The Knights Hospitaller of Malta

Malta has one of the oldest hospital establishments in the world and on a recent visit I explored the world of the famous Knights Hospitaller.

I had always been aware of the white cross on a black background that indicated the Order of St John but was not so familiar with the history. The museum dedicated to the Sacra Infermeria was one of the most memorable and fascinating experiences during my stay in Malta.

It all started 900 years ago when a group of merchants from Italy formed a religious order in Jerusalem. Over the years the Order of St John provided help to travellers and pilgrims. They were eventually driven out of the Holy Land and came to Rhodes and then travelled onto Malta. The Knights of St John played a vital role during the Great Siege of Malta and their skills were used to treat battle injuries.In 1574 the Sacra Infermeria was built and the long ward used by the Knights Hospitaller is now the longest hall in Europe.

“You must look,” smiled the man at the kiosk and I’m glad I did. Today it is hard to imagine the huge room full of beds but what a building. It is now the Mediterranean Conference Centre with two long halls and a theatre. I tried to imagine the atmosphere of a massive medieval ward and a modern day conference but the empty room was silent today. But down the stairs is a different world- the museum that told the story of how the Knights Hospitaller worked.

Even going down to the lower floor felt like travelling back in time to the medieval era. It felt oppressive and creepy, but at the same time compelling. It was, in esssence, an opportunity to walk through the historic wards and departments learning about the way the Sacra Infermeria was organised.

I was fascinated to hear they used herbal remedies for many of the illnesses treated and Malta fungus was one of the principal ingredients. Malta fungus only grows on one small island off the Maltese coast, now a nature reserve, and was apparently effective in healing. It was often given to people visiting the island because of its medicinal properties. The Knights Hospitaller used silver instruments due to the antiseptic benefits of the metal. I hadn’t appreciated this characteristic of silver.

The Phalangue was a separate block used for contagious illnesses including venereal diseases which were rife in the middle ages. One of the displays showed how mercury and hot air baths were used to treat venereal disease in medieval times. By the 17th century they were known for ophthalmic surgery too and there was also a school of anatomy. The Order of St John was known for its battle medicine and an exhibit showing how they worked during the attack of St Elmo in 1565 was fascinating.

I loved this museum and was intrigued by the way the Sacra Infermeria worked and the methods used. Sadly the hospital was taken over by Napoleon Bonaparte’s army and deteriorated . But its legacy lives on and I thought of all those lives saved as I re entered the street above ground.

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