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Knights of Rhodes and Malta: 1309-1798

Protection and medical care for pilgrims to the Holy Land is as important as ever after the collapse of the Latin kingdom in 1291. Pilgrims continue to make their way east and are now even more vulnerable to potentially hostile Muslims - particularly the Turks, whose control of Anatolia means that the major part of the journey must be by sea. And the seas are full of Turkish pirates.

The Knights of St John, after a brief stay in Cyprus, capture in 1309 the island of Rhodes. Lying off the southwest tip of Anatolia, and passed by ships from both Greece and Italy on their way to the Holy Land, it is strategically the perfect spot for the purposes of the order.

The Knights of St John rule Rhodes, as their own sovereign state, for more than two centuries. A great hospital is built, and thriving commerical acitivity is carried on by Greeks, Venetians and Genoese - whose dominance of the surrounding seas, with the support of the knights, means that Muslim and Turkish ships are now the more likely victims of piracy.

Turkish resentment results in several sieges of the island. Finally, in 1523, the knights capitulate, departing from Rhodes and ceding it to the Turkish sultan.

For seven years the order is homeless, until Charles V of Spain gives them another Mediterranean island - Malta - in return for the annual gift of a falcon (as a token of Spanish sovereignty).

In Malta, as in Rhodes, the knights establish a hospital famous by the standards of the time for its care of patients. Here too, after a heroic defence of the island against a Turkish siege in 1565, the order rules for more than two centuries. They are dislodged as a result of the Napoleonic wars, during which Malta is taken by the French in 1798 and ceded to Britain in 1814.

In 1834 the order makes its home in Rome, as the Sovereign and Military Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem. Later in the century new foundations in the old tradition are established in several Protestant countries, in particular Britain, Germany, Holland and Sweden.

In Britain the order is revived in 1877 as the St John Ambulance Association (training the public in first aid), followed in 1887 by the St John Ambulance Brigade (whose volunteers provide nursing and ambulance services at public events in Britain). Few medieval institutions have remained, over nine centuries, so true to their original idealistic purpose.

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