I hear the concussive boom of cannon fire and see the smoke clear as the guns are fired across the bay. Fires are blazing, turning night into day. Warriors roar as swords clatter against shields and swords, the metallic clang carries across the warm Mediterranean air.
Walking along the fortified walls of the Fort of St. Elmo, this is what I see in my mind’s eye as I stare across the twinkling, azure waters of the Grand Harbour. I am standing in the middle of the Great Siege of Malta. Cannonballs fly at the wall of ships, the Maltese and the Knights Hospitaller desperately trying to repel the Ottoman Empire’s attempts to conquer the Island.
You cannot escape the spectre of Valletta’s history. As I traverse the narrow, honey-hued alleyways, I constantly see reminders of the Knights of St. John; their historic palazzi, forts, and baroque treasures are scattered throughout the city. This is why it’s so easy to visualise the history here, the city wears it like a badge of honour.
The island was first claimed in 1530 by Philippe de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the Knight’s of the Order of St. John after several years without a permanent base. They were expelled from Rhodes, Greece by Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottomans in 1523 after a 6 month siege.
Malta’s strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean made it an important prize as the gateway between East and West. It was considered key for the expansionist ambitions of the Ottomans; first as a stepping stone to Sicily, which then would have given them a base to launch an attack on the Kingdom of Naples.
In May 1565, the Ottoman forces led by Sultan Suleiman arrived in the Grand Harbour with an armada of 193 vessels and an estimated 40,000 troops including 6,000 Janissaries; the Sultan’s elite household guard. Armed with 70 huge cannons, what followed was a 5 month siege: an existential war for Europe and Christianity itself.
The vastly outnumbered Maltese, numbering just 8,000 regular troops and 700 Knights, defied the might of the Ottomans; who’d enjoyed several years of naval dominance in the Mediterranean. It turned out to be one of the fiercest battles of the Holy Wars. At one point the Knights were firing the severed heads of Ottoman prisoners at the enemy from their cannons, a response to the Ottomans floating headless corpses of captured Knights across the Grand Harbour.
Despite the loss of Fort St. Elmo to the invaders, the Maltese lead by Jean Parisot de Valette, held out over the course of the summer and repelled 10 repeated attacks on Fort St. Angelo. In August, huge breaches were made in the Fort’s defences but the Ottomans were unable to capitalise and seize the fort. The knights fought on defiantly and refused the Ottoman’s terms of surrender.
The siege finally lifted on September 7th when a relief force consisting of mainly Spanish and Italian soldiers arrived. It caused the Turks to retreat bringing the battle to an end on the 8th September, now celebrated as a national holiday. In total, estimates suggest the Ottoman’s lost around 10,000 soldiers although this figure may have been even higher.
The victory broke the illusion of Ottoman invincibility in battle and helped stem Turkish expansion into Europe. Malta garnered the admiration of the continent and it helped solidify Christian unity against the Islamic threat. Fianlly, Jean Parisot de Valette was made a legend. The fortified city of Valletta was built and named after him. He is interred there to this day.
What may be one of the most decisive battles in the history of Europe is strangely, little known today. It can never be said for sure what would have happened had the Ottomans been successful but Europe and life as we know it could have been completely different from today. Constantinople (Modern day Istanbul) was once a Christian city and it fell to the Ottoman’s. Europe may well have been the same.
Thanks for reading,