The Knights of Malta 101

Ben Bowlin

Although you'll usually hear this organization called the "Knights of Malta" in conspiracy circles, their full name is a mouthful: The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. And, unlike some of the other groups you hear about in conspiracy theories, the Sovereign Order of Malta is real. This organization provides humanitarian assistance in 120 countries. It also has diplomatic relations with 104 countries, despite not being a state itself.

You can imagine how excited Matt and I were to cover this in our podcast. We weren't able to delve into the group's history as fully as we wanted to, so we're summing it up here on the blog. For the sake of brevity (and my typing fingers) we'll just call this organization the Order.

So what exactly is the Order, and how did it survive for more than 900 years?

It's a long story, but here are the basics: The Order is one of the most ancient Catholic religious orders in the world. Its pedigree dates back to around 1048 or 1050, when the Caliph of Egypt gave a group of merchants from Amalfi permission to build a combination church, hospital and convent in Jerusalem, with the understanding that the hospital would admit pilgrims of all religions and races. In 1113, Pope Paschall II issued a bull placing the Order under the authority of the Holy See, and also giving the right to elect its leaders without interference from other authorities, whether secular or religious. Since the Crusades were (to say the least) a bloody, violent time, the Order eventually acquired a military bent as it defended patients, pilgrims and conquered territory from Muslim forces.

These two abilities -- the independence from other nations and the right to use military force -- provide the basis for the Order's peculiar standing in the international community.

It's no secret that the Order had some ups and downs over the course of its centuries-old existence. In 1291, prompted by the fall of the last Christian compound in the area, the Order struck out for the island of Cyprus. From there the Order relocated to Rhodes, where it built one of the most powerful naval forces in the Mediterranean. The Order called Rhodes home until 1523, and during this time it issued its own currency and cultivated diplomatic relationships with other countries. When Sultan Suleiman (the Magnificent) held the Order under siege for months, the knights were eventually forced to surrender the island.

For seven years the Order was a sovereign entity with no territory of its own. Fortunately, Emperor Charles V gifted the island of Malta to the Order in 1530. This lasted until 1798, when Napoleon took over the island. By this point the Order had a long-standing rule forbidding its forces from raising arms against other Christians. As a result, they left Malta, traveling through Messina, Catania and Ferrera before eventually settling in Rome.

The Order is still based in Rome today, and it still conducts extensive humanitarian work across the planet. If you'd like to learn more about the Order's current humanitarian projects, you can check them out here. Fascinating stuff, sure -- but what about those conspiracy theories I mentioned earlier?

Don't think I've forgotten about them -- just check out our episode to learn why some people think the Order is more than a global group of do-gooders.