The Siege of Malta was one of the most pivotal battles in European history. The Great Siege, as it is sometimes referred to, occurred in 1565 when the Ottoman Empire invaded the island, which was at the time held by the Knights Hospitalier – or the Knights of Malta as they were also known.
It was the end of a long-running contest between a Christian alliance and the Ottoman Empire who battled to take control of the entire Mediterranean region.
A long history of hostility
Turgut Reis, an Ottoman Admiral, and the Knights of Malta, had long since been enemies. The island’s position near the very centre of the Mediterranean made it a prime target for the Ottoman Empire, and if the Ottomans’s could successfully capture Malta it would make it easier for them to take control of other surrounding European countries.
In 1551, Turgut and Sinan Pasha, another Ottoman Admiral, invaded Malta for the first time. But the invasion proved unsuccessful and they instead transferred to the nearby island of Gozo.
Following these events, the island of Malta expected another imminent attack from the Ottoman Empire and so Juan de Homedes, the Grand Master, ordered the strengthening of Fort Saint Angelo on the island, as well the construction of two new forts called Fort Saint Michael and Fort Saint Elmo.
The following years on Malta were relatively uneventful but the ongoing battles over the control of the Mediterranean continued.
The Great Siege
At dawn on 18 May 1565, an invasion, which became known as the Siege of Malta, began when a fleet of Ottoman ships arrived at the island and docked at Marsaxlokk harbour.
It was the job of the Knights of Malta, led by Jean Parisot de Valette, to protect the island from the Ottoman Empire. It is thought that the Knights had just 6,100 members (around 500 Knights and 5,600 other soldiers largely recruited from the Maltese population and other armies from Spain and Greece) compared to the 48,000 strong Ottoman Armada.
When other islanders saw the imminence of the siege many of them took refuge in the walled cities of Birgu, Isla and Mdina.
The first place to be attacked was Fort St Elmo, which the Turkish invaders thought to be an easy target that had little defence. Despite this, it took over four weeks to capture the Fort, and in the process several thousand Turkish soldiers were killed.
Undeterred, the Turks continued to attack the island and launched assaults on Birgu and Isla – but each time they found resistance of a much greater level than they anticipated.
Malta witnesses a bloodbath
The siege lasted for over four months in the intense heat of the Maltese summer. It is estimated that around 10,000 Ottoman deaths were inflicted during the siege, and that around a third of the Maltese population and original number of Knights were also killed – and it was one of the bloodiest battles in history,
But, however unlikely it seems due to the imbalance in the power of each side, the Ottoman Empire was defeated and Malta was victorious. It is one of the most celebrated events in history and marked a new era of Spanish dominance in the Mediterranean.