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“Having our passport has its advantages but it can be quite problematic,” says Eleonore Habsburg. She is the spritely young Austrian-French desk officer for the Foreign Affairs Department, which is housed in the Palazzo Magistrale on Rome’s Via Condotti. She is referring to one of the 400 diplomatic passports that have been issued by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. “If you are arriving in the right country it can give you incredible access and diplomatic clearance but many people simply don’t know of our existence.”

As a sovereign entity the Order issues passports, prints stamps, has diplomatic missions and is recognised by 105 independent countries. However, it is not in itself a country as it has had no territory since it lost Malta to the French more than 200 years ago. It also doesn’t have any of its own citizens – but it does have extraterritorial jurisdiction over two palaces in Rome (of which more later).

As an ancient religious order that harks back to the time of the Crusades, this is an institution that is shrouded in mystery. The full title is The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. This interminable name is sometimes shortened to the cryptic smom but for internal purposes at the Palazzo Magistrale (also known as Palazzo Malta), thankfully “The Order” will suffice. A chivalric order of knights (thought to possibly be the oldest in existence), the institution now comprises some 13,500 knights and dames alongside about 80,000 volunteers across the world.

The Order came into existence about 1,000 years ago, opening a hospital for pilgrims in Jerusalem in 1048. But over the following two centuries, as the Crusades engulfed the Mediterranean, the Order grew, taking on a military role; “defending the faith” as it reads in the official literature. It has since gone back to its humanitarian roots: there is no longer a military. Instead, from ambulances in Austria to medicine for Syrian refugees, it has devoted itself to maintaining a vast network of aid.

In its more combative days the Order conquered Rhodes in the 1300s, moving on to Malta in the 1500s and defeating the Ottoman army there in 1565. Napoleon forced it out in 1798 and after a few nomadic decades it arrived in Rome, where it has been ever since.

When it comes to bricks and mortar, the Order is as regally bestowed as any small European state. The Palazzo Magistrale on Rome’s high-end Via Condotti (with a large Hermès shop as a neighbour and tenant) has sufficient baroque bulk to match the city’s dozens of other diplomatic and governmental gems. It exudes that Roman grandeur that fills out so many of the city’s interiors. Great reception rooms are stuffed with a familiar arrangement of rococo chairs and coffee tables; those gilded clusters that crop up in diplomatic circles from Baghdad to Belgravia. Portraits of the grand masters line the halls and oriental porcelain clutters the anterooms.

The property portfolio continues on Aventine Hill, where the Order’s Villa Magistrale acts as a venue for receptions, government elections and the infrequent swearing-in of the sovereign, known as the prince and grand master (he serves for life). Here, amid landscaping by Piranesi (who is buried in the chapel), a perfectly clipped tunnel of laurels forms an optical trick that brings the great cupola of St Peter’s startlingly close. Through a keyhole at the Villa’s main gate a constant flow of tourists line up for just a quick peep at this extraordinary private view.

Little by little the air of secrecy surrounding the Order is lifting and the 100 or so employees at the Palazzo Magistrale busy themselves with affairs of state. The sleek modern corridor that constitutes the finance ministry could be found in any European capital. Through another door, an older wing houses several other ministries and Eugenio Ajroldi di Robbiate heads up the Rome communications team.

“Making sure that all our global associations conform to our branding guidelines is a constant struggle,” says the official who, as a Roman, emanates the bureaucratic class that has always kept this city ticking. “Can you imagine: one of our Antipodean associations used our emblem on blue instead of red!”

The emblem in question is the distinctive Maltese eight-pointed cross that forms the basis of the Order’s visual identity, so iconic that it is something that many would-be chivalric orders try to imitate. The Palazzo Magistrale contains a whole office to deal with this problem: The commission for Self Styled Orders. It is charged with rooting out the fraudulent copycats that set up websites, collect spurious membership fees and hand out false knighthoods. “It is frustrating,” says Di Robbiate. “But it happens in just about every sector nowadays and we are established enough to take it.”

The work of Di Robbiate’s department includes far more pressing duties as well. His colleague Marianna Balfour is fresh from working on the “Religions Together for Humanitarian Action” symposium that was hosted by the Order at the UN in Geneva. Her next preoccupation involves helping with preparations for the Istanbul humanitarian summit called by Ban Ki-moon for 2016. “This kind of work is vital for us,” says Balfour. “It’s the best way we can make the most of our unique position.”

At the chancellery the grand chancellor, his excellency Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager (the Order’s equivalent of foreign minister), is keen to stress that the discreet high-level style in which foreign policy is conducted is far from secretive. “I think it’s important to really underline that we operate with a very open agenda,” says the German, whose considerable height and steady delivery make him a particularly convincing statesman. “Having an open agenda is the best protection we can provide for our people – especially in areas of conflict.”

It is perhaps not surprising that the representative of a publicity-shy, little-known religious order – that also happens to be a sovereign entity based in two ornate Roman palaces – might be keen to stress how open his organisation is. Indeed, the grand chancellor seems accustomed to countering just such a suspicion. “We are not aligned to a nation or to business interests,” he says. “You know, people in conflict have a kind of sixth sense: they know if you come to assist or otherwise.” In fact, there is much about the Order that those visiting (a rare occurrence) may struggle to put their finger on. On one level it seems like something of an anachronism, full of ceremony and slightly pompous. However, it is not keen to dwell on the pomp, instead promoting itself as a faith-based institution focused on humanitarian aid. It has hosted international conferences and works with ngos during times of crisis; it now has operations in 120 countries.

“The hospital we built in Bethlehem 25 years ago delivers 3,500 babies every year,” says his excellency Dominique Prince de la Rochefoucauld-Montbel, the Order’s grand hospitaller – or health minister. “We are a bastion of Christianity in that region,” he adds, with no sign of abashment. But in a climate of Islamic extremism, surely the Order’s proud connections to the medieval Crusaders are a source of contention? “Actually no,” says Von Boeselager, interjecting. “In many Muslim countries an organisation that is faith-based is more welcome than a secular one. People understand the motivations at play.”

Not everyone agrees on what those motivations are. Conspiracy theories and rumours about the Order of Malta are as old as the institution itself; the internet is awash with allegations of links to shady political figures or supposed activity in the Middle East. But while the Order’s history may not be as clean and virtuous as its officials would like to imagine, the fact that the UN deems it worthy of observer status alongside organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross suggests that its present- day activities should be celebrated rather than scorned.

A return to the Foreign Affairs Department finds Habsburg, the desk officer, carefully processing another of the Order’s scarlet-and-gold passports. The issuing of diplomatic passports is for the Order’s own ambassadors and other senior members. It may be a hassle for some but occasionally diplomatic ceremony is necessary. And you can’t help feeling, given that it is probably the world’s rarest passport, that there will always be plenty of eager applicants to keep this small office busy.

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