Nicholas de Piro doesn’t look like a warrior monk. As the bespectacled grandfather padded around his 16th century palazzo, pointing out curiosities — like a gilded sedan chair and silver medical tools — he appeared more likely to offer me a cup of tea than slay anyone in the name of Christ. His palazzo is called Casa Rocca Piccola and is open to the public as a historic home.
And yet, de Piro’s order, the Knights of Malta (officially the Sovereign Hospitaller Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta) were known for brutal mayhem in their heyday, beginning in the 16th century and continuing into the 18th. Drawn from the most noble families of Europe, the Knights left their homelands, took vows of chastity and obedience, and dedicated themselves to fighting infidels.
The order no longer wages war, focusing instead on caring for the sick and poor. Until I arrived at de Piro’s doorstep, on the Mediterranean island-nation of Malta, however, I had no idea that the Knights of Malta still existed.
The history of Malta — an archipelago 50 miles south of Sicily that includes three inhabited islands — is peppered with violence and disorder. Today, though, it is hard to find a corner of the country that doesn’t feel peaceful and safe. Its crystal-clear, intensely blue waters make for some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in Europe while Malta’s beaches, rocky coves, arid hills and warm weather have long attracted northern neighbors in search of cheap sunshine.
Yet not even 2 percent of visitors to Malta come from the United States. If you have seen Malta recently, it was probably in its role as a Hollywood stand-in for places like Athens ( Munich) and Jerusalem ( World War Z).
But underneath that tranquil, movie-set-friendly surface lies an astoundingly rich past, even for a region crisscrossed over time by myriad cultures. Settlement on Malta dates back to prehistory; it has been ruled over the centuries by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs, among others. After briefly being conquered by Napoleon around the turn of the 19th century, Malta spent decades under British rule before achieving independence in 1964.
But the main draw for me was the pivotal epoch of the Knights. The Hospitaller Knights of St. John, founded during the Crusades, settled in Malta in 1530 and stayed until 1798, during which time they left an indelible mark. The cosmopolitan soldier-aristocrats lured artists and craftsmen to their shores and built castles, cathedrals, and the city of Valletta, still the nation’s bustling capital.
Although Valletta covers less than half a square mile, UNESCO calls it “one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.” And despite plenty of visitors, Valletta doesn’t have that over-touristed, museum-like feel that afflicts some historic quarters.
During rush hour, Maltese on their way to and from work stream across the 16th century bridge that leads from the surrounding neighborhoods into the city. At night they spill out of the Italian-Baroque Manoel Theater, which shows opera and classical concerts, to down quick espressos during intermission. On Friday evenings during the warmer months, the Bridge Bar puts out cushions on the 450-year-old stone steps outside its doors, and a throng gathers to listen to live jazz by candlelight.
My fascination with the bygone era of Malta’s knights inevitably includes the epic clash of civilizations that occurred in Malta in 1565, when the Knights faced off against the superpower of the day, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s Ottoman Empire. The gory and hard-fought Great Siege of Malta was the climax of a fight between cross and crescent for control of the region. One of Malta’s crucial strongholds, Fort St. Angelo, sat directly across the Grand Harbour from the patio of my hotel, just about within cannon range.
Stepping out into Valletta’s streets for a stroll, it was immediately evident that I was in the city the Knights made. The sensible grid system that their architect — Francesco Laparelli (a former assistant to Michelangelo) — laid out hundreds of years ago remains very much intact and makes getting lost in this city nearly impossible.
Baroque facades, many with enclosed wooden balconies, line the roads, with stone steps serving as pedestrian thoroughfares over steeper terrain. Star-shaped Fort St. Elmo, which fell to the Turks early in the Great Siege, is a hulking landmark.
Newer buildings are nearly always built of the same, gray-yellow-pink local limestone as the rest of the city, giving an elegant consistency to the entire metropolis. Even the not-yet-complete project that the superstar architect Renzo Piano has designed for the entrance to Valletta — which includes a new parliament building, a restored opera house and a gate reminiscent of a Mesopotamian ziggurat — is built of two types of Maltese limestone. As I walked around the city after dark, the stone glowed in splashes of light from bars and restaurants.
To better understand how much geography has affected Malta’s history, I took a water taxi ride across the Grand Harbour. The two-mile-long inlet, with its deeply indented shores, has made a dream home for numerous naval powers. Today its waters are traversed by everything from brightly painted wooden rowboats, called dghajsa, which have curved prows that recall their Phoenician forebears, to “disco-on-the-sea boats” (so christened by one of my hotel’s wizened caretakers), which on weekend nights are rented out for parties. From my deck at the British Hotel, with its spectacular view of the harbor, I had heard the thump-a-thump of dance music floating across the water to commingle with the peal of church bells.
Those gently wafting sounds and placid waters belied Malta’s brutal past. On a Sunday morning in June of 1565, just over a month into the Great Siege, the bodies of four Knights, decapitated and nailed to crucifixes, washed ashore at the base of Fort St. Angelo. Not to be outdone by this gift from the Turkish commander Mustafa Pasha, Jean Parisot de la Valette, grand master of the Knights, decapitated all of his Turkish prisoners and used cannons to lob their heads from Fort St. Angelo back across the harbor.
During my trip across the harbor, I counted no fewer than four major fortifications looming above — as well as St. Angelo, there are Forts Ricasoli, St. Elmo and St. Michael. And I saw the steep walls of Valletta from a new angle, rising to 190 feet above me at their highest point, where the Upper Barrakka Gardens offer a conqueror’s view of the expanse below. This is what all those vanquishing forces were after: A well-defended harbor in the middle of a busy sea.
The water taxi dropped me near Fort St. Angelo, and I thought about those floating crucifixes as I walked through the winding medieval streets of the surrounding town, called both Birgu and Vittoriosa. The fort is undergoing a major restoration (scheduled to open to the public in 2015), so I went to meet its curator, Matthew Balzan, in his temporary office, which is housed down a narrow street in the Inquisitor’s Palace.
With time to kill I explored the premises, learning from a plaque next to a torture chamber — metal bars, hanging rope, strange and creepy wooden devices — that apparently I had the Inquisition all wrong. “Contrary to popular imagination the Inquisition did not use torture indiscriminately,” it read. It “was reserved for cases of very serious breaches of orthodoxy.” A placard with a list of victims included some of their sins, among them “owning prohibited books,” “sorcery” and “apostasy to Islam.”
From shining armor to model ships, watchtowers to war re-enactments, a full plunge into the Knights’ Malta could occupy an obsessive for months.