A Tale of Two Sieges

The Mediterranean island of Malta contains many reminders of the worst of times--and the worst of times

President Franklin Roosevelt called it "one tiny bright flame in the darkness--a beacon of hope for the clearer days which have come." He was talking about the Mediterranean island of Malta, which had just survived a tremendous battering during World War II.

Malta, an island about 60 miles south of Sicily, had been in trouble before. In the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire's Suleiman the Magnificent decided to conquer it to destroy an order of Crusader Knights who made it their home. Suleiman failed in his bid to wipe the Knights of St. John from the map, and the Great Siege of 1565 became a part of Maltese legend.

Nearly 400 years later Malta again found itself under siege, as Axis aircraft tried to bomb it into submission during World War II. When the dust finally settled, Malta was bloody but unbowed. Britain's King George V awarded the entire island the George Cross, the Empire's highest civilian honor.

Today Malta is an independent country, having become a republic in 1974. It's composed of three main islands--fish-shaped Malta, only 17 miles long and about nine wide, smaller Gozo and tiny Comino. The country is a popular stop for cruise ships and for the British who come during the scorching summer months to bake the English climate from their bones. Its rich history, ranging from Neolithic stone monuments older than the pyramids to artifacts from World War II, make it a fascinating place for historic travelers.

Malta's capital is Valletta, named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1980. It's a modest city, compact and walkable. Because its buildings were constructed from the same type of local stone, the city has an orderly uniformity, with spots of color provided by enclosed wooden balconies, many of them painted a vivid green, that jut from their sides. As I walked through the town, looking into some of the many churches, pausing to examine the religious statues that occupy niches in the buildings on corners, and leaning over some of the imposing fortifications that date back 400 years, I was struck by the sense of being in a very different part of the world. But then I would see the signs for Pizza Hut or McDonald's, walk by a little restaurant on Republic Street named Sinatra's or hear a busker at the city gates singing "Sweet Home Alabama," and I suddenly realized that it is indeed a small world. (Perhaps most disturbing was the current Maltese obsession--The Jerry Springer Show.)

The city is perched on a point between two harbors: the Grand Harbor, which for centuries gave Malta strategic significance, and Marsamxett. At the very tip of the peninsula is Fort St. Elmo, scene of the fiercest fighting during the Great Siege of 1565. The fort now houses a police academy. Pay a visit when it's open on the weekends and you might encounter some volunteers parading through the fortress, dressed up as Knights of old.

The Knights were great builders who left their mark all over the Maltese islands during their 268-year occupancy. They were an aristocratic order of Crusaders founded in the twelfth century to tend to the sick in Jerusalem (their full name is Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem). Moslem forces drove them out of the Holy Land in the thirteenth century, and then from the island of Rhodes in 1522. For years the order remained homeless until Holy Roman Emperor Charles V offered them Malta.

The Knights weren't eager to accept the gift. "The island of Malta is merely a rock of soft sandstone, called Tufa, about six or seven leagues long and three or four broad," their scouts reported; "the surface of the rock is barely covered with more than three or four feet of earth, which is likewise stony, and very unfit to grow corn and other grain." Traveling around the island, I discovered that the scouts were right: Malta is indeed a stony island with a rough, rocky terrain and many prickly pear cactuses. There are no lakes or rivers, and it's not a destination for people looking for trees--or even beaches, which are fairly scarce. Much of the coast plunges down to the sea in cliffs.

Nonetheless, the Knights accepted the offer--in part because the rent was so good. Charles asked for the tribute of just one falcon each year. (This provided the basis for the legendary black bird in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.) The order arrived on Malta in 1530 and settled in Birgù, across the harbor from present-day Valletta. Today in Birgù (renamed Vittoriosa after the defeat of the Turks but still known to the Maltese by its old name) you can walk narrow streets that seem little changed from the time of the Knights, except for the power lines overhead and the street lights bolted to the sides of buildings. Here you can find some of the Knights' original auberges--essentially their fraternity houses, one for each of eight langues ("tongues" or nationalities) that made up the order. In Senglea, next to Birgù, you can see a stone watch tower built by the Knights, overlooking the harbor. They adorned it with a carved eye and ear to symbolize unceasing vigilance.

The Knights knew they had to keep watch because their attacks on Moslem shipping were certain to bring down the wrath of Suleiman. The Turks finally arrived in 1565 with a great flotilla of warships and an invading army. Their troops set up camp on Mount Sciberras, now the site of Valletta, and started a siege of Fort St. Elmo. For four weeks 600 Knights defended the fort against the Turks, inflicting an estimated 8,000 casualties on their Moslem foes. The fort finally fell, but for the Turks it was a costly victory that weakened them considerably and led to their eventual defeat.

It was war with no holds barred, Christian versus Moslem, each side convinced that God was on its side. After the Turks captured Fort St. Elmo, they crucified their captives on rafts and floated them across the harbor to the Knights' stronghold in Fort St. Angelo. The Knights, not to be outdone, executed their Turkish prisoners and fired their heads from cannons back to the enemy lines. But the Turks had exhausted their forces taking the fort, and when Sicily provided the Knights with some much-needed reinforcements, the battered Turks gave up and sailed for home.

The siege had shown the Knights the danger of leaving Mount Sciberras undefended, so they soon started building a fortified city on the hill. They named it after the leader who had guided them through the siege, Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette. It was, in many ways, a very modern city, designed on a grid pattern, with houses required to be connected to the sewage system and built according to some uniform standards. The Knights intended it to be a "city built by gentlemen for gentlemen."

Although Valletta was heavily bombed during World War II, much of the Knights' handiwork remains. The most spectacular building is the Grand Masters' Palace. Built between 1570 and 1580, it now houses Malta's Parliament and Presidential offices, in rather grandiose style. Suits of armor line its great hallways, and beamed ceilings soar high overhead. The various state chambers contain beautiful tapestries and artworks. I was fascinated by the armory, which houses a great collection of the Knights' weaponry--classic suits of armor, swords, crossbows, guns, pikes, powder horns, cannons--just about anything you'd need to drive away a Turkish horde.

If you'd like to visit some of the original Knights themselves, you'll find them in permanent residence in Valletta's St. John's Co-Cathedral. Completed in 1577, the cathedral is a lushly decorated baroque masterpiece. And it's a little ghoulish, too. Glance down at your feet and you'll note that you're treading on the Knights' very tombstones, many of them depicting the grim visage of a skeletal reaper. You can find Jean de la Valette himself in the cathedral's crypt. Buried next to him is his faithful secretary, Englishman Oliver Starkey. Following King Henry VIII's break with the Catholic church, the English langue left the Knights, but Starkey remained to serve Valette throughout the siege.

The most prominent statue in Valletta's Upper Baranca Gardens, a green oasis on a perch overlooking the Grand Harbor, potrays another Englishman, Winston Churchill. It's one of many indications of British influence on the islands. In Valletta's Republic Square there's a statue of Queen Victoria garbed in traditional Maltese lace. Classic red British phone boxes appear in strange juxtaposition with Maltese architecture. And I noticed influences more felt than seen. While Malta has a distinctly Mediterranean feel, I found the people to be very laid back and friendly, with none of the volatility often associated with the Mediterranean--like in Sicily just across the water.

The British arrived in Malta in 1800 to get rid of the French, two years after Napoleon's troops finished what Suleiman started in 1565 and bloodlessly drove out the Knights--by then beset with all the vices of bored, idle aristocrats. The Maltese were glad to see them go. (Napoleon himself spent only a few days in Malta; he used the Palazzo Parisio on Merchants' Street for his headquarters.) However, the French proved even worse. Popular resentment erupted into full-fledged revolt, and with British help the Maltese drove out the French.

Maltese good will towards the English was cemented during World War II, the second great siege. It started with an attack by 10 Italian bombers on June 11, 1940. Even though the island's sole fighter protection came from three obsolete British Gloster Gladiators biplanes known as Faith, Hope and Charity, the Italians were content to bomb from high altitude, and their bombs did little damage.

Reminders of the war are all over the island. On Fort St. Elmo's ramparts there's a memorial to the first deaths of the war, at the spot where bombs from the initial Italian raid killed six Maltese artillerymen. The ruins of the Royal Opera House, destroyed in 1942, stand at the upper end of Republic Street. Overlooking the Grand Harbor is the 10-ton Siege Bell, a memorial to those who died during the war. One of the strangest reminders of the war is in the huge domed church in the town of Mosta. On April 9, 1942, 300 people were in the church when a bomb crashed through the dome and went skidding across the floor without exploding. The event is remembered as "the miracle of the bomb," and in the church's sacristy there's a replica of the explosive device along with photographs and an account of the event.

Visitors interested in the war should also make a point of visiting three museums on the island, the War Museum in Fort St. Elmo, the Lascaris War Rooms just outside Valletta and the Malta Aviation Museum at the former airfield of Ta'Qali.

The first thing I saw when I entered the small War Museum was an Italian E-boat, a one-man torpedo craft that participated in a failed attack on the Grand Harbor on July 26, 1941. Other relics included uniforms, flight gear, guns and other bits and pieces. I was most interested in the aircraft fragments, twisted metal that said more than words about the violence of war. There was an engine from a German Stuka bomber and one from a British Spitfire, its propeller bent and a very obvious bullet hole in its coolant system. On the wall hung the battered starboard wing of a German Messer-schmitt BF-109, recovered after a trawler found it tangled in its net. The museum's centerpiece is the wingless fuselage of Faith, one of the three Gloster Gladiators from the war's early days.

There are more airplanes out at the Malta Aviation Museum, inside a rounded, corrugated structure called a Romney Hut near the Ta'Qali crafts village, where tourists can buy handmade Maltese products. During the war, Royal Air Force Hurricanes and Spitfires operated from Ta'Qali to protect the islands from the Axis assault. At the War Museum in Valletta I had seen an aerial photo of Ta'Qali from April 1942 that showed the entire area pock-marked by bomb craters. Even today people occasionally discover unexploded munitions here.

Here in these chambers beneath Valletta, World War II meets the Knights of St. John. The rooms were carved out by the Knights (or their slave laborers, anyway) and named after one of the grand masters (a legendarily sour fellow whose name lives on in a Maltese expression for making a long face). During the war the British used these chambers as their command center for defending the islands. It was also very compartmentalized. Workers saw only what they had to see. Cremona told of giving a tour to one man who had been stationed here but had never seen anything beyond the one room in which he worked for two years.

Later the War Rooms provided the command center for Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily. American General Dwight D. Eisenhower had his headquarters here, in a small office overlooking a huge, wall-sized map of the theater of operations. The map was so tall workers used a wheeled ladder, like those used in libraries to reach the top shelves, to plot troop movements on the upper portions.

By then Malta's second siege was over. Winston Churchill called the island an "unsinkable aircraft carrier," and it proved to be just that. Like Britain it had passed through the onslaught and survived. The Knights would have been proud.

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