SMOM: small ‘country,’ long name

By Bill Thames
This item appears on page 14 of the July 2019 issue.
Courtyard at the Magistral Palace of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta — Rome. Photo by Bill Thames

During my trip to Rome in September 2017, I visited the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM).

SMOM is an institution dating back to the Crusades. Originally known as the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, it once operated a hospital in Jerusalem. Pope Paschal II recognized the order in 1113 and declared it sovereign.

When the Saracens conquered the last of the Crusader kingdoms in 1291, the Order moved to Cyprus. In 1310, the Order moved to Rhodes after conquering that island, ruling from there until 1523, when the Turks conquered Rhodes.

In 1530, Emperor Charles V of Spain ceded the island of Malta to the Order. The Order was to give the emperor a falcon every year, and this is, roughly, the origin of the book title “The Maltese Falcon.”

The Order ran Malta until 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupation of Malta began. The Order’s code prohibited the knights from raising weapons against fellow Christians, so the Order was forced to leave Malta. It moved to Rome in 1834 and, to this day, occupies two properties totaling a minuscule 1.6 acres.*

The organization’s history is reflected by its full name: The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta.

SMOM is governed by a prince, who also has the title of Grand Master. SMOM has diplomatic relations with 108 countries, including those of the European Union, and official relations with six other countries, including Canada. It has no relations with the United States, however.

SMOM enters into treaties with other countries and has permanent observer status at the United Nations. It issues its own passports, mints its own coin (the scudo, not legal currency outside of its properties in Italy) and has its own car tags (issued by the Italian government). SMOM also prints its own stamps, which are recognized by 57 countries, including Canada (but not the US).

In 2013, SMOM celebrated the 900th anniversary of Pope Paschal II’s recognition of the Order. Today, SMOM doesn’t do any crusading; instead, it acts as an international charity, doing humanitarian and medical work all over the world.

The prince lives in the Magistral Palace (Via Condotti, 68, Rome), located about a block and a half from the Spanish Steps. There isn’t much to see. The palace has an old carriage entrance with two Maltese flags above it; inside the passageway is an iron gate.

From the gate, you can see a white Maltese cross on a red oval shield on the other side of the courtyard. During my visit, the courtyard gate was closed, so I couldn’t go inside, but, since I was inside the old carriage entrance by about a yard, I considered that as having been on the property.

Around the corner is the Visitors’ Centre (Via Bocca di Leone, 73;, open 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The center, which is about the size of a bedroom, has a time line of SMOM’s history hanging on one wall. You can also buy books, postcards and postage stamps there.

They won’t stamp your passport, though. Nor will they, for a stamp collector, cancel a postage stamp. Canadians can mail themselves postcards, but Americans don’t have that option.

The Magistral Villa (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta 3) — located on Aventine Hill at the intersection of Via di S. Sabina and Via Porta Lavernale — is somewhat out of the way but offers access to a wonderful sight: the famous Keyhole of Malta (Buco della Serratura).

The villa is fronted by a monumental entrance screen designed by artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. In the door on that wall is a round keyhole about an inch in diameter.

If you look through it, you will see in the foreground neatly trimmed trees and shrubs belonging to SMOM; in the mid-ground are buildings located in Rome, and perfectly centered in the background is the dome of St. Peter’s at the Vatican. There, through a one-inch keyhole, you can see three “countries” simultaneously!

I took a taxi to the Magistral Villa and had the taxi driver wait for me while I went to look through the keyhole. There was a line of people waiting to do the same.

Between September and June, the gardens and the church at the Magistral Villa are open for public one-hour tours from 9 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. each Friday and on two Saturdays each month.

In a group of 10 to 25 people, the entry fee to the villa grounds is 5 per person, with children under 12 entering free. With fewer than 10 people, the group pays an entry fee of 50 (near $55.70). In either case, to tour the grounds, a guide is required. An English-speaking guide costs 100 (or an Italian-speaking guide, 80). Tours need to be prebooked by writing to

Laurel, MS

*SMOM’s properties in Rome are similar in status to an embassy. SMOM has complete control over who enters, but the land on which the buildings sit is part of Italy.