Cast your mind back to the dawn of civilization, to roughly 5200 BC if the archaeologists may be believed. A group of Sicilian settlers are the first to set foot on the tiny island of Malta. To these farmers and fishermen, the little archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea undoubtedly promised a new beginning, an abundance of food and, perhaps, a measure of some security. Little were they to know that Malta’s future would be riddled with turmoil, it’s central location placing it at the forefront of Mediterranean events.
Today, the descendents of those settlers obstinately continue to plough the sun-scorched fields, and the brightly painted boats in the harbour of Marsaxlokk still bring in the sea’s harvest as they have done for centuries. But what was the island like back then? A verdant green paradise with rolling meadow after rolling meadow until the eye loses focus over the brilliantly blue ocean waters? Or perhaps dark and mysterious under the boughs of an ancient forest? The remains of elephants, hippopotami and other large animals have been found in caves, and marine fossils embedded into the rock at some of Malta’s highest peaks indicate that the island had been submerged at some point in its distant past. Could this be the origin of the Atlantis myths?
Ruins dating back to about 3600 BC shed little light on the island’s earliest civilisation, a nation of prolific temple builders, worshippers of an unknown female deity. Their prehistoric monoliths, older than those at Stonehenge, and their subterranean necropolis at Paolo continue to intrigue and bemuse the select few who have been privileged enough to enter their domain. As time passed, the society that left us these monuments disappeared and very little is now known of them.
In 1000 BC the Phoenicians arrived and colonised the island, naming it “Malat” (the refuge) and using it as a base for their nautical explorations. A few centuries later, the island had been under the control of first Greece, then Carthage and later Rome, and in 60 AD a prisoner named Paul was shipwrecked on its shores. The coming of the saint had a huge impact on the people of Malta. Even though a variety of nations have conquered and ruled the island over the years, its people are now predominantly catholic and religious imagery is evident wherever one ventures.
The island was captured in 440 AD by the Vandals, an East-Germanic tribe better known for the destruction of Rome in 455 AD. Their dominion did not last long, for the island was reclaimed by the Romans in 533 AD, after which it became part of the province of Sicily and remained as such for 340 years before the Arab invasion. The relatively short period of 220 years under Arab rule is distinctly visible in the prevalent architecture, as well as the place names and the official Maltese language, an interesting fusion between Arabic and Italian. In 1127, the island was once again part of Sicily.
In the years to follow, ownership of the island changed hands many times, but eventually it became part of the Spanish Empire in 1479. In the 16th century, fearing the spread of the Ottoman Empire, the Spanish king Charles V gave the island to its most memorable rulers – the Knight Hospitallers of St. John, originally an order of militants established to provide medical assistance to pilgrims to and from the Holy Land. The Knights of Malta, as they are now more commonly known, built beautiful towns, churches, palaces and gardens across the island and surrounded themselves with art and culture. After withstanding the Great Siege of 1565, they vanquished the Ottoman invaders and built the impressive fortress city of Valetta, now the island’s capital.
But history was once again not content to leave the island to a peaceful existence. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte came, saw and conquered, and left a sizeable garrison behind that at first sparked optimism in the local population, but later infuriated them to such an extent that the Maltese people rebelled and asked the British Empire for assistance. In 1800 the French garrison surrendered and Malta became a voluntary part of the British Empire.
Malta played a pivotal role during both World Wars, acting as a base from which the British launched attacks on the Italian navy and serving as a listening post for decrypting German radio messages. As such, the island was heavily bombarded by the Italian and German air forces. One such notable event is now remembered as the “Miracle of Mosta”, when a bomb fell through the roof of the Mosta Dome during Mass, skidded to the floor and miraculously failed to detonate. The island survived both wars relatively intact and finally gained independence in 1964.
Today, Malta is invaded regularly by sun-worshipping tourists, their efforts bent on conquering the best spot on the beach and protecting it jealously from anyone venturing close enough to cast a shadow over their bronzed bodies. Malta seems blissfully at peace for the moment, but who knows what the future might still have in store for this remarkable little island…
Have you ever visited Malta? Did you find it as fascinating as I did? What were your favourite sights on the island?