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The Story of the Maltese Cross

In 1020, merchants from Italy organized and built a hospital in the City of Jerusalem to care for Christians who had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  It was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, and the monks who operated it were known as the Frères Hospitaliers de St. Jean de Jerusalem.


The passing of time brought added dangers for the pilgrims and as the bordering territory became more perilous, the monks began providing an armed escort for them. The holy order continued to evolve and became a crusading order in 1070, when the Turks captured Jerusalem from the Saracens and began persecuting the visiting Christians and destroying places considered sacred by the Roman Catholic Church.  


In 1096, at the urging of the Pope, the First Crusade was launched from Europe to rescue the Holy Land from the forces of Islam.  After successfully participating in the First Crusade, the holy order of St. John of Jerusalem was formally recognized by the Pope in 1113 as the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, with members conforming to both a stringent military and religious discipline. The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, of the Knights Hospitaliers, wore a black habit with a white eight-point cross on the chest.  A black cloak was worn for ceremonial occasions.  The same white cross was also used against a scarlet background on the Order’s standard.  Some say the eight points symbolized the Beatitudes given on the Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew, while others say they represented the eight obligations or aspirations of the Knights.  Those obligations were to live in truth, to have faith, to repent sins, to prove humility, to love justice, to be merciful, to be sincere and to endure persecution. As the influence and power of Islamic forces grew, however, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem retreated first to Cyprus and then in 1309 to Rhodes, where they ruled as an independent state and from where they fought the Turks for two centuries.  


They then spent seven years wandering in Italy before ultimately accepting a home on the island of Malta, in the year 1530, for the annual rent of one falcon.  There they have become known as the Knights of Malta and their symbol as the Maltese Cross. It was during their battles with the Islamic military forces during the Crusades that the Knights encountered a ghastly weapon, new to them, which was capable of inflicting agonizing pain and death.  That weapon was fire.  As the Knights advanced on the walls of the city, they were struck by glass bombs containing a flammable liquid.  


When they became saturated with it, the defending Turks hurled a flaming tree into their midst.  Hundreds of knights were burned alive and others risked their lives to save their brothers in arms from succumbing to a fiery death. In this way, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem became known throughout Europe as brave firefighters.  And, it is for this reason that their standard symbol, the Cross of Malta, became a symbol of firefighters through the ages.  The courageous men and women who wear this cross have made a commitment to battle the fiery forces and, if necessary, to lay down their lives for others as the Knights of Malta did so many years ago.

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