Malta, Europe, the small island kingdom in the Mediterranean, may not be the best place for those who like to lie and sunbathe on sandy beaches as the coast is often rocky. Travelers come to Malta who are primarily looking for relaxing environments or want to experience the wings of history. There are plenty of places with historical connections in this small country.
The main reason I visited Malta was precisely to get to places where the brave Johannite Knights together with the Maltese defended the island against the Turks’ attacks in 1565. If the outcome of this horrific abduction had been different, Europe’s history would probably have looked completely different. Due to its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta has often been subjected to attacks and invasions.
Getting around Malta, or to the neighboring islands of Gozo and Comino, is easy with the charming local buses and ferries. Therefore, it will be easy to cover a large part of the country’s sights for a week without stress.
I liked Malta for the nice and interesting environments in cities and villages around the island, the visits to the historic sites and the tranquility of the capital Valletta. The people were friendly and helpful and the food good. Feel free to visit Malta in early spring when the island is green, then it is at its most beautiful, few tourists come here and the heat is tolerable.
Malta history in brief
Malta history, older
According to commit4fitness, the very oldest part of Malta’s history can only be speculated about because nothing has been written about it.
Many millennia ago, the water level in the Mediterranean was much lower than it is today. Then there was a land connection with Sicily. On this immigrated animals from Sicily and southern Europe. The bone fossils in the Ghar Dalam cave, near Marsaxlokk, show that for a period, mini-elephants, hippos and bears lived on the island. When the water level in the Mediterranean began to rise, it cut off the land connection to Sicily and the climate changed, which meant that the living conditions of the large animals changed and eventually they died out. Eventually the water had risen so much in the Mediterranean that only the highest parts protruded from it and thus the archipelago of Malta was formed.
The temple builders
Around 4,500 BC, it is believed that the first humans settled in Malta, which at that time was fertile, covered with forest and rich in water. The first settlers, who are believed to have come from Sicily, subsisted on agriculture and fishing, as well as limited trade with the people who remained in Sicily. The ceramic remains found after the first Maltese settlers are similar to those found in Sicily.
The first settlers also developed a primitive culture, which can still be traced around Malta in the form of large and impressive megalithic temples. Their religion was based on fertility and death.
The Megalithic temples are the oldest monuments in the Maltese islands and were built between 3,600 and 2,500 BC. They are thus the oldest independent buildings in the world. As early as about 1,000 years before the Egyptians built the Pyramid of Cheops, the people living in Malta handled stones weighing up to 50 tons, which they used when building their temples. The large boulders were transported for miles, even though the wheel had not yet been invented.
Some of the best preserved megalithic temples are Tarxien, Hag’ar Qim and Mnajdra in Malta and Ggantija in Gozo.
The so-called Temple Builders were a Stone Age people, but had developed a relatively high culture. No one can explain why this died out and there is no connection with the people who immigrated to Malta around 2,000 BC.
The Bronze Age
The people who immigrated in the 21st century BC lived in the areas around the ancient temples, which they used for their own purposes. Their religion is different from that of the Temple Builders but they could still use the temples, which became burial sites. These people are called the Cemetery People and had reached further in their development than the Stone Age people. For example, metal objects were used.
Phoenicians and Greeks
Malta’s documented history is considered to begin around the year 800 BC when Greeks landed on the islands, without settling. However, they trade with the people who inhabit the islands.
From about 800 to 218 BC, Malta was colonized by Phoenicians and during the last 250 years of this period, the islands are colonized by the inhabitants of the Phoenician colony of Carthage. The legacy of these colonizers lives on in the form of the eyes painted on Maltese boats even today. During the First Punic War, 264-241 BC, Malta may have been a naval base for Carthaginian warships.
During the Second Punic War, 218-201 BC, the Romans took control of Malta. The Roman emperor who eventually defeated the Phoenicians was Tiberius Sempronius and thus Malta became part of the Roman province of Sicily.
After defeating the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War, 149 – 146 BC, the Romans began to expand the capital, which the Phoenicians built. After a period of Roman rule, the Maltese were given the right to some autonomy and permission to have their own senate. However, they had to pay high taxes to the Romans. They were also given the right to run their own business and to send an ambassador to Rome.
Malta seemed to have flourished under the Romans and their largest city Melita developed strongly. Excavations show that the inhabitants of the city lived a pleasant life. They made a living by growing olives, wheat and grapes and making honey.
In 60 AD, the apostles Paul and Luke suffered a shipwreck in Malta on their way to Rome, where Paul was to be tried for his Christian faith. Before moving on, they lived in a couple of caves near the cities of Rabat and Mdina. Paul preached the gospel of Jesus and converted the people to the Christian faith. Thus Malta became one of the earliest Christian nations. The Roman governor Publius was also converted to the Christian faith and he later became Malta’s first bishop.
When the Roman Empire was divided in 395 AD, Malta came under the influence of Constantinople where it remained until the year 870. However, little is known from this period in the country’s history.
The Arabs invaded Sicily in 827 and finally conquered the island in 878. Two years later, they captured Malta. They considered the capital Mdina too scattered and too difficult to defend why they built a high wall around the city. With the Arabs, Islam was introduced on the island, albeit in a relatively democratic way. No one was forced to convert to Islam, but restrictions were imposed on those who continued to practice their Christian faith. The Christians were not allowed to vote, did not carry weapons and had to wear a badge indicating that they were Christians.
During the Arab period, Malta developed. New crops, such as cotton, began to be cultivated and the islands became an important trading post in the Mediterranean.
In 1090, the Arabs were defeated by the Normans and thus the Arab occupation of the islands was over.
The Norman Count Roger of Normandy had received a royal grant in southern Italy. Sicily, which was part of his principality, was difficult to defend and therefore he decided to take Malta from the Arabs, which did not encounter any major difficulties.
Roger of Normandy considered that the simplest way to govern Malta was to, by and large, leave it alone. He determined that Christianity would be the island’s religion again and that all Christian slaves would be released.
For almost 400 years after the Norman takeover, Malta was relatively quiet and the island was ruled by descendants of Normans, French and Spaniards.
During the 15th century, Malta regained limited autonomy.
Through the marriage between Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1497, Spain was united and under their grandson Charles V, Malta became part of the Spanish Empire.
The Spanish king Alfonso ensured that Malta relinquished the supremacy of the nobles, albeit for a high fee, and issued a decree saying that Malta would forever avoid foreign influence, which in practice meant that the islands would be subject to the Spanish crown.
One of Charles V’s greatest threats came from the Byzantine ruler Soliman the Great, who had driven the Knights of St. John out of Rhodes.
The Order of St. John, also known as the Order of Maltese (The Knights of St John)
The Order of St. John was founded sometime in the 1000s AD in Jerusalem by a group of Italian sailors who had been granted permission to set up a shelter for pilgrims who became ill during the trek to the holy city. In 1153, the words received the Pope’s blessing. After thirty years of activity in Jerusalem, it was expelled from the city and sought refuge on various islands in the Mediterranean. They first lived in Cyprus and then for a couple of hundred years in Rhodes, from where they were expelled by the Turks during the years 1522 – 1523.
The Knights of St. John made promises to their words of obedience, chastity, and poverty.
The knights arrive in Malta
When the knights asked King Charles V for a new home after Rhodes, they were offered Malta, and government power over Tripoli in the hope that they would succeed in keeping the Turkish fleet in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. In Rhodes, the knights had developed into a perfectly functioning naval force, which prevented the Turks from moving freely in the central parts of the Mediterranean, something that irritated the Turks.
Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L´Isle Adam and his 4,000 knights were not particularly enthusiastic about being offered the Maltese islands, which he considered to be barren, lonely, suffering from water shortages and being poorly defended. The approximately 12,000 Maltese inhabitants were dissatisfied with the location of the knights because they were not consulted in the matter, as was the Maltese aristocracy who remained on their side.
The Knights reluctantly agreed to settle in Malta, hoping for a long time to return to Rhodes one day.
In 1530, they designated the fishing village of Bigu in the southern part of the Grand Harbor as a new settlement and immediately began to build a large fortress as protection.
When the knights’ capital shrank and they discovered that they received no support from the European powers to keep the Turks in place, they began attacking and looting Turkish merchant ships from their new headquarters in Malta. They largely became pirates.
The Turks, who had successfully waged war in Europe and conquered much of the eastern part, grew tired of the Johannites’ constant attacks on their ships and therefore decided in 1565 to, once and for all, stifle them by invading Malta and crushing the knights.
The great victory
The Grand Master of the Knights, Jean Parisot de la Valette, found out about the Turks’ plans ahead of time. He then appealed to various European states for help, but in vain. Immediately, further reinforcement work began on the Knights’ defense installations and preparations to withstand a long siege.
When the Turks attacked Malta, the islands were defended by only 9,000 men, knights and Maltese, against the Turks’ army of 30,000 soldiers, 4,000 of whom belonged to the infamous Janissaries, a specially trained command force with the sole task of killing. The odds were, to say the least, very low for Malta’s defenders!
The Turks’ first ship was sighted by the guards at Fort St. Elmo on Friday 18 May and the first clash with them took place on 21 May. This was followed by a terribly hard attack on Fort St. Elmo, which the Turks thought they would capture in a few days. However, the defenders of St. Elmo persevered until June 23, when the Turks captured the fortress and killed all of the last survivors. The 1,500 defenders of St. Elmo took about 8,000 Turks with them to their deaths.
Thereafter, the attacks were directed at the other forts, Fort St. Angelo in Birgu and and St. Michael in Senglea.
Malta’s defenders fought one of the worst battles in history and, despite their inferiority, managed to defeat the at least seemingly overwhelming Turkish attacker.
After many trials and tribulations, the knights were finally supported by the vicious Sicilian viceroy on September 7, and thus the 112-day siege of Malta was over. The knights and the brave Maltese had lost 7,000 people in the battles, the Turks lost 20,000 people.
To anyone who wants to read about this terrible battle, I would recommend the book “The Knights of Malta” by Ernle Bradford.
On March 28, 1566, Count Jean de la Valette founded Malta’s current capital, Valletta, named after the brave Grand Master. He who so successfully defended Malta against the Turks. The construction of Valletta cost enormous sums of money, but now all the royal houses of Europe helped the knights with gifts, money, and help.
Napoleon in Malta
After the French Revolution, 1789-99, Emperor Napoleon, like many others before him, realized that anyone who wanted to rule the Mediterranean had to occupy Malta, as he did in June 1798.
Napoleon drove the Grand Master of the Order of St. John and his knights from the islands. He also confiscated all the island’s assets and smelted the silver, which was seized. He then continued to change the state apparatus, founding fifteen new societies and deciding that each of these would have an elementary school and closing all churches. To gain control of Malta, a garrison of 4,000 French soldiers was formed. After only six days in Malta, Napoleon left the islands and set off on his Egyptian campaign.
Gradually, the Maltese grew tired of the French changes in Maltese society. On September 2, 1798, French soldiers attempted to plunder one of Mdina’s churches, causing the Maltese to rise up against them. They killed everyone in the garrison and forced the French back to Valletta.
Malta becomes an English crown colony
By 1800, the French had had enough of the Maltese resistance and were helped by the British to finally get rid of them. The Maltese had hoped to be recognized as their own kingdom but realized what resources were required to defend the island, which they did not have. In 1814, the islands became a British Crown Colony. Malta’s first governor was Thomas Maitland. The pursuit of independence lasted throughout the period as a British colony.
Malta history, modern
Malta gained limited autonomy, soon after the decision a disagreement arose between the British and the local government on how the local government managed the archipelago’s finances and on the question of which language should be official.
1930 The British withdrew their promise of increased autonomy
Self-government was reintroduced. English and Maltese were given the status of official languages instead of Italian
The British again withdrew their promise of self-government. The threat of a Second World War slowed down the worst protests
When World War II broke out, it became clear again how strategically important Malta’s location was. Thus, the Germans subjected the islands and the population to a terrible bombing. Malta was subjected to 282 bomb attacks and more than 16,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the islands, more than were dropped on London throughout the war. The people of Malta were thus once again subjected to horrific abuses by other nations. For their heroism during World War II, the British awarded the people of Malta the St. George’s Cross, which is depicted in the country’s flag.
1947 Limited self-government was extended
Dom Mintoff, who led the Labor Party, was elected Prime Minister. His government wanted Malta to merge with Britain
In the referendum, 75% of Maltese people said yes to the proposal to merge with Britain. However, the archipelago’s other major party, the Nationalist Party, boycotted the vote
The plans for integration with Great Britain were abandoned and soon both the Labor Party and the Nationalist Party advocated independence.
The Nationalist Party came to power with the support of Malta’s influential Catholic Church and Giorgio Borg Olivier was elected Prime Minister. Negotiations on total independence began immediately
Malta became an independent state within the British Commonwealth with the British monarch as head of state. Agreement was reached on British financial support for Malta and a British-Maltese defense alliance
The Labor Party regained government power and Dom Mintoff became Prime Minister. The defense agreement with Britain was terminated and the government proclaimed that Malta would be a neutral state with a non-aligned foreign policy
The constitution was changed so that Malta became a republic and the then Governor-General of Malta, Sir Anthony Mamo, was appointed President
During this period, industry was nationalized and the public sector expanded and in foreign policy the government forged close ties with Libya, the Soviet Union, China and other communist countries.
During the election, the contradictions between the Labor Party and the Nationalist Party deepened, among other things because the government issued new rules for the division of constituencies shortly before the election. As a result, the Labor Party retained its majority in parliament, despite the fact that more voters had voted for the Nationalist Party. In protest against the Labor Party, the Nationalist Party boycotted Parliament on several occasions
The crisis between the parties reached its peak in November when the Labor Party government stood behind a raid on the Nationalist Party’s headquarters to look for alleged weapons caches. During this period, the government also presented a series of proposals aimed at weakening the power of the Catholic Church. After fierce criticism, the government was forced to withdraw the proposals
Dom Mintoff resigned as Prime Minister and thus began a politically calmer period. He was succeeded by Mifsud Bonnici, who also became Prime Minister until the 1987 election.
1987 The Labor Party lost power after 16 years. The leader of the Nationalist Party, Edward Fenech-Adami, was elected Prime Minister. The nationalist government worked for a rapprochement with the West and implemented market economic reforms
1990 Malta applies for EC membership (now EU)
1992 This year’s election was again won by the Nationalist Party
Negotiations on EU membership began. In order to get the voters’ support for the accession, new elections were announced during the autumn. The election had a different result than expected when the Labor Party won by a narrow majority. The leader of the Labor Party, the EC opponent Alfred Sant, became the new prime minister and after the election the government withdrew the country’s EU application
This year’s budget included large fee increases for water and electricity as well as sales of state-owned companies. The measures were heavily criticized by party veteran Dom Mintoff, who refused to follow the party line and thus lost the Labor Party’s majority in parliament. However, the budget decision passed thanks to the President’s vote. Mintoff then voted against the government in a vote of confidence and Prime Minister Sant was forced to call new elections
In the election, the Nationalist Party received almost 52% of the vote. Malta re-applied for EU membership in September and Prime Minister Edward Fenech-Adami promised an advisory referendum on membership