What if I told that there exists a country that has no land but is still considered a sovereign? The other day I was working on a logo design for a client. The client asked me to incorporate a Maltese Cross into the design. As part of my design process, I researched the cross to get an understanding of its origins and use. Some of you know that I am intrigued by history, Catholic and other military orders and international intrigue. It didn’t take long for my curiosity to be peeked and my attention distracted by a country that is not a country.
The Order of Malta, officially known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, originated in 1048 in Jerusalem. According to the Order’s website the Order of Malta was established around 1048 as a religions order caring for pilgrims of “any religious faith or race”. On February 15, 1113, Pope Paschal II approved a Bull authorizing the formation of a hospital for the order.
After the fall of the Holy Land in 1291, the Order transferred its hospital to Cypress. Due to conflict the Order moved from Rhodes (Greece) followed by Malta and then the Caribbean Islands of St. Barthelemy, St. Christopher, Saint Croix and Saint Martin around 1651.
In 1798, the Order gave up the islands to Napolean Bonaparte effectively losing control of its land, however through tradition and international recognition it remained a sovereign. Today, the Order, according to its website, “is a sovereign subject of international law”. It is based in Rome and has diplomatic relations with 104 countries. It is also recognized by the United Nations as a permanent observer. It has also returned to Malta to a fort in Birgu under a Maltese Government agreement to use the fort for 99 years.
The Order states that it has 13,500 members and considers itself a “lay religious order, traditionally of military, chivalrous” and “noble nature”. It’s current leader is Fra’ Matthew Festing who was elected Grand Master on March 11, 2008. The Order maintains six Grand Priories, six Subpriories and 47 national associations in five continents, according to its website.
The Order ostensibly states that its primary function is to provide humanitarian assistance through its network of volunteers in about 120 countries. Their membership strives to “reach spiritual perfection within the Church”.
Although it issues its own passports, the United States nor Mexico have recognized the order as a sovereign.
I shared this with you today because it was something I did not know and as I read more, it highly intrigued me. As a student of geo-politics and cross-border relations, I was surprised to learn about a sovereign that is recognized by the United Nations as such and has diplomatic relations with at least 100 countries. It has a government, issues passports and money, yet it has no land to call its own.
Ask anyone if there is a country that is about 1,000 years old, and yet holds no territory and he or she will tell you there is no such thing. Sometimes the truth is better than fiction.