The Knights of the Order of Saint John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller or the Knights of Malta (officially known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta) are one of the oldest institutions in the world. This Order was born out of a sense of Christian duty of providing medical assistance to the pilgrims in Jerusalem. Over the years this evolved into a military order for protecting the Holy Land during the Crusades; then into a form of piracy against the Ottoman Empire, based on the island of Rhodes; later as a bulwark protecting southern Christendom from their new home on Malta; and finally to a charitable organization based in Rome.
In the year 600 Pope Gregory I had commissioned a hospital to be built in Jerusalem to care for Christian pilgrims to the Holy City. At the time Jerusalem was under the Christian rule of the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) and was a popular destination for pilgrims throughout Christendom. The hospital remained in Jerusalem after the Muslim conquest 38 years later. Indeed its function was now even more necessary as the dangers of pilgrimage were now increased due to the region being in the hands of a rival religion. In 800 the Emperor Charlemagne even provided funds to enlarge the hospital as well as adding a library to it. However, this hospital in Jerusalem came to an abrupt end when the Caliph, Al-Hakim (sometimes referred to as the Caligula of Islam due to his insanity and paranoia), destroyed the hospital as well as hundreds of other Christian buildings in Jerusalem.
However, in 1023 some merchants from Amalfi were able to persuade the Caliph, Ali az-Zahir, to let them rebuild the hospital on the site of the Monastery of St John the Baptist. This hospital was run by Benedictine monks and resumed the original mission of catering to the medical needs of the pilgrims to the city. Things would change when, in 1096, Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade to recapture Jerusalem. By 1099 the Crusaders had captured the Holy City. Fourteen years later (1113) and Pope Paschal II issued a bull to grant the hospital its independence as a monastic order.
By this point the order was no longer just concerned with caring for sick pilgrims. As the new Kingdom of Jerusalem struggled against a sea of hostile neighbours the newly formed Hospitallers (in conjunction with the newly formed Knights Templar) shifted focus to providing armed escorts for the pilgrims through hostile lands. Eventually the Orders of the Knights of St John (Hospitallers) and the Templars would evolve to become the crack troops of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Time and again these military orders would defeat invading Muslim armies, often heavily outnumbered, and would serve as an example of Christian chivalry. Both orders would also construct castles and fortifications all over modern day Israel, Lebanon and southern Syria. The formidable castle of Krak des Chevaliers, in Syria, was built by the Hospitallers and still stands to this day as one of the most complete medieval castles still in existence (However, it was recently occupied by the Syrian rebels and experienced government shelling as a result).
Despite the best efforts of the Hospitallers and the Templars Jerusalem was captured in 1187 by the armies of Saladin resulting in the expulsion of the Hospitallers from the city. They fled, along with the King of Jerusalem to the city of Acre in northern Israel. The halls of the Hospitallers still exist there today as an example of the fine living conditions that could be expected by the Knights of the order. They would stay in Acre for the next 100 years stemming the relentless tide of the Muslim reconquest in the region. Eventually they were cast out Acre in 1291 and again fled with the court to the island of Cyprus, the last place in the region still in Crusader hands. The Templars by comparison went back to Europe and accumulated vast wealth at the expense of their raison d’etre. In 1312 the order of the Knights Templar were disbanded and much of their property (they were one of the largest land owners in Europe) was handed over to the Hospitallers as well as many former Templars who subsequently joined the Order.
Back in Cyprus the Hospitallers had become disillusioned with the cutthroat politics of the dysfunctional court and left. In 1310 Grand Master Fulkes de Villaret took his knights and seized the island of Rhodes from the Byzantine Empire. From Rhodes the Hospitallers, now called the Knights of Rhodes found a renewed sense of purpose. They would defend the pilgrims and harass the Muslims by sea and constructed a mighty fleet which policed the eastern Mediterranean. By the 15th century they were seen as a priority target by the Sultan of Egypt and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (who had recently taken Constantinople and destroyed the last remnant of the Eastern Roman Empire). The Knights managed to fight off two large scale invasions against the odds: one by Egypt in 1444 and one from the Ottoman Empire in 1480. The Knights were even able to go on the offensive and take the ancient city of Halicarnassus in Anatolia in 1494.
The Knights were finally cast out of Rhodes by the new Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Magnificent, in 1522. Suleiman had an army of 100,000 against the Knights mere 7,000. The Knights managed to draw out the siege for six months and captured the imagination of Christian Europe. Even the Sultan was impressed and allowed the Knights to leave Rhodes with full military honours as a sign of his respect for them.
The Knights wandered around Europe for seven years until, in 1530, the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, gave them the islands of Malta and Gozo for the tribute of a live Maltese falcon to be delivered every year on All Souls Day (Novemeber 2nd). The intention behind this was to use the Knights as a defense against a Mulsim invasion of Sicily and to protect the Mediterranean from the Barbary pirates who constantly harassed European trade routes. The Knights set about their task of building and fortifying Malta against a future Ottoman invasion.
This invasion came in 1565. Suleiman (now 80 years old) attacked Malta with 48,000 men under the command of a former pirate called Dragut Rais (71 years old). The Knights (now called the Knights of Malta) had roughly 7,000 men, most of whom were militia under the command of Grand Master (and former galley slave) Jean Parisot de la Valette (71 years making the combined age of these three principle actors 222 years). In an epic three month siege the Knights of Malta managed to drive back the overwhelming armies of the Ottoman Empire, killing Rais in the process. This siege would become known as the Great Siege of Malta and would become one of the prides of the Maltese people (possibly surpassed only by the Siege of Malta in World War II)
Despite their success the Knights still expected a future invasion from the Ottoman Empire. With this in mind they rebuilt their defenses and built the city of Valletta, named after La Valette. However, this anticipated invasion never came and the Knights slowly were left without purpose. With no new enemy to fight the Order slipped into decadence and became famous as a playground for the second sons of Europe’s nobility. Grand Master Lascaris, in 1657, tried to reverse this trend by making his knights play a form of croquet called Palla a Maglio in the hope that it would stop his knights from being promiscuous (being technically a monastic order).
The French Revolution caused a serious dent in the Knights finances and when Napoleon eventually came to Malta the Knights were in no position to offer the kind of resistance they had against the Turks. The Knights surrendered Malta in 1798 without a shot being fired and were forced again into exile. The Knights dispersed all over Europe. Some disenchanted Knights even went to Russia and set up a Russian version of the Order and elected Tsar Paul I as Grand Master (in opposition to Grand Master von Hompesch).
In 1834 Pope Leo XIII set up the Order in Rome and set them back to their original mission, hospital and welfare work. The Order to this day is recognized internationally as a Sovereign entity (the same status as a nation) and they still practice their mission of caring for the sick and providing relief to disasters and conflicts (maintaining their own air force for this purpose). This institution has survived nearly 1000 years changing name and purpose as it suited and long outliving their brother order the Knights Templar because of it. They are the last remaining vestige of the First Crusade and it is fitting that after all this time they have returned to the original purpose of their founding in 1023 in Jerusalem as an order committed to helping the sick.