Part 2: “Travel” Books

In my discussion of “travel” books, I’m going to talk about Rhodes and Malta next. They are two really strategic and historically important islands in the Mediterranean. Rhodes is Greek but is very near the coast of Turkey. Malta is more or less in the middle of the entire Mediterranean and it is its own country. Both are historically significant for many reasons but notably, the Knights of Hospitallers were situated in both places in various points in time.

In order to really deepen one’s visits to these islands, I would highly recommend Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, The Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World, Roger Crowley. I’m really not fond of military history but these books made me care. The Knights of Hospitallers started their work during the crusades. After the fall of Jerusalem, they relocated to Rhodes. However, Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Rhodes in 1522, which resulted in somewhat of a truce (some say they were defeated). What is known is that the Knights were allowed to Rhodes and go elsewhere away from Turkey.

After wandering a bit, Charles V gave them the island of Malta perpetually. To show loyalty, they sent him a falcon each year. (Hence the Maltese Falcon). In 1565, the Ottoman fleet laid siege to Malta and heavily outnumbered the knights, about 8700 troops to 40,000. However, the Knights held the island long enough to have reinforcements come and the Ottomans retreated. It’s really an impressive story. Mr. Crowley really explains how incredible it was that the Knights held off with so few men.

Present day Rhodes is worth a visit. The old city has incredibly thick walls that could withstand a siege. It’s fairly touristic within the walls but there are some impressive old Hospitaller buildings to check out. The Hospital of the Knights itself is really a monumental building considering that it was built during the Medieval ages. I think one of the rooms could fit 2000 people! It houses the museum of antiquity with some fairly lovely finds. The Palace of the Grand Master is truly magnificent with mosaics on the floors. You can also take a lovely little boat cruise around part of the island to see the fortified city from the sea. You can see where the Colossus of Rhodes allegedly would have stood (but there is no way that it could have stood over the entrance of the harbor). There are also beautiful beaches if you are into that kind of thing. There are some impressive ancient Greek sites but we did not get to see them. Next time!

Malta is a marvel. It’s a place that you can visit 100 times and still not see everything, especially since it is such a tiny country. There is the Maltese language which is a combination of Italian, English and Siculo-Arabic (a dialect of Arabic spoken in Sicily). We stayed in Mdina, the old city, which is the an old walled Medieval city overlooking the rest of Malta. The walls and buildings are this light pink limestone. It reminded me a bit of the building facade in the third Indiana Jones when they find the final location of the Holy Grail. It’s very small with narrow streets that turn sharply so you can’t see very far. It is said that they were designed that way so that an arrow couldn’t go very far.

Valetta is the main city of the island, the former home of the Knights of Hospitallers. Like Mdina, it also has intricate pink limestone buildings. One unique thing about Malta is that it has two co-cathedrals. Normally, there would be only one for the country but the Knights must have gotten special dispensation. The co-cathedral of Mdina is lovely but the St. John’s Co-Cathedral of Valetta is simply marvelous. Normally, I’m not one for overly decorated places but this co-cathedral manages to be the right sort of decorated. It has several chapels that were financed by different ethnic groups in the order who were trying to compete with one another. There is this intricate fusion of gold, colorful marble, and various statutes. The floor is covered with squares that are tombstones in bright brilliant marble.

Also, the co-cathedral has several Michelangelo Caravaggio’s, which are simply stunning. Caravaggio lived and worked in Malta, and was even inducted into the order while painting. But he got into fight and wounded another brother. He was imprisoned in Fort St. Angelo and eventually escaped. He was promptly expelled from the order.

You can also see the famous forts from the siege of Malta: Fort St. Angelo and the star-shaped Fort Saint Elmo. They are truly impressive structures. Sadly, we did not get to tour them and I’m not sure if you can. But it was really something to see them across the water.

Fort St. Angelo, Malta Elisa Shoenberger (C) 2012
Fort St. Angelo, Malta
Elisa Shoenberger (C) 2012

There are many marvels of Malta from its prehistoric finds to the present day. It was crucial in WWII and was bombed heavily by the Germans. I hope that I’ll get back to check out all of its wonders.


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