I have a little tale to tell, and it's a true story. It's history. It's a story that the citizens of the island nation of Malta still celebrate to this day, every September 8th, as their national holiday.
The story begins with Maltese falcons. The island nation of Malta sits on the glittering greenish blue of the Mediterranean Sea, just south of Italy. In 1530, not long after the King of Spain became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Europe was about to be invaded by massive Moslem armies led by Suleiman, intent on conquering Europe and forcibly converting the people to Islam. The armies would come from the Moslem nations in the south and east (North Africa, Turkey, etc.), and the island of Malta would be among the first to be attacked. Charles V knew this, and asked an order of Knights based in Sicily to relocate to Malta and defend it. For the price of one Maltese falcon per year, Charles V would grant them rulership of the island to govern as they saw fit (the famous Humphrey Bogart film called The Maltese Falcon bases its plot device on this historical arrangement). The Knights agreed and became forever known as the Knights of Malta. From the Knights' perspective, this was not an acquisition of land for the sake of vacationing pleasure. It took unfathomable bravery to accept this offer from Charles V. Some might even call it a death wish. The Knights knew what storm was about to crash down upon their heads. Thousands upon thousands of Moslem and Ottoman swords and sails raised high were heading straight towards them. Picture, if you will (and if you've seen the movie), the scene from Lord of the Rings: Return of the King when Gondor is about to be besieged by endless legions of Sauron's armies. I always remember the shots from the high ivory white terraces and pinnacles beholding a massive cloud of dust from soldiers marching like ants towards Gondor. The Knights were willingly accepting this same doom. The man who led the knights was Jean de Vallette, a 70-year old man who began making preparations against the coming siege the best that he could.
The doom did indeed come, and it came upon them with haste, and with startling fury. In 1565 the great storm approached. Suleiman had assembled the greatest armada since ancient times: 200 warships populated by more than 40,000 of his best most experienced soldiers, all ready to die for Suleiman and their cause of conquering Europe for Islam. The force prepared to defend Malta included 500 Knights, 2000 Spanish and Italian mercenaries, and some 3,000 poorly trained and equipped Maltese volunteers - essentially townsfolk. Suleiman saw Malta as a minor excursion; a small flea to be crushed on his way to Europe; an island to capture quickly and use as a base and launching point for his great invasion. He never would have dreamed what would happen at Malta. In preparation, the Knights built staunch forts. In the first battle, 100 Knights defended Fort St. Elmo. All of the Knights were killed, but they managed to take 4,000 of the invaders with them. This was a sign of what was to come. The defenders barricaded themselves well in Fort St. Elmo, but Suleiman persevered. The final siege of Fort St. Elmo became one of the most epic legendary battles in the history of warfare. Over 130,000 cannonballs were fired at the fort. The entire population of Malta was sheltered inside the fort and the fighting became desperately fierce. At one point, when the Moslem Ottoman soldiers breached the fort at a critical location, 70-year old Vallette got on his horse and led a charge against the breach and succeeded in driving them out and saving the fort from being taken. Inspired by Vallette's leadership, the rag-tag band of Knights, mercenaries, and townsfolk fought for four months. They held off the sea of Moslem invaders and managed to kill 25,000 of them within those four months. Vallette also poisoned the wells that the invaders were using for fresh water, and this caused widespread dysentery among Suleiman's army. Soon Suleiman gave up. Not only did he leave Malta alone and end the siege, but he terminated his entire plan of invading Europe and returned to his home city Constantinople to regroup. He died the next year, still furious at the scraggly band of Knights who managed to wipe out the majority of one of the greatest armadas ever assembled up until that time. The stunning victory at Malta gave Europe time to prepare for the next wave. Pope Pius V organized a Holy League of Nations (their version of a UN military force) to assemble a massive armada of their own. When Selim II, Suleiman's successor, returned with an even larger armada of Moslem Turks (282 ships), Europe was ready, thanks to the time that the Knights of Malta had bought them with their crushing defeat of Suleiman. The European armada had 212 ships, and they met Selim II off of the coast of Greece, in the gulf of Corinth in 1571. Selim II was defeated in what historians call the most important naval battle in history since the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, when Octavian (later becoming Augustus Caesar, the Caesar who ruled in Christ's time) defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra. Europe had fended off the Moslem Turkish invasion, thanks to 500 Knights and a few townsfolk on a small island off the coast of Italy. If the Knights of Malta had not been victorious, Suleiman might've overran an unprepared Europe, and possibly even eventually forcibly converted all of Europe to Islam. History would've been re-written, and Europe would've been a Muslim extension of the Middle Eastern Moslem countries, much like what had happened to Turkey (Turkey, known as Asia Minor in ancient times, had been a Christian nation for centuries, containing the seven original churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation, but was invaded by Moslems and 100% converted).
Many of the most enlightened thinkers of Europe have recognized the significant role that the Knights of Malta played in history. 200 years after the Siege of Malta, Voltaire would call it the most famous event in European history: "Rien est plus connu que la siege de Malte" - "Nothing is so well known as the Siege of Malta."
As I mentioned earlier, today the Maltese people still celebrate the victory of the Siege of Malta on September 8th as their national holiday. The elderly Knight Jean de Vallette is a national hero to them, their version of George Washington.
So besides being one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean (the film The Chronicles of Narnia: the Voyage of the Dawn Treader was originally scheduled to be filmed in Malta because of its beauty, but problems with the schedule prevented it), and besides being full of some of the kindest and most hospitable people in the world (from what I've heard), Malta is also a place where history was made.
Here are some pics of beautiful Malta: