What’s the only country that doesn’t have any land? It’s a stumper when it comes up in a pub quiz; we’re not talking about Armenian governments-in-exile or Catalonia (too soon), but an actual country that issues passports and is internationally recognised as a sovereign state.
The answer, of course, is the snazzily-named “Sovereign Military Order of Malta” or, for shorthand, the SMOM (spoiler alert: we will be using the latter from here on out).
Tell us more about the SMOM
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta were originally formed in 1099 in medieval Jerusalem as kind of ‘swords for hire’ during the time before Muslims and Christians were friends. This was called the Crusades. Originally they were knowns as the Knights Hospitaliers and were kind of like a military medical unit.
Move to Cyprus
In 1291 the Holy Land was lost and the Knights needed a new crib. This was before the days of Ayia Napa, but Cyprus even at that time had more sand next to beaches than Jerusalem did. Times were good.
Going Greek Style
In 1310 it was decided that Christendom needed a naval defence force so the Knights were moved to Rhodes, from where they amassed a pretty impressive navy to ward against the enemies of Christ. A happy few hundred years were spent on Rhodes until 1523 when the very modest Sultan Sulaman The Magnificent kicked them out.
For the first time in a long time the Knights found themselves without an island or country to rule. No one wants to rush into any big real estate deal, so they waited until 1530 to make their next move.
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta
In 1530 the Knights moved to Malta and changed their name, which caused great confusion with the people of Malta, as their island was (and still is) called Malta.
Interestingly, the Knights even got involved in the whole business of colonisation by taking over 4 islands in the Caribbean before they were taken by France. As much of a failure as it sounds, it still makes them more successful than Scotland at colonizing the Caribbean.
Pesky short people
In 1798 Napoleon kicked the knights out of Malta, and Malta again became Malta, whilst the Sovereign Military Order of Malta still claimed Malta and decided to keep the name.
Exile of the SMOM
The UK agreed to give back Malta to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta after they beat Napoleon, but in 1802 decided it would be better to just keep Malta, which they did. Thus began a very long and intense period of exile for the SMOM.
Pope to the rescue
In 1834 the Pope gave them a big palace in Rome with extraterritorial status (like an embassy) so that they could still pretend to be a country, even if they had no land. They duly complied by making their own passports and stamps.
Relations with actual Malta
For hundreds of years Malta and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta argued a lot about who rightfully owned Malta, before someone stepped in and pointed out Malta with its Maltese population in Malta was probably the right Malta. Malta duly obliged by giving the SMOM their castle back in Malta under a 99 year lease with both the flag of Malta and the flag of the Sovereign Military order of Malta flown side by side. Which definitely avoids any confusion regarding who is the rightful Malta.
During the Wars
During the Wars the SMOM dropped the military bit of their title and just concentrated on hospital stuff, which was nice. Ironically, after World War 2, they had a bigger air force than Italy.
The SMOM today
They are now over 900 years old and have diplomatic status with over 30 states, and still issue passports. They are run like a theocracy that pretends to be democratic, and now concentrate on humanitarian stuff, which is nice.
Is it really a country though?
Yes! And it has more of a history and culture than most countries with land (I’m looking at you Australia), hasn’t done anything as idiotic as Brexit, doesn’t have an orange-faced leader and has more chance of winning the World Cup than England. It counts.
To read the YPT rules on what counts as country click here.
Come on though — they don’t even have their own currency.
Can I join and get a passport?
No, you can’t. In fact they hold record for issuing the least amounts of passports of any country in the world. Yes the Sovereign Military Order of Malta passport is officially the rarest passport in the world.
Can I visit?
Go to either their digs in Rome, or Malta (actual Malta) and YPT will consider it a visit to an actual country.
Do you offer any tours there?
Join our Microstates of Europe Road Trip where we travel from Andorra via Monaco to the Vatican City, and spend some time in Rome hunting down the SMOM! The fun doesn’t stop there, we visit Mussolini’s birthplace before heading to San Marino, the exclave of Campione d’Italia and Liechtenstein..