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Archive for September 7th, 2015

imageThe Great Siege of Malta, 1565

My first trip to the island of Malta was a real eye-opener.  I’d been director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University for only a few months, and I had to get up to speed on the various projects on HMML’s plate.  So I flew to Valletta to visit the National Library, where HMML had assisted in photographing the archives of the Order of Malta.  Since I’d been to other islands already, I assumed that this one would be like all the rest, save for the library.  I was completely wrong about that.

Physically, Malta is not very big, and from its medieval capital of Medina you can see the whole thing spread out around  you.  And it’s crowded — really crowded.  There’s also a lot of stone there.  From stately buildings to the simplest homes, the tan-colored stone gives it the feel of the Middle East.  And the landscape is so strewn with stones that you quickly understand why the Maltese have to import most of their food.  In fact they import nearly everything, except for capers.  Those bushes grow everywhere, like weeds, and they’d take over if people didn’t chop them back.  The latter seems a shame, because I love capers.

For what Malta lacks in vegetation it more than compensates with its history.  In fact it wears the past on its sleeve, and everywhere you turn it tells a larger-than-life story.  Its neolithic temples are among the most ancient structures on the planet, and traces of a succession of foreign rulers show up all over the place.  The fact that outsiders like Romans, Arabs, French and English occupied the place continuously for 2,000 years means that Maltese self-government is a very recent experiment.

imageUndeniably it is the Order of Saint John that has left the greatest mark on the island.  Now known as the Order of Malta, it began in Jerusalem as a hospice serving sick and poor pilgrims, run by the monks of a Benedictine abbey.  From Pope Pascal II in 1113 Blessed Frá Gerard received a charter that brought formal recognition as a religous order, and in Jerusalem it served Christians, Muslims and Jews.  Later, after the Order’s expulsion from the Holy Land, the knights ended up on the island of Rhodes.  There they stayed until 1523, and in 1530 they settled on Malta, where they remained until Napoleon dislodged them in 1798.

As an influential and accomplished group in the Middle Ages, the Knights of Saint John earned both admirers and enemies, as did their peers in the Order of the Temple.  But they fared better than did the Templars and were never suppressed, though they came perilously close to extinction in the early 19th century.

imageAlong the way there were days when members must have wondered why they’d ever signed up for such a life. One such occasion was the siege of Rhodes in 1480, when the Ottoman Turks came close to dislodging them.  The Turks finally did succeed in 1523, but as a gesture of respect the sultan gave the knights honorable passage off the island and into exile.

The sultan’s successors came to regret that decision, and in 1565 the Turks sailed to Malta to rid the Mediterranean of the knights once and for all.  What followed was one of the nastiest sieges ever, and I’ve always been surprised that Hollywood has never made a movie about it.  It would be a blockbuster, with violence and bravery scarcely imaginable.  But the knights held out against huge odds, until on September 8 the Turks lifted the siege and sailed away.

The knights learned several things during that siege, and among them was the disadvantage of defending lower ground in an artillery duel.  The Turks had commanded the high ground, and after the siege the knights hastily moved their capital to those heights.  And they named the city after Grand Master Jean de la Valette, who had led them through the crisis.  Today Valletta’s stately government buildings are the visible record of the knights’ 268 years of residence in Malta.

imageOn September 8th the Order of Malta celebrates the 450th anniversary of the lifting of the siege.  Both Maltese citizens and members of the Order will gather in Valletta to mark the occasion and to celebrate what has happened since.  After all those centuries the Maltese at last rule themselves, and the knights and dames of Malta have rededicated themselves to their original charism of service to the sick and the poor.  The festivities in Malta will remind them of that latter commitment when they tour the vast 16th-century hospital in Valletta.

Meanwhile, at HMML the work of the Malta Study Center continues, as does its efforts in various archives in Malta and more recently at the Grand Magistry in Rome.  This week HMML marks the event with the opening of an exhibit of books and documents on the history of the Order of Malta, as well as a lecture on the siege by Dr. Emanuel Buttigieg of the University of Malta.

imageSince my first visit to Malta I’ve had the chance to lead several tours to the island, and to a person the place leaves each and every visitor in awe.  Each invariably has the same reaction as I did when I first looked down from the bastions of Villetta to an aircraft  carrier docked directly below.  And for knights and dames who visit Malta, there’s a sense of respect for what their predecessors in the Order sacrificed.  Thankfully we no longer serve on the battlefield or on the seas, because at our age and physical condition we wouldn’t last ten minutes.  But we can be grateful for what others did to keep the ideal of service alive.  Those who sacrificed their lives in 1565 ensured that later generations in the Order would continue their care of the sick and the poor.  Thankfully the siege did not mean the end of the history of the Order;  rather, it was the opening of several new chapters.

To all this I must append a footnote.  Some people find history boring and tedious, but at the end of my first trip to Malta I learned how important it is to remember the lessons of history.  As we drove our rental car onto the highway to return to the airport, the three of us were chatting away as we breezed down the road.  Suddenly one of our number pointed out one great legacy of the English occupation.  Had it been Minneapolis, driving on the right side of the road would have been just fine.  But this was Malta, and just as in England they drive on the left side of the road.  There we were, tooling merrily down the wrong side of a divided highway.  We all shreiked and sweat bullets, and I thought of Saint Benedict’s advice to “keep death daily before our eyes.”  That morning history was no longer an academic exercise.

imageNotes

+On August 28th the freshmen at Saint John’s University joined the monks for vespers.  And as is the custom of many years, they broke into small groups afterwards in order to “meet a monk” and learn about our life in the monastery.

+On September 1st I presided at the burial service of Mary Foley, wife of Saint John’s University alumnus Dr. Bob Foley.  The burial took place in the abbey cemetery.

+On September 3rd I presided at the abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  You can access the sermon through this link to The Lord’s Demands on Us.

+On September 5th I attended the opening game of the Saint John’s University football season.  We hosted the University of Dubuque, and happily our team won the game rather handily, 45-9.

image+Dr. Daniel Gullo, the Joseph S. Micallef Curator of the Malta Study Center at HMML, kindly supplied five images from HMML’s current exhibit of books and documents illustrating the history of the Order of Malta.  The first is a book of Statutes of the Order, printed in 1556.  The second is a map of 1597, showing the harbor of Valletta, with the new city scarcely developed on the left of the map.  In the map of 1762 you see the fully-developed city, built on a modern grid pattern.  The fourth page opens the 1480 edition of Pierre D’Aubusson’s narrative of the siege of Rhodes; while the fifth image is taken from the Statutes, printed in 1588.  All are in the collection of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University.  In a separate gallery I have presented some of my favorite photos, illustrating the architecture of the Island of Malta.

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