“The darkness of the night then became as bright as day, due to the vast quantity of artificial fires. So bright was it indeed that we could see St Elmo quite clearly. The gunners of St Angelo…were able to lay and train their pieces upon the advancing Turks, who were picked out in the light of the fires.” (Francisco Balbi, a Spanish soldier at the siege)
For centuries, Christians and Muslims were embroiled in one of the most infamous territorial disputes of all time, viciously and relentlessly battling one another for the Holy Land. In the heart of Jerusalem sat one of the shining jewels of the Christian faith – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Legend has it that this was where their Savior had been buried before his fabled resurrection. What was more, it was said to house the very cross Jesus Christ had died upon. It was for precisely these reasons that fearless pilgrims, near and far, risked their lives and made the treacherous trek to Jerusalem.
Like other secretive groups, the mystery surrounding the Catholic military orders that sprung up in the wake of the First Crusade helped their legacies endure. While some conspiracy theorists attempt to tie the groups to other alleged secret societies like the Illuminati, other groups have tried to assert connections with them to bolster their own credentials. Who they were and what they had in their possession continue to be a source of great intrigue.
After being forced out of Rhodes by the Ottomans in the early 16th century, the Knights Hospitaller spent seven years residing in Sicily without an official home or garrison, but around 1530, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V decided to gift the order the islands of Malta and Gozo, as well as the port city of Tripoli in North Africa, as a fiefdom. The emperor’s motivations varied, but most historians believe he granted the knights the territory partially out of religious devotion and mainly to protect those regions from the looming Ottoman threat. Both Malta and Gozo were between Sicily and the North African coast and were prime locations for the Ottoman Empire to try to make their next move to gain inroads into Europe.
In 1565, the Knights Hospitaller were attacked by Suleiman, who sent 40,000 soldiers to attempt to wrest control of Malta from them. This would become known as the Great Siege of Malta, lasting from May 18 to September 11. The first two months of the siege were devastating for the Hospitallers, who lost most of their cities and half of their 8,000 knights. Resources were scarce and supplies were running low, resulting in starvation and disease. By August 18, the lines were ready to crumble, especially since the series of fortifications were spread out and difficult to defend.
No help was forthcoming from the Viceroy of Sicily, who was under no obligation to assist because of the vague wording of the orders he received from King Philip II of Spain. Indeed, it could have been disastrous for Sicily, since sacrificing their own troops would have left Sicily and Naples open to Ottoman invasion. When told to withdraw to spare the rest of the order, Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette refused and held his ground, and finally, after months of ignoring the issue, the Viceroy of Sicily sent aid to the Knights Hospitaller after being badgered by his outraged officers.
On August 23, the Ottomans launched their last assault upon Malta. The fighting was intense, and even wounded knights participated. The Ottoman army was unable to break through the Order’s fortifications, as the garrison had repaired the worst of the damages and any breakages to avoid giving the Ottomans an advantage.