What is a country? That is a surprisingly complicated question. A country or state is a distinct territorial body or political entity that may be fully sovereign or part of a larger state. Greenland and Scotland can be considered countries even though they are not fully independent or UN member states. But is it possible to be a country without any land?

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (or Order of Malta) descends from the Knights Hospitaller from the Crusades. For centuries (700 years), they had land and were a "country," but eventually they lost their land but the order itself continued. Today they are considered a sovereign entity in international law, and they have diplomatic relations with many countries.


The Backstory Of The Order of Malta

The Order of Malta is of the Hospitaller Order and is a Catholic lay religious order. The Order claims continuity from the Knights Hospitaller, a chivalric order founded around 1,099 in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. The venerated patroness of the Order is the Virgin Mary.

  • Full Name: Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta
  • Territory: None
  • Diplomatic Relations: With 112 States (Not The USA or the UK)
  • UN: They Have A Permanent Observer States At The UN General Assembly Since 1994

The Order was formed and became a military Order to protect pilgrims and the sick and to defend the Crusader territories of the Holy Land.

  • Formed: Around 1099
  • Lost Malta: 1798

As the Crusader lands of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were lost to the advancing Muslims, they relocated to Cyprus, then to Rhodes, and then to Malta. But in 1798 Napoleon invaded Malta and the Order was left dispersed and without any land. On losing the island, the Order ceased to have a military function although it preserves its historical military traditions.

Related: This Malta Fishing Village Is Among The World’s Most Beautiful

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta Today

Today its focus is on providing humanitarian assistance and aid efforts around the world. They labor to assist children, the homeless, the handicapped, the elderly, refugees, and others.

It is based in Rome where it has two headquarters buildings that enjoy the extraterritoriality similar to embassies. These embassies are perhaps the closest thing to territory that the Order has today and where one can visit them. The Order issues its own passports, coins, and postage states (although few countries recognize the passport making it one of the weakest in the world).

  • Members: Over 13,500 Knights, Dames, and Chaplains
  • Passport: They Issue Their Own Passport (Many Countries Don't Recognize It, But Some Do)

The Order of Malta is made up of more than 13,500 Knights, Dames, and Chaplains according to their website. Additionally, there are 80,000 permanent volunteers and 42,000 employees (most of whom are medical personnel).

Fort St. Angelo In Malta

While the Order has long been driven off the island of Malta, one can still visit their old castle there (one of the gems of Malta). Fort St. Angelo was a castle built (or rebuilt) by the Order of Malta and was the Order's headquarters during the Great Siege of Malta of 1565.

  • Fort St. Angelo: A Former Headquarters of The Order

Later the fort was garrisoned by the British with it even sometimes being classified as a stone frigate known as HMS Egmont or HMS St Angelo.

  • 1998 Treaty: Grants Limited Rights To The Order Over Parts Of The Fort

In 1998 a treaty was signed between the Order of Malta and the modern country of Malta that granted the upper part of the fort (including the Grand Master's House and the Chapel of St Anne), to the Order with limited extraterritoriality. This means the Order Of Malta has limited rights and jurisdiction over part of the fort for 99 years, and they can fly their flag there.

Related: Everything To Know Before Visiting Malta, Including Its Dense Population And What To Avoid

Visitor Center of The Order In Rome

Go to Rome and visit the visitor center for the Sovereign Order of Malta. Here one can learn about its humanitarian, medical, and social activities as well as its unique and storied history. One can learn how this rather odd "country" came to be.

The Visitor Center is in the Magistral Palace which has been its seat of government since 1834 right in the heart of Rome. The Order enjoys extra-territorial status (like an embassy) over the Magistral Palace.

  • Location: Magistral Palace in Rome on Via Bocca di Leone, 73
  • Opening hours: Monday-Friday, 9:30-13:00/14:00-16:00
  • July: 9:30-13:00
  • August: closed

Other places to visit the Sovereign Order of Malta are its many diplomatic missions around the world.