Malta and Its Siege

Malta’s Three Cities are Senglea, Vittorioso and Conspicua. The first is named after Grandmaster Claude de la Sengle. The second and third are nods to the victorious Knights of St. John and the 1565 Siege of Malta, that titanic event in Maltese history that pitted Mustapha Pasha, commander of the Turkish land forces and his brother, Piale Pasha, commander of the Turkish navy, against Jean Parisot de la Valette, 48th Grandmaster of the Knights of St. John. Malta’s capital city, Valetta, is named after him. His portrait hangs in the throne room of the Grandmaster’s palace. In it he is wearing an outer garment that looks like the Maltese flag with sleeves.

Malta’s written history begins with the Phoenicians, who inhabited the island around 800BC. It was a whipping post during the Punic Wars, finally ending up in the hands of the Romans until the dissolution of the Roman Empire. Then it changed hands like a hot potato, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, the Spanish. King James the First of Aragon expelled all the Muslims on the island around the year 1250AD. The Spanish were always expelling someone, Arabs, Muslims, Jews—and always to their own detriment since in every case it put their economic clock back at least a hundred years. In 1530 Charles V offered Malta to the Knights of St. John. The locals didn’t have a say in the matter. Charles was looking for a cheap first line of defense against the Turks.

The great siege began on the 23 of May 1565 with an attack on Fort St. Elmo. Suleyman the Magnificent was intent on using Malta as a stepping-stone to Sicily and then Europe. He sent a land and a sea force to do the job. The Ottoman naval attack was under the command of Dragut, the 80 year old commander who, fourteen years earlier, in 1551 had defeated the very same Knights at the Battle of Tripoli. After a month of remorseless bombardment, Fort St. Elmo succumbed, but not before a cannonball put an end to the old man himself. News of St. Elmo’s fall reached Dragut just moments before he died. He is reported to have made several signs of joy, including raising his eyes heavenward “as if in thankfulness for its mercies.” Then he closed them forever. At his death Mustapha Pasha, whose land forces suffered a loss of 8,000 men, is recorded as having said, “If so small a son has cost us so dear, what price must we pay for the father.” By the son he meant St. Elmo. The father, of course, was Fort St. Angelo.

What interests me about this battle is the way in which the two leaders, Jean de la Valette and Dragut, the one a seventy one year old Christian, the other an 80 year old Muslim, announced their intention to fight to the death. Upon breaching the walls of St. Elmo’s, Mustapha Pasha found 60 Knights of St. John’s still alive out of the original force of roughly 150. He promptly decapitated all of them save nine. (I wonder why nine and not one for each apostle.) These he nailed to wooden crosses in mockery of the crucifixion and sent them floating, crosses and all, across the harbor to St. Angelo’s. De la Valette showed that he, too, had an imagination the equal of Mustapha Pasha’s. He decapitated all his Turkish prisoners, stuffed their heads into cannon and fired them back across the harbor to St. Elmo’s.

The battle was one of the most momentous not only in Maltese history, but in the history of Europe itself. Here is Jean de la Valette bravely holding out against the Turks for three and a half months. Nor could he have held out much longer. Fortunately for him, the Grand Viceroy of Sicily sent 9,000 men to the rescue. This was the so-called Grand Soccorso. There is a frieze commemorating it in the throne room at the Grandmaster’s palace. This relief force was enough to send Piale Pascha and Mustapha Pascha back to Suleyman the Magnificent with a shrug of their shoulders that said, “Not this time.” Suleyman said, “With me alone do my armies triumph.” He, too, was an old man.

More than 12,000 men died in this battle including 400 Knights of St. John and yet the image of octogenarian Dragut sending nine crucified Knights floating toward de la Valette and the septuagenarian de la Valette retaliating by stuffing cannon with the heads of dead Turks and sky-rocketing them back to Dragut strikes me as, well, if not funny, at least blood-curdlingly ridiculous. What would they have done if they had been forced to face one another directly? Claw at one another’s beards? Stomp petulantly on the ground until one of them died of apoplexy? I am awestruck at the endlessly creative ways mankind, especially old mankind, has devised to kill off its young men.

I look out over the waters of Dockyard Creek at St. Angelo and Senglea and count the expensive yachts moored to the quays. I watch the tiny tourist boats skittering beneath the citadels like water spiders. As I look at the brand new condos, whose balconies overlook the four hundred and forty four year old slaughterhouse of St. Elmo’s, each condo costing at least 700,000 Euros for 800 square meters of space, it is hard for me to see the history of what happened here as anything other than absurd. But that, I suppose, makes it no different from any other conflict in the history of the world, a history in which men have chosen to resolve their differences by killing their adversaries instead of their impulses.

Click here to listen to this entry in audio