The Siege of Malta

An epic battle between the Ottoman Empire, the Knights Hospitaller and the Maltese population

The Siege of Malta or the Great Siege as it’s also called, occurred in 1565. The battle is believed to have changed the course of European history.

The Ottoman empire had for long been watching the tiny island of Malta and exploring what they would gain if they invaded Malta. The island’s excellent strategic position right at the heart of the Mediterranean made it a very attractive target.

Winning Malta would mean a concrete and “easy” passage to the other parts of Southern Europe.

The Great Siege of Malta and the Knights Hospitaller

Jean Parisot de la Valette, the Grand Master in Malta at the time was a highly experienced soldier and foresaw the threat of a Turkish siege. He prepared Malta and his knights well for the eventual attack. La Valette built ditched and defensive walls around Birgu and Isla. He also strengthened and built new forts.

In an effort to keep out any enemy ships, a long chain was stretched across the harbour. La Valette made sure that food, water and arms were stockpiled. He also sent urgent messages for help to the pope, emperor and the viceroy of Sicily. This help never came.

ottoman attack siege of malta

The Ottoman Empire attacks!

It was in May 1565, that an enormous Ottoman fleet of some 30,000 men arrived to invade the island.

To defend the island against the Turkish fleet were just 700 knights and around 8000 Maltese irregulars and mercenary troops.

At the time, La Valette was 70 years old.

When they saw the imminence of the siege, the Maltese population took refuge in Birgu, Isla and Mdina (all walled cities).

The Turks attacked Fort St Elmo first.

A small fort and with only 60 knights and a few Maltese men guarding it, the Turks were sure that Fort St Elmo would fall in a week or even less than week. How wrong they were!

Dragut Reis, an 80-year old ex pirate was employed by Sultan Suleyman to motivate and inspire the Turkish force. Arriving just a few weeks into the siege of Malta, he began to advise Mustafa Pasha and Admiral Piali who were leading the Turkish force.

When he learned that they had decided to attack Fort St Elmo first, he was immediately skeptical. He somehow knew that the fort would not fall as easily as the other leaders thought it would. Dragut was right.

knights great siege of malta

Fort St Elmo held for more than four weeks and to add insult to injury, it cost the lives of some 8000 Turkish soldiers.

Throughout the summer, the fighting continued.

The Turks launched some 10 massed assaults on Birgu and Isla, but every time they were beaten back.

When one day, a large part of a wall was brought down, it suddenly looked that the Turks were on the verge of entering the city. La Valette himself joined the knights in the breach and the city was saved.

By now, the morale of the Turkish force was totally drained.

Malta, a seemingly weak opponent had proved to be a much tougher fighter than they had thought.

Gradually, the ferocity of their attacks began to decrease. More so due to the fact that their casualties were increasing tremendously.

Finally, on the 7th of September, the long awaited relief force from Sicily arrived. Relief came in the form of 28 ships with 8000 men.

When Mustafa Pasha saw how small the relief force was, he ordered some of his troops to land again at St Paul’s Bay.

But by now, his soldiers were totally demoralized. Many of them had experienced the ferocity of the Knights and the Maltese people. They knew first hand now, that because of the skill and bravery of the Knights Hospitaller and the Maltese it was very hard to conquer Malta.

Thousands lost their lives as they tried to escape. The siege was finally over and the banner of the Order of St John flew once again over the battered ruins of St Elmo.

Malta was saved.

The people of Malta played an important role in the siege. It was with the help of their courage and tenacity that the Knights Hospitaller won over the Turkish force.

The Maltese force consisted of only 6000 soldiers. But they were helped by the local women and children who brought food and ammunition and took care of the wounded soldiers.

Malta History: What happened after the Siege of Malta?

The Knights of St John who were previously “forgotten” by the rest of Europe immediately became heroes and were dubbed as the saviors of Europe.

They had won over the much feared Ottoman empire and lots of money was sent to them by various monarchs from Europe as a sign of thanks.

It was at this time that a new city was constructed with massive fortifications.

The city was named after the hero of the siege of Malta, Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette. That city is today the capital of Malta - Valletta.

The 8th of September (Victory Day, as it is called today) marked the end of the siege of Malta. An important date in Malta history, the 8th of September is still celebrated on the islands to this day.

Return from Siege of Malta to History of Malta page

Return from Siege of Malta to MaltaBulb: Your Malta Holidays Travel Guide home page