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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.
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
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 .
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.
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).
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.
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