James Ruggia | May 08, 2015 1:30 PM ET
Malta: The Edge of the Map, the Center of History
More than 30 cruise lines will call at the Maltese port of Valletta this year, including such names as Celebrity Cruises, Companie du Ponant, Cunard, Holland America, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silverseas, Swan Hellenic and others.
Valletta is relatively unknown to most Americans, especially when compared to Rome, Naples, Dubrovnik and some of the other glamorous ports visited by cruise ships in the Med. Those passengers will be pleasantly surprised when they sail into Valetta’s beautiful harbor with the massive bastions of Fort Saint Angelo.
If those walls could talk, what a tale they’d tell.
The Maltese islands (Malta, Gozo and Comino) sit at the very center of the Mediterranean in a tight maritime corridor between Sicily and Tunisia exactly where every ship has to pass if it’s to go from the Eastern to the Western Mediterranean. That geographical fact made Malta a perennial target of conquest and a magnet for culture and trade: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Napoleon and his British antagonists.
When the vast Ottoman armada arrived in 1565 carrying an army 48,000 strong, the idea was to open the gate to the Western Med and conquer Italy, Span, France and beyond. At that time, Europe was more involved with fighting each other than in defending itself from an outsider, even one as large as the Ottoman Empire. Some pan-European military orders existed with roots in the Crusades.
The Hospitaller Knights of St. John belonged to no country or king; they fought under the cross. First formed to provide medical care to pilgrims in Jerusalem, then to protect the passage of pilgrims to Jerusalem, they were eventually driven from Jerusalem by Saladin, then Acre and then Rhodes by the Ottomans.
In Rhodes you can still see their original stronghold, which fell in 1522. It was a defeat that sent a shiver across Europe. One of the knights who escaped that day was named Jean Vallette, who arrived in Malta in 1530 and became Grandmaster of the Knights of St. John. Vallette’s remarkable story is like something out of Ben-Hur. Begin with the fact that he spent 15 years as a galley slave, pulling an oar, in the same navy that he successfully held off in 1565 with just a few thousand knights in one of the most blood-curdling battles in history.
The knights were organized into eight divisions, or Langues, each standing for a different regional language: Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon, Portugal, Germany and England (including Scotland and Ireland). Thus the number eight became significant and they fashioned a cross with eight points, known today as the Maltese Cross. There are eight chapels in one of Europe’s finest Baroque churches, St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, a monument that in the words of the German Department of Foreign Affairs is “one of Malta’s most significant historical monuments and also an important testimony to a shared (European) history dating back to the Middle Ages.”
“Shared European history” is the key phrase there. That sense of togetherness was forged on the castle walls of Valletta that were rebuilt into one of the most impressive lines of late Renaissance and Baroque fortifications in Europe by Italy’s master military engineer Antonio Ferramolino to withstand the onslaught of the Turks. The angles he employed in the bastions and ravelins were designed to deflect cannon fire.
The co-cathedral was built after the siege and to visit it today and the other knightly sites in Valletta is really a journey back to the time when the idea of a common European heritage was first being understood. The co-cathedral feels almost palatial in its interior; its floor is comprised of marble in-laid crypt coverings that form a macabre stone quilt of skeletons and other graphic imagery. Each of the eight chapels contains iconography attached to the region it hails from as well as imagery from battles that the specific lineages of knights fought in.
Two master works, St. Jerome Writing and the Beheading of St. John, by one of Europe’s greatest and most mysterious painters, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio are housed in the Oratory. Caravaggio’s reckless life careened through Malta on a path of violence, rage and genius as he ran from authorities who were seeking to arrest him for murder. He stopped occasionally to make psychologically charged paintings that laid the groundwork for masters like Rembrandt and Rubens.
The Armory Room of the Grandmasters Palace holds the personal armor of Vallette and other weapons that were used in the siege. There are commemorative frescoes of the Great Siege high on the wall, ceremonial parade armor and a rare collection of Flemish tapestries depicting hunting scenes from around the world. The one-time seat of the Grandmaster, the palace went on to house the British Governor during the colonial period and today houses the House of Representatives of Malta and the office of the President of the Republic of Malta.
The Hospitaller aspect of the Knights is enshrined in the Sacra Infermeria, a hospital built in 1574 by the knights. This vast and deep hall is often used for meetings as when Mikhail Gorbachev met with George H. W. Bush in 1988.
On a visit in the 1830s, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli gave Valletta its most famous tagline, “a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen.” But Valletta, like Malta itself, is far more ancient than that. The remnants of some 7,000 years of inhabitation can be found in Maltese museums and in Neolithic temples as mysterious as Stonehenge or the sea gazers at Easter Island.
Though there are no direct flights from the U.S., it’s well worth an extra flight to get there because you haven’t really experienced the history of the Mediterranean until you’ve experienced Malta, the islands on the edge of the European map and at the center of European history.
Agents, if you'd like to learn more about Malta and how to market this amazing destination to your clients, visit the Travel Agent Academy Malta Specialist Program site for more information.
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