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Malta Travel Guide

 The Siege of Malta - 1565

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In 1522 Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire attacked the Knights of St. John, the Hospitallers, in their island kingdom of Rhodes, where they had retired after being defeated and driven from the Holy Lands at the end of the 13th century. After a prolonged siege, Suleiman conquered the Fortress at Rhodes, but allowed the surviving knights, including Jean de la Valette, to depart.

La Valette eventually became the Grandmaster of the Hospitallers in their new home of Malta and in 1565 Malta became the focus of Suleiman, who viewed conquering this rock as a necessary tactic in his strategy for the conquest of Europe. The Siege of Malta, regarded as one of the critical battles of European history, lasted from mid-May to September 1565, with the final battle being waged at Mdina on September 11th of that year.

    General map of Malta showing the major areas involved in the Siege of 1565

The main harbor of Malta was (and is) on the north coast, although Valetta Town did not exist at the time.  Instead, Mount Sciberras descended toward the Mediterranean Sea and its snout was capped by Fort Saint Elmo, regarded, at the time, as the weakest link in the defense of Malta.

The Ottoman fleet landed at Marsaxlokk Bay and its troops pulled several batteries of cannons overland towards the Grand Harbor and Marsamxett Bay. The Turks regarded capturing Fort Saint Elmo as the key to controlling the Harbor and besieged it from Mount Sciberras as well as from the headlands to the west and east of the fort. Taking Fort Elmo required over a month of fierce fighting and resulted in the loss of thousands of combatants .

Detail map showing the fortifications in the Grand Harbor involved in the Siege of 1565

From there, Ottomans turned their attention to the two, small peninsulas of Birgu and Senglea. Birgu was capped by the sturdy fortress Saint Angelo, while Senglea was afforded modest protection by Fort Saint Michael on its landward end and, also, by the Spur facing the Grand Harbor. After conquering Fort Saint Elmo, the Ottomans were able to sail their fleet into Marsamxett Harbor and eventually carried some of their boats across Mount Sciberras and launched them into the Grand Harbor as part of the plan to capture Senglea and Birgu.  The Ottomans had the higher ground on all sides of the remaining forts and the situation looked bleak for the Knights of Saint John and their supporters.

    Fort Saint Angelo has been rebuilt since the Siege of 1565

The fact that the battle eventually turned against the forces of the Ottoman Empire is a fascinating read and we highly recommend Roger Crowley’s "Empires of the Sea", a book that is focused on the Siege of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto ( a sea battle that helped save Western Europe from Turkish conquest).

    These fortifications on Senglea, post date the Siege of 1565

 
Reinforcements for Malta from  Europe (mainly from Sicily and Spain) did not arrive until the end of the summer.  On September 11, 1565 the newly arrived European forces battled the Ottomans at Mdina, a walled, fortified city held by the Knights. The battle resulted in route and the surviving Ottomans retreated to St. Paul’s Bay (St. Paul was shipwrecked here according to local history) where skiffs from nearby Ottoman fleet were waiting to rescue them. However, the escape was a doomed effort for both the  Ottoman soldiers and part of their fleet.

 

Jean la Valette died three years after the battle having served his order and the island quite well. During this period, a settlement in his honor was established near Fort Saint Elmo on the slopes of Mount Sciberras.  The settlement was named Valetta, now the capital of Malta.

 

          Entrance to the walled city of Mdina, across the moat

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