It takes its origins from the Knights Hospitaller, an organization founded in Jerusalem in 1050 as an Amalfitan hospital to provide care for poor and sick pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, it became a Catholic military order under its own charter. Following the loss of Christian territory to Islamic conquerors of the Holy Land, the Order operated from Rhodes (1310-1523), and later from Malta (1530-1798), over which it was sovereign.
Although this 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 and has been granted permanent observer status at the United Nations. SMOM is considered to be the main successor to the medieval Knights Hospitaller.
Today the order has 12,500 members, 80,000 permanent volunteers, 13,000 medical personnel including doctors, nurses, auxiliaries and paramedics. The goal is to assist the elderly, the handicapped, refugees, children, the homeless, those with terminal illness and leprosy in five continents of the world, without distinction of race or religion. Through its worldwide relief corps, Malteser International, the Order is also engaged to aid victims of natural disasters, epidemics and armed conflicts.
In ecclesiastical heraldry, the Order of Malta is one of only two Orders whose insignia may be displayed in a clerical coat of arms. (Laypersons have no such restriction.) The shield is surrounded with a silver rosary for professed knights, or for others the ribbon of their rank. Members may also display the Maltese Cross behind their shield instead of the ribbon (Noonan 1996).
With its unique history and unusual present circumstances the exact status of the Order has been the subject of debate: it claims to be a traditional example of a sovereign entity other than a state. Its two headquarters in Rome, namely 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, the Embassy of the Order to Holy See and the Embassy of the Order to Italy), are granted extraterritoriality.
However, unlike the Holy See, which is sovereign over the Vatican City, SMOM has had no sovereign territory (other than a few properties in Italy with extraterritoriality only) since the loss of the island of Malta in 1798. The United Nations does not classify it as a "non-member state" but as one of the "entities and intergovernmental organizations having received a standing invitation to participate as observers". For instance, while the International Telecommunication Union has granted radio identification prefixes to such quasi-sovereign jurisdictions as the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority, SMOM has never received one. For awards purposes, amateur radio operators consider SMOM to be a separate "entity", but stations transmitting from there use an entirely unofficial callsign starting with the prefix "1A". Likewise, for internet identification the SMOM has not sought, nor been granted, a top level domain (such as .com or.uk), while Vatican City uses its own domain (.va).
There are differing opinions on whether a claim to sovereign status has been recognized. Some say it has. Other experts in international law do not. The latter include Ian Brownlie, Helmut Steinberger, and Wilhelm Wengler. Even taking into account its ambassadorial status among many nations, such a claim is sometimes rejected.
Wilhelm Wengler, a German Professor of International law, addresses this point in his book "Völkerrecht", and rejects the notion that recognition of the Order by some states can make it a subject of international law. Conversely, Professor Rebecca Wallace, writing more recently in her book "International Law", explains that a sovereign entity does not have to be a country, and that SMOM is an example of this. This position appears to be supported by the number of nations extending diplomatic relations to the Order, which more than doubled from 49 to 100 in the 20 year period to 2008. The Holy See in 1953 proclaimed "in the Lord's name" that the Order of Malta was only a "functional sovereignty" - due to the fact that it did not have all that pertained to true sovereignty, such as territory.
SMOM has formal diplomatic relations with 101 states (many of which are non-Catholic), and has official relations with another 5 countries, non-state subjects of international law like the European Community and International Committee of the Red Cross, and a number of international organizations. Its international nature is useful in enabling it to pursue its humanitarian activities without being seen as an operative of any particular nation. Its claimed sovereignty is also expressed in the issuance of passports, licence plates, stamps, and coins. The coincidence of Rome being the capital of the Italian Republic, the Holy See and the Order of Malta leads to a high density of diplomatic instances in the city.
The coins are appreciated more for their subject matter rather than for use as currency, however, their postage stamps have been gaining acceptances among UPU member nations. Starting in 2005, SMOM issues stamps with the euro as the unit of postage, while Scudo (pl. Scudi) remains the SMOM's official currency. Also, in 2005, the Italian Post made an agreement with SMOM to deliver most classes of mail internationally except for Registered, Insured and Express Mail. Prior to the Italia Post agreement, the following countries recognized SMOM stamps for franking purposes:
Argentina, Austria, Benin, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, Comoros, Congo, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Gabon, Georgia, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Honduras, Hungary, Italy, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Liberia, Lithuania, Macao, Madagascar, Mali, Nicaragua, Niger, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, São Tomé & Príncipe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, Togo and Uruguay.
The supreme head of the Order is the Grand Master, who is elected for life by the Council Complete of State. Fra' Matthew Festing was elected by the Council as 79th Grand Master on 11th March 2008, succeeding Fra' Andrew Bertie, who was Grand Master until his death on 7th February 2008. 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, 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. The Grand Commander is the chief religious officer of the Order and serves as "Interim Lieutenant" during a vacancy in the office of Grand Master. The Grand Chancellor whose office includes those of the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the head of the executive branch. He is responsible for the Diplomatic Missions of the Order and relations with the national Associations. The Grand Hospitaller's responsibilities include the offices of Minister for Humanitarian Action and Minister for International Cooperation. He coordinates the Order's humanitarian and charitable activities. Finally, the Receiver of the Common Treasure is the Minister of Finance and Budget and directs the administration of the finances and property of the Order
Prior to the 1990s, all officers of the Order had to be of noble birth, i.e. armigerous for at least 100 years. However, Knights of Magistral Grace (i.e. those without noble proofs), may make the Promise of Obedience and may, at the discretion of the Grand Master and Sovereign Council, enter the novitiate to become professed Knights of Justice. The latter are religious, essentially monks practising the triple vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, although seldom living in monastic community. Worldwide there are over 12,500 knights and dames, a small minority of whom are professed religious. Others choose to be a "Knight of Obedience". Membership of the Order is by invitation only and solicitations are not entertained.
The Order's finances are audited by a Board of Auditors, which includes a President and four Councillors, all elected by the Chapter General. The Order's judicial powers are exercised by a group of Magistral Courts, whose judges are appointed by the Grand Master and Sovereign Council.
Commonly referred to as The Military Corps of the Order, the military force in its present form was raised in 1877 and has enjoyed a continuous existence since that date. Armed and uniformed members of the Corps attend grand ceremonials of the Order, and stand guard around the coffins of high officers of the Order before and during funeral rites. By agreement with the Italian Government in 1877 the Military Corps came into being under the official title of 'Auxiliary Military Corps of the Italian Army - Sovereign Military Order of Malta', to assist the Italian army's injured or sick (in peace or war). In 1908 the agreement was modified so that the Corps, whilst remaining the official military unit of the Order, and under the command of the Order, also became a fully integral part of the Italian army. Fausto Solaro del Borgo, President of the Italian Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, stated in a speech given in London in November 2007:
I believe that it is a unique case in the world that a unit of the army of one country is supervised by a body of another sovereign country. Just think that whenever our staff (medical officers mainly) is engaged in a military mission abroad, there is the flag of the Order flying below the Italian flag.
The Corps has become known in mainland Europe for its operation of hospital trains, a service which was carried out intensively during both World Wars. As part of the post-World War Two peace treaty 36 military aircraft of the Italian Airforce were transferred to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, and flew under the Order's flag, to allow the Military Corps to continue its medical function within the (then limited) Italian armed forces. One of these aircraft, still in Order colours, is preserved in the Italian Museum of Aeronautics.