I recently did a blog piece called Collecting Countries – What Are The Rules? in which I controversially declared that I, and therefore YPT, rules Sealand, and The Hutt River province counted as “countries”. This led me to a further piece titled What is A Micronation Anyway? where I went in quite large detail about the different strains of Micronation out there, and in essence why I consider Sealand counts as a country, but Freetown, Christiana not. At the time I felt I had dealt with the debate quite well, and covered all areas satisfactory, and in my opinion without any grey areas.
And then I went on Facebook…
Whilst being an “authority” on all things Micronation might seem like a strange concept, if there is a guy that is, it is my buddy Johnny Blair; famous for his blogs Don’t Stop Living, and Northern Irishman in Poland, who I am fairly sure has visited more Micronations than anyone else. He recently posted in the FB group Every Passport Stamp about wanting to visit the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. I very nearly dropped my Vodka. How on EARTH had I missed out the SMOM, an entity I had been obsessed with since my teens? The only diplomatically recognized nation on earth without a country?
So what is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta? Why is it a nation without land? Can it be visited? Why am I so obsessed with it? And a whole heap of other questions I felt I needed to answer.
What is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (and is it in Malta)?
So the SMOM, or to give it its full title The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (Latin: Supremus Ordo Militaris Hospitalis Sancti Ioannis Hierosolymitani Rhodius et Melitensis), also known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) or Order of Malta (Wikipedia may have been used), traces its roots back to around 1048 as The Order of St. John of Jerusalem. This is a monastic community given quasi-independence and tasked with the somewhat contradictory roles of running a hospital for pilgrims, and being a Catholic militia gun, or rather sword for hire, around the time of the crusades.
Following the loss of the Holy Lands, the Knights took on a somewhat nomadic existence moving from Cyprus before settling in Rhodes, whilst engaging in holy battles in places like Syria and Egypt (they now had a navy), in both defense and offense of Christendom as a kind of Pope’s special forces.
After almost 200 years in Rhodes sipping Ouzo and eating kebabs, they were driven out of Greece by the ever-modest Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire. Once again this made the Knights homeless, but this would prove not to be a huge issue; after all when you’ve faithfully served the biggest landowner in Europe for 500 years, you’d expect The Pope to have your back. It took 7 years of homelessness before the knights were finally given a solid when Grand Master Fra’ Philippe de Villiers de l’Isle Adam took possession of the island of Malta. This was granted to the order by Emperor Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and his mother Queen Joanna of Castile as monarchs of Sicily, with the approval of Pope Clement VII. And thus the Knights Hospitalier became the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
Following so far?
The next few hundred years were fairly uneventful, with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, or Malta doing what any normal Christian theocracy of the time would do; get colonies, enter the slave trade, and have wars with Muslims. History was not to be on the side of the Knights, and after almost 300 years chilling on another tropical island they were again to become homeless when a cheeky little French chappie by the name of Napoleon decided Malta would make a great holiday home. As did the British, who then decided to have a war about this, whilst the poor Knights again went into exile, waiting to be given some more pristine island real estate.
Alas, in the early 1800’s the Pope, despite still being God’s right-hand man, was politically less powerful. The Knights were given, with extraterritorial status, the Magistral Palace in Via Condotti 68 and the Magistral Villa on the Aventine Hill. This until they could get back on their feet again and find another nation to take over, which was not to happen.
Being a nation without a country (although some prime real estate in Rome), the knights decided they would no longer be soldiers for Christianity. Instead, they’d turn the clock back 700 years and concentrate on the Hospitalier part and served as an international Catholic version of the St Johns Ambulance. They served with great distinction in all the best wars of the 1800’s and early 1900’s including WW1 and its Sequel.
In 1991 the SMOM and the real Malta decided to make a treaty defining who was, in fact, the real Malta and granting the Order the use with limited extraterritoriality of the upper portion of Fort St Angelo in the city of Birgu. Its stated purpose is “to give the Order the opportunity to be better enabled to carry out its humanitarian activities as Knights Hospitallers from Saint Angelo, as well as to better define the legal status of Saint Angelo subject to the sovereignty of Malta over it”. They even let them fly their own little flag! But next to the real Maltese flag.
What makes the SMOM a country?
This is the difficult but interesting question. After their ejection from Malta, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta were given extraterritoriality in their land holdings in Rome, and were not only treated as a kind of government in exile, but had diplomatic missions, and were, and still recognized by a great many nations. Which makes it kind of like a country. Right?
How many countries recognize the Sovereign Military order of Malta?
Is it a real country?
Amazingly, the order has diplomatic relations with 106 countries, official relations with a further 6 states, and is even recognized by the EU. But, as Tyler Durden said in Fight Club, sticking feathers up your arse does not make you a chicken. The status of the Order in international law has been open to discussion. The Order describes itself as a “sovereign subject of international law.” And its two headquarters in Rome have all been granted extraterritoriality by Italy and Malta. These are; the Palazzo Malta in Via dei Condotti 68, where the Grand Master resides and Government Bodies meet, and the Villa del Priorato di Malta on the Aventine, which hosts the Grand Priory of Rome – Fort St. Angelo on the island of Malta, the Embassy of the Order to Holy See and the Embassy of the Order to Italy.
So whilst it exists as a kind of poor mans Holy See, the Holy See controls the Vatican City, the SMOM hasn’t had a permanent country since getting evicted from Malta in 1798. But Italy, where it is located, recognizes, in addition to extraterritoriality, the exercise by SMOM of all the prerogatives of sovereignty in its headquarters. Therefore, Italian sovereignty and SMOM sovereignty uniquely coexist without overlapping.
What does the UN Say?
The United Nations does not classify it as a “non-member state” or “intergovernmental organization” but as one of the “other entities” having received a standing invitation to participate as observers. So observer status in the UN, much like Palestine has. They do not though have an internet TLD, nor a country dialing code (which would be a bit pointless). Their status is ambiguous, to say the least, with a number of scholars arguing for and against it being a subject of international law, and thus a country.
Do they have any cool country stuff?
They have a history and a culture, of almost 1000 years, unlike genuine country of Australia
They also have passports, stamps (that can be used), and their own currency, the Scudo. Despite the fact they no longer do any fighting, they have still kept their Military ranks and uniforms. Kind of like a Christian version of Cosplay. Amazingly they also have an Air Force, as after WW2 the naughty Italians were no longer allowed bombing aircraft, so sneakily transferred their planes to the Order. As of 2017, the Order has not yet tried to bomb Malta or any other country. Which is nice.
Does it have a government?
Of course it does! You can’t be an extraterritorial country without land if you don’t have a functioning government! The head of state is called the Prince and Grand Master. He is elected for life by the Council Complete of State. Electors in the Council include the members of the Sovereign Council, other office-holders, and representatives of the members of the Order. The Grand Master is aided by the Sovereign Council (the government of the Order), which is elected by the Chapter General. This is the legislative body of the Order.
The Chapter General meets every five years; at each meeting, all seats of the Sovereign Council are up for election. The Sovereign Council includes six members and four High Officers: the Grand Commander, the Grand Chancellor, the Grand Hospitaller and the Receiver of the Common Treasure.
To summarize: it is a religious elected monarchy elected by its members – but it is really hard to join.
Members/Citizens are separated into 3 categories, kind of like class:
- First Class: Knights of Justice or Professed Knights, and the Professed Conventual Chaplains, who take religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and form what amounts to a religious order. Until the 1990s membership in this class was restricted to members of families with noble lineages. There are also three surviving enclosed monasteries of nuns of the Order, two in Spain that date from the 11/12th centuries and one in Malta, whose members hold the same rank in the Order as chaplains.
- Second Class: Knight and Dames in Obedience, similarly restricted until recently, these knights and dames make a promise, rather than a vow, of obedience. This class is subdivided into three categories, namely that of Knight and Dames of Honour and Devotion in Obedience, Knight and Dames of Grace and Devotion in Obedience, and Knight and Dames of Magistral Grace in Obedience.
- Third Class: Subdivided into six categories: Knights and Dames of Honour and Devotion, Conventual Chaplains ad honorem, Knights and Dames of Grace and Devotion, Magistral Chaplains, Knights and Dames of Magistral Grace, and Donats (male and female) of Devotion. All categories of this class are made up of members who take no vows and who had to show a decreasingly extensive history of nobility. Knights of magistral grace need not prove any noble lineage and are the commonest class of knights in the United States.
So can you visit the Sovereign Military Order of Malta?
A very good question, but not an easy one to answer. As I stated in Stepping Across the Border: What Counts as “Visiting” a Country? Merely visiting an embassy, despite embassies having extraterritorial rights would not count as a country. Therefore visiting one of the SMOM’s diplomatic missions would not count, but what about its extraterritorial buildings in Rome, or Malta?
According to the order under the question “where are you based”:
“The Order of Malta settled permanently in Rome, Italy, in 1834. Its two institutional seats, granted extraterritorial rights, are the Magistral Palace on Via dei Condotti. This is where the Grand Master resides and Government Bodies meet – and the Magistral Villa on the Aventine. The latter hosts the Grand Priory of Rome – which is made up of the Order’s members in Central Italy – and the Embassy of the Sovereign Order to the Italian Republic.”
Therefore visiting, and going into its extraterritorial property in Rome would count as “visiting” the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
Visitors Centre – Magistral Palace of the Sovereign Order of Malta
Via Bocca di Leone, 73 – 00187 Rome
Opening hours: Monday-Friday, 9:30-13:00/14:00-16:00
Opening times, a visitor centre, a history, an elected prince, and air force, passports, a silly uniform, and tens of thousands of members throughout the world. I thus declare the Sovereign Military Order of Malta not only the Big Kahuna and Grand Pappy of Micronations, but as genuine country as per the YPT list of what counts as a country.