Today we often read, see or hear in political, financial
and cultural news stories about other populous countries.
India, China, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan each have
large populations; Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy,
Spain, and other major European nations are often in the
headlines. Even a few countries with smaller populations,
but large land areas --- such as Canada and Australia --- are
well-known to us.
There are also much less well-known and very tiny nations
--- most of them in Europe --- which are fascinating
because of their extraordinary histories and remarkable
ability to survive into the modern world.
Thanks to an American movie star who married its ruling
prince, and its legendary casino, many Americans know
about or have even visited the small principality of Monaco,
located on the glamorous French Riviera on the north shore
of he Mediterranean Sea. A prince of the House of Grimaldi
has ruled since 1297. Andorra is a very small land-locked
country located in the Pyrenees mountains between France
and Spain. Chartered in 988, and created a principality in 1278,
it is ruled by a diarchy of two princes, the Spanish Bishop of
Urgell and the president of France. (Yes, Emmanuel Macron
is now technically and temporarily a royal co-monarch.) It is
also the only sovereign nation on earth which has Catalan as
its official language. (The autonomous Spanish province of
Catalunya also speaks Catalan, as do many French who live
along the Spanish border.) San Marino is a land-locked tiny
republic founded in 301 A.D. in northern Italy. It is the world’s
oldest constitutional nation. Most of its citizens speak
Sanmarinese, a dialect of the Emilia Romagna region.
All three of these microscopic nations are many centuries
old, and are picturesque places.
There are several new independent nations which are small
islands or groups of islands in the southern Pacific Ocean,
including exotic Tuvalu. Its small capital is Funifuti.
But none of these places is even close to being the smallest
country in the world.
That distinction belongs to a truly sovereign nation located on
the second floor of a villa in downtown Rome.
Known usually by its acronym “SMOM” (and more formally as
Sovrane Militare Ordine di Malta), it is the only country in the
world that you enter by elevator. Near the Spanish Steps
and the famed glove market neighborhood of Rome, the first
floor of its stately villa is Italian territory. But the second and
upper floors are strictly sovereign SMOM territory. It has a
population of two persons. It coins its own money, prints its own
stamps, and has special status at the United Nations. It issues its
own passports, and has diplomatic relations with more than a
hundred countries. When I went there in 1964, I had my passport
stamped. (Now in European Union days, I don’t think that
SMOM is more than a thousand years old. (It was first
established in 1099.) Its symbol and flag is the Maltese Cross.
Founded in Jerusalem as a Catholic order, it moved first to
Cyprus, then to the island of Rhodes, then to the island of Malta,
and finally to Rome.
Once, it was a powerful Mediterranean military power when it
was located on the island of Malta. Since then its land mass has
been shrunk dramatically, finally settling into the upper floors
of the Roman villa known as Palazzo Malta.
But if its land and resident population size are very tiny, its
global impact remains notable. The Catholic order has 13,500
knights, dames and auxiliary members. Its medical staff
number 25,000, and its volunteers number 80,000. It is one of the
largest global philanthropic service organizations, serving the
medical needs of the poor worldwide. (Its original creation in
the 11th century had the purpose to provide medical services to
pilgrims visiting Jerusalem.)
Since almost everything about SMOM is unique or distinctive, its
government should be no surprise. It is an elective monarchy.
(The post is currently vacant.) It is perhaps one of the very few
continual and surviving remnants of medieval European
civilization, and whose history and philanthropic service has
no contemporary equal.
Rome has many spectacular places to see, but no visitor to this
city should miss SMOM. If the elevator doesn’t work, there is a
Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.