It was the last slave prison and slave market in Europe. The United States was already an independent country and France was in the tumult of revolution. The Mediterranean island of Malta was the destination for the slaves snatched off of merchant ships by an order of Crusader Knights that had first been set up in Jerusalem in the 12th century.
And the slaves in question were Jews.
The slaves were unloaded at the Valletta Quay even today still known as “Jews’ Sally Port.” The city was the headquarters built after the Great Siege by the Order of the Knights of St. John, better known as the Hospitallers. For the more than two centuries its slave market operated, the main purpose was to extort ransom money from Jewish communities in Europe in exchange for the release of the hostages. Some captives were used as galley slaves. For some fortunate others it was really “slavery lite,” as they were allowed to leave prison during daylight hours to hold jobs or even engage in commerce.
Malta is one of the more remarkable places on earth. It contains antiquities a thousand years older than the pyramids of Egypt. Long before humans discovered metal, its earliest inhabitants were carving massive structures out of solid rock, some displaying amazingly modern thinking about architecture. Its vegetation and landscape look like the Galilee, while its architecture is simply breathtaking. Its 16th century fortifications were so powerful that they later served to defend British and Maltese forces from German and Italian assaults during World War II.
Malta’s devoutly Catholic population speaks a dialect of Tunisian Arabic (with Phoenician, Italian, French and English words mixed in). The Maltese like to think of themselves as the world’s last surviving Phoenicians, kin of Hannibal and King Hiram of Tyre. Speakers of Hebrew and Arabic can make sense of many Maltese words.
Malta is never mentioned by name in the Bible. The word “Malta” is Phoenician but is from the same root as the Hebrew cognate word for “taking refuge.” The Apostle Paul found himself shipwrecked there, making Malta long a center of interest for the Christian world.
Jews first lived in Malta in the days when it was still a Carthaginian colony. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Sicilians all came and left. Eventually the islands fell under Spanish rule. The Jews of Malta then met the same fate as the Jews of Spain, expelled the year Columbus reached the Americas.
One of the most famous Jewish residents of Malta was Avraham ben Shmuel Abulafia, a 13th-century Spanish kabbalist rabbi. A bizarre character, he dreamed of forging a monotheistic unification of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He managed to arrange for an audience with the pope to lay out the merits of his plan. The pope was horrified and ordered Abulafia burned at the stake. But the pope died suddenly just before the sentence was to be carried out, and the condemned man was released.
Abulafia spent the last two decades of his life as a hermit, evidently living in caves on the barren and still all-but-deserted island of Comino, just off the coast of the main Maltese island. There he wrote several books on Kabbalah, philosophy and grammar.
Abulafia’s career is of surprising contemporary relevance. The newest addition to the Maltese Jewish community is an old man known by all simply as “The Admor.” He claims to be a direct personal descendent of the hermit kabbalist of Malta. He plans to convert Abulafia’s “home” on Comino into a site for world Jewish pilgrimage.
Originally set up as a medieval order of knights in Crusader Jerusalem to run a hospital for pilgrims (hence their name), the Hospitallers were in the Holy Land until Acre fell to the Saracens. They moved briefly to Cyprus, and then took up positions in the waters just off Turkey.
They fortified Rhodes and defied the Turks for centuries until, in the early 1500s, their bastion finally capitulated to the sultan. In a sense it was the final showdown of the era of the Crusades. The knights moved their “langues” to the new front line of Christendom, Malta. And, yes, Humphrey Bogart fans, they really did pay the Spanish king an annual “rent” for the island consisting of a falcon, just like in the movie. But it was a live Maltese falcon trained to hunt, not a statue made of gold.
In May 1565 the Ottomans landed on Malta shortly after they had sunk half the fleet operated by the knights in a naval battle off Tunis. The Turks converged on Fort St. Elmo, which later served as a kind of Masada symbol for centuries of Europeans. With its small garrison of defenders, the fortress held out for a month against the Ottomans.
While eventually overrun, the knights and their valiant resistance broke the back of the Ottoman invasion. The sultan lost 8,000 of his best fighters in taking the fort. The rest of the Turkish troops were by then running low on supplies and water. When word came of a relief force of knights arriving from Sicily, the Turks broke and fled back to Istanbul.
The Great Siege was one of the most vicious, but also most decisive, battles in pre-modern European history. Prisoners were brutally massacred by both sides. The 70-year-old grand master of the knights, Jean Parisot de Valette, ordered the wells near the fort poisoned to stop the Ottomans. That poisoning evidently served as the inspiration for a scene in the malicious “Jew of Malta” play, written by Christopher Marlowe, ostensibly about the Great Siege of Malta.
The heroism of the knights in St. Elmo prevented the Mediterranean from being transformed into an Ottoman lake, and probably spared much of Christian Europe from being overrun by the Turks. In addition, it would inspire the Maltese themselves in 1940-43, when Malta was suffered through thousands of bombing attacks by Hitler’s Luftwaffe. The blockaded island played a critical role in interrupting supply lines to Rommel’s Axis forces in North Africa and directly contributed to their defeat. Letters of thanks and homage to the people of Malta written by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt are engraved into the walls of buildings around the city of Valletta.
Not far from the fort of St. Elmo, a different kind of siege would take place soon after the victory of the knights over the Turks. After the Great Siege, the navy of the Order went prowling for Ottoman ships to plunder, but quickly discovered that kidnapping merchants plying the waters of the Mediterranean was more profitable. And commercial ships at the time carried a particularly large number of Jewish merchants.
Though the treatment of Jews by the knights back at Rhodes had been civil, there was money to be made from capturing Jewish merchants and holding them as slaves until Jewish communities, mainly in Italy, ransomed their release. Thus, not far from Fort St. Elmo, the Jewish slave prison and slave market of Malta were erected.
For many years Malta carried for Jews emotional associations with misery and mistreatment. In Vale of Tears (Emek Habakha), the 16th century historian and physician Joseph Ha-Cohen told the tragic tale of a ship of 70 Saloniki Jews captured and enslaved by the knights. Still nominally under Spanish rule, the Inquisition was also established in Malta after the Great Siege.
A popular Jewish prophesy circulating at the time warned of the demise of four evil regimes, with Malta leading the list. The Malta slave prison and market were closed down only when Napoleon evicted the knights from the island, having stopped there along his route of advance into Egypt and Palestine.
Rabbi Ohana arrived in Malta on a transport ship escorted by two British destroyers due to fears of imminent U-boat attacks. The small Jewish quarter in Malta’s capital city was just a few steps away from the knights’ fortress. It was wartime, and Rabbi Ohana was invited by the British colonial authorities in control of Malta to wear a British officer’s uniform while performing his duties. He tended not only to the needs of the small local Maltese community but also to the Jewish refugees who had reached Malta and even some Jews who were among the prisoners of war held on the island.
Life was not easy. A smallpox epidemic hit Malta in those years and a son of the rabbi perished. At the same time the rabbi’s wife fell seriously ill and was hospitalized in a church hospital serving as the quarantine center. It was Tu B’Shvat 1916. She felt acutely uncomfortable in the ward, which was bedecked with crucifixes and portraits of the Virgin Mary and from which most of the patients were “released” only after dying from the disease.
In her fevered torments that night, the rabbi’s wife dreamed that her father, a noted Jerusalem kabbalist, came into the room dressed in princely attire. In the morning her fever broke and she was sent home in a horse-drawn carriage. But she believed the dream was a sign that her father had just died. The rabbi prohibited mourning, insisting dreams are not a permissible basis upon which to sit shiva.
It was only two years later, with the war was over and communications with the Land of Israel reestablished, that she learned her father had indeed died in Jerusalem the very night of her hospital vision.
In those days Jews on the streets of Valletta were often harassed because they failed to make the sign of the cross when passing through the many intersections displaying Christian statues and symbols. So the Maltese Jews learned to use back alleys to avoid confrontations.
The Tayars (also spelled Tajar; the word means merchant) had migrated to Malta from Libya 200 years ago. Her father-in-law accompanied Rabbi Ohana on his rounds and duties during World War I. Shelley couldn’t take her eyes off my Greek fisherman’s cap, which she insisted made me look exactly like the milkman Tevya. She was also hosting a Brazilian Catholic couple exploring the husband’s Maltese Jewish roots. His grandfather had left Malta for Brazil back in the days when Rabbi Ohana lived in Malta.
The synagogue behind the St. Elmo fortress was moved in 1979, when an entire block of houses was demolished to make room for a road. The current synagogue is located across Marsamxett bay from Valletta and has about 100 congregants. About half of these are members of the Ohayon family. Special candles that burn pure olive oil are lit in the synagogue every day.
Reuben Ohayon, the community’s young acting rabbi and cantor, showed us around the premises, but our special interest was in the furnishings still in use that are remnants from Rabbi Ohana’s era. These include lamps and decorated wooden chairs, including one on which the head of the community sits. There are also several Torah scrolls left from Rabbi Ohana’s days back in the old synagogue. One of those scrolls had been sold to the Jewish Museum of New York to raise money for the community.
But perhaps the most dramatic item we found that had been left behind by Rabbi Ohana was a yad pointer, used for reading the Torah scroll. “This is the yad used by your grandfather,” Ohayon told my wife.
I check the time and decide to conduct my own small impudent defiance of the Inquisition, just a few centuries after the fact. I slip into the Inquisitor’s courtyard and daven the afternoon Minchah prayer.
Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.