As some of you know, I go to Rome fairly often. When in Rome, I have frequently passed the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The first time I walked by, I had no idea what it was. However, after a little research, I discovered that the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is a Roman Catholic Order that claims sovereign status, with its own constitution, passports, stamps, coins and public institutions (including a military force maintained at its Rome headquarters).
Why are they in Rome?
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the island of Malta for its strategic value during his Egyptian campaign. Because of a rule of the Order prohibiting them to raise weapons against other Christians, the knights of the Order were forced to leave Malta. Although the sovereign rights of the Order on the island of Malta have been reaffirmed by the Treaty of Amiens (1802), the Order has never been able to return to Malta.
Thus, although the traditional state came to an end with the ejection of the Order from Malta by Napoleon, the Order as such survived. It retains its claims of sovereignty under international law, but after having temporarily resided in Messina, Catania and Ferrara, in 1834 the Order settled definitively in Rome.
The Smallest Country in the World?
With its unusual present circumstances, the exact status of the Order in international law has been the subject of some debate: it claims to be an example of a sovereign entity other than a state. Its two headquarters in Rome – the Palazzo Malta in Via dei Condotti 68, where the Grand Master resides and Government Bodies meet, and the Villa Malta on the Aventine, which hosts the Grand Priory of Rome – Fort Saint Angelo on the island of Malta, the Embassy of the Order to Holy See and the Embassy of the Order to Italy have all been granted extraterritoriality.
Professor Rebecca Wallace —writing recently in her book International Law—explained that a sovereign entity does not have to be a country, and that the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is an example of this. This position appears to be supported by the number of nations extending diplomatic relations to the Order – the Sovereign Military Order of Malta has formal diplomatic relations with 104 states and has official relations with another six countries, non-state subjects of international law like the European Community and International Committee of the Red Cross, and a number of international organizations.
Well, probably needless to say, I wanted to get inside and look around. And here a big hat tip goes out to Matthew who pointed out that one could simply try going up and ringing the doorbell. Well, armed with an Italian and a finger for ringing the doorbell, the last time I was in Rome, I set out for the Sovereign Military Order of Malta to try and get inside.
Here’s what the headquarters at Via dei Condotti 68 looks like from the outside:
Both gates open as a car leaves:
Fortunately, the outer gate remained open:
And so my Italian and I went up rang the doorbell. I expected the guard to ask us what the hell we wanted and to tell us to go away, but instead we were simply buzzed in after a short delay without any questions at all:
My Italian explained to the guard that we desired to look around and with a bemused expression on his face, he waved us in.
The inner courtyard:
An attractive fountain inside:
It was later in the day and so most doors were locked, but we did get to see these guys hard at work in an office adjoining the courtyard:
After a few moments, we’d seen the highlights and departed after thanking the guard.
Time to cross another one off the country list? Or at least the territory list?