The Maltese Islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino – lie in the narrow channel joining the eastern and western basins of the Mediterranean, sixty miles south of Sicily and 180 miles north of Tunisia. The islands occupy an area of just 122 square miles.
Malta, the larger island, has a number of natural harbours which have given the island strategic importance in the Mediterranean. In effect, the power controlling Malta has always been in a position to influence events in the Mediterranean.
For this reason, the islands were occupied by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the Angevins, the Aragonese, the Castillians, the Order of St. John, the French and the British. In 1964 Malta finally gained its Independence.
Not much is known about Malta’s prehistoric inhabitants except that they came from the north and found Malta suitable to build great megalithic temples. They hollowed huge hypogea (underground temples) out of Malta’s soft rock and developed an art and sculpture unequalled in Western Europe in their time and for many centuries later.
The presence of the Phoenicians and Carthaginians in Malta opened the islands to widespread trade which increased under the Romans, who established flourishing communities in Malta, building sophisticated complexes and bringing their culture and prosperity to the islands.
Malta was conquered by Muslims in 870 AD after three centuries of Byzantine rule. After a period of desolation, the ancient city of Mdina was rebuilt in the 11th century. Not much remains of this period other than Malta’s Semitic language.
After changing hands many times, in 1530 the Order of the Knights of St John arrived in Malta and in 1565 Malta was besieged for three months by a Turkish armada in what has become famously known as the Great Siege of Malta. The Order’s victory marked a turning point in Turkish expansion in Europe and the Mediterranean. Indeed, the hard-fought and bloody victory made the Order and Malta famous throughout Europe.
Realising that they had to make the island safe from future attacks, the Knights decided to build a fortress city on the peninsula overlooking Malta’s Grand Harbour. The city was named Valletta after the ruling Grand Master, Jean Parisot de Valette – the victor of the Great Siege of 1565 – and became Malta’s capital city in 1566. Today, it is renowned for its Baroque palaces and churches.
After the Siege, Malta started its second golden age. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the island’s population flourished. Towns and villages grew and were enriched by villas, palaces and churches. A highly successful merchant class traded far and wide and the arts flourished in the homes of the rich and the churches. This age was brought to a sudden end by the anti-aristocratic French Revolution which seized the Order’s properties in France, limiting its funds and its function. The final blow came on 13 June 1798 when Napoleon Bonaparte made Malta French.
Eventually, angered by the brutality and looting of the French Revolutionary soldiers, the Maltese could not accept the radical reforms “to liberate the people from feudalism” imposed by the new rulers. Revolt broke out within three months, forcing the French forces to retreat behind the massive fortifications of Valletta and the three harbour cities of Cospicua, Vittoriosa and Senglea. The Maltese leaders of the Revolt called on their lawful king, Ferdinand, King of the Two Sicilies as Charles V’s successor, to help them drive out the occupying French. Ferdinand requested the British Admiral in the Mediterranean, Horatio Nelson, to help his loyal subjects, leading to a two-year land and sea blockade of Valletta and the harbour cities in which many Maltese died.
British diplomacy and dubious dealings led some of the leaders of the Revolt to ask for British Protection, which was quickly accepted in 1802. Twelve years later, the Treaty of Paris, legalised Britain’s possession of Malta and for the next 150 years, Malta was Britain’s colony in the Mediterranean, and the base for its mighty Mediterranean Fleet together with a large garrison (troops of soldiers).
To the disappointment of the Maltese, the British imposed an autocratic regime with a British governor at its head. The Maltese soon embarked on a political struggle for autonomy, an unequal struggle marked by imprisonments, deportations and repeated suspension of democratic government which was eventually granted in 1921.
The military character of the island became stronger in times of war. During World War I, Malta acted as ‘The Nurse of the Mediterranean’, receiving thousands of wounded soldiers, especially from the failed Gallipoli campaign. In World War II Malta was in the centre of the battle for the control of the Mediterranean between the Italian and German forces in Italy and North Africa and the British 8th Army supported by Malta. The island received the heaviest concentrations of bombing of all Europe, suffering starvation and heavy military and civilian deaths. However its brave resistance was recognised by the award of the George Cross; the highest civilian medal. Once again, the islands’ resistance proved to be the turning point of a European war.
In 1964, Malta became a sovereign independent state strengthened by an industrial background based on the shipyards and a strong educational, health and administrative structure. British influence, culture and the war had completely changed Malta and the Maltese. English had replaced Italian as the language of culture, with Maltese becoming the national language of the reborn Island State which became a Republic in 1974. In May 2004, Malta became a member of the European Union, and in January 2008 a member of the Euro zone.
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