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The Great Siege of Malta in 1565, duel between West and East

By Gery de Pierpont

Heritage and literature dialogue: Tim Willocks

There are some texts which describe atmospheres and historical settings so realistically that they can almost bring old stones back to life. When words, musical cadences and poetry bring scenes alive, describing personalities, passionate encounters and tragedies, we are inescapably drawn back in time. Particularly if these are read in the actual settings they describe …

The “Heritage and literature dialogues” will give you a little flavour of this timeless alchemy, a sample of imaginary delights to be discovered when you stay in history, after a quick trip to your local bookshop! 

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The armies fighting on both sides of the Borgo’s walls, fresco by Matteo Perez Aleccio in the Grand Masters’ Palace of Valletta

Hyperrealistic immersion in the turmoil of Malta’s besieged capital

The ReligionThe Religion’, by Tim Willocks (2006)
After their extraordinary victory against the mighty army and fleet of the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, in 1565, the Knights Hospitallers of St John the Baptist of Malta became known and feared as ‘The Religion’. At that time, Malta, this tiny Island between Sicily and Tunisia, was the object of a tug-of-war between European kingdoms, and the Ottoman Empire. The one torn by endless struggles for power and religious splits caused by the Reformation, and the other, at the height of its strength, dominated the Middle East, two-thirds of the Mediterranean, and stretched as far as the gates of Vienna. But this strategically important bastion of Christian faith was not in a strong position. When 200 warships and 30,000 Muslim soldiers appeared on the horizon, the new capital had only three recently constructed fortifications, and a handful of galleys. The novel traps the reader into the sickening events of this tumultuous historic siege, and follows the story of Mattias Tannhauser, a Carpathian, who, kidnapped as a child by the Turks, trained as a janissary, became an arms dealer, and then fought proudly on the side of the knights. The narrative is so convincing that the reader is easily pulled into one scenario after another and engages completely with all the characters in the story. The strength of the emotions expressed in the novel is overwhelming. Bloody and brutal descriptions and a cynical look at the tragedy of man, are set against a generosity and sensitivity that, on some pages, border on the lyrical. Ungoverned love arouses passions still further, and it is no doubt this breath of humanity, constantly at odds, and the exceptional political interpretation of the conflict, which is at the heart of this novel, that makes it a masterpiece of the genre—a historic, hyperreal thriller.

Excerpt: the Sacred Infirmary, the heart of the Hospitallers’ vocation

“Lazaro had brought her to the Sacred Infirmary that morning. Carla had asked to serve yet she’d been fearful. Fearful of her lack of skill and knowledge, of the stern-faced brethren, of the fortress-like infirmary itself. Part of her wished she hadn’t complained about her uselessness. She despised it, yet days passed in emptiness passed quickly. Easy to gaze at the world until sunset threw a veil on it. Easy to dream without remembering of what. Lazaro marched her to the infirmary as if to a gallows, or so it felt to her. In fact, it was to something more daunting by far.

The main ward of the infirmary was two hundred feet long with a series of shuttered windows along its southern aspect. The arched entrance was framed by Maltese stone. Above the arch was carved TUITIO FIDEI ET OBSEQUIUM PAUPERUM, the Order’s motto, which she read to mean Defenders of the faith and servants of the poor. Two rooms of fifty beds each faced each other across the center aisle. Each bed had a red curtained canopy over its head, with a good mattress and fine linen. Armor, clothing, and weapons were bundled beneath. The patients were served their food on silver plate, for the monks placed great store in purity. The floor was tiled in marble and swabbed thrice a day. Thyrus wood burned in censers to cleanse the air and mask putrefaction and drive forth the flies. At the far end was an altar for the twice-daily celebration of the Mass and behind was mounted the crucified Christ. On the wall facing the windows hung the treasured banner under which the knights had abandoned their stronghold of Rhodes. It displayed the Virgin and the Infant Christ above the legend: AFFLICTIS TU SPES UNICA REBUS. In all that afficts us You are our only Hope.

Father Lazaro proclaimed it the finest hospital in the world, with surgeons and physicians to match. “Our Lords the sick,” said Lazaro, “want for nothing that we can give them. It is here in the Sacred Infirmary that the true heart of the Religion is to be found.”

The drifting incense, the murmur of prayer, the reverential concentration of the monks as they moved from bed to bed to wash and feed and dress the wounds of their Lords, gave the hospital the atmosphere of a chapel and this induced a sense of tranquility otherwise unimaginable among so much suffering. It also enabled Carla to master the horror of her first encounter.

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Hospital of the Knights of Malta in the late 16th century, engraving by Philippe Thomassin

After the flood of wounded in recent days the ward was almost full. Though fresh corpses were carried from the ward each dawn and the wounded were discharged as soon as their lives were out of danger, space would soon run out. Like Angelu, most of the patients were young men of the Maltese militia or Spanish Tercios. Few of them would be whole again. Lazaro and his colleagues had performed numerous amputations and trepannings and, as best they could, had repaired the grotesque facial injuries that abounded. Those pierced or shot through the gut lay stiff as planks, panting lightly and slowly turning gray with the agony of death. Those afflicted with monstrous burns suffered most of all. From the distance beyond the protecting walls came the constant rumble of cannon fire.

On arrival she was to wash her hands and feet in the lavatorium, and change into slippers to keep out the dust of the streets, for cleanliness was pleasing to God. She was forbidden to touch any wounds or dressings. She could serve food, wine, and water but could not wash the patients. If they needed to pass water or defecate she was to inform one of the brothers. If she noticed fresh bleeding, fever or pox, she was to inform one of the brothers. If a man requested confession or Holy Communion, or appeared close to death, she was to inform one of the brothers. She was to speak in a soft, gentle voice. As much as possible she was to encourage Our Lords to pray, not only for their own souls but for peace, victory, the Pope, the liberation of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, the Grand Master, the brothers of the Order, the prisoners in the hands of Islam, and for their own parents, whether alive or dead. Because the sick were the closest to Christ, their prayers were the most powerful of all, more, even, than those of the cardinals in Rome.

Lazaro took her down the ward, where she was conscious of the eyes turned at once upon her. Those of the serving brothers were shocked. Those of the wounded flickered, as if glimpsing a divine apparition from within a nightmare. Some of the seasoned troopers licked their lips and exhaled sighs. She felt herself blushing and her grand intentions teetered. What good could she do here? She was in the middle of more raw pain than should ever be assembled underneath one roof. However, she’d be damned, at least to herself, if she retreated. She wasn’t without tools, she told herself. She had Faith, and it was strong; she had much Love to give; she even had a modicum of Hope. She steeled herself and walked tall. Then Lazaro stopped and introduced her to poor Angelu. Silent, blinded, helpless. Deformed beyond the wildest dream of cruelty.

Angelu, she realized, was to be the test of her devotion.”

 

Excerpt from ‘The Religion’, by Tiw Willocks (2006), Saturday 9th June 1565 – Heritage and literature

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