. In 1565, Süleyman sent a fleet of approximately 200 ships and an army estimated at around 48,000 to Malta with orders to conquer the island but it ended in defeat after four months. Half of the knights were dead and 8,000 soldiers. The Turks are said to have left 30,000 dead behind. From then on the knights continued to prey on Muslim shipping and the Barbary pirates. While Ottoman power in the Mediterranean increased, they never again tried to defeat the Knights of Malta.

In 1798 Napoleon captured Malta and, following the British capture of the island two years later, the order was forced to withdraw, eventually reopening their headquarters in Rome. Today the Knights of Malta direct their efforts at supporting hospitals and relief efforts around the world through Malteser International, their humanitarian relief service. This includes providing aid to Syrian refugees in Turkish camps along Turkey’s border with Syria and in 2011 assisting the Turks from Ercis in Van following a disastrous earthquake. The Order of Malta certainly outlasted the Ottomans and now they’re back, not to fight but to help.