The Maltese Archipelago – A Brief Overview of This Mediterranean Jewel

Some Geography

The Maltese archipelago is situated in the heart of the Inner Sea, the old name given to the Mediterranean, (which in Latin means the centre of the earth). It is 60 miles off the southern tip of Sicily and about 180 miles from North Africa. For many years the archipelago had been conquered and colonized, and the islands boast of a rich array of history, culture, a rich mix of language and customs whose roots are traceable as far back as the earliest Phoenician settlements in Malta, long before the Punic Wars were even heard of.

A rich history of the islands can most probably be accessed and there are various online sites and research books that deal with the subject. I am particularly interested in the mediaeval history of the Maltese islands, and to this I owe a lot to Professor Godfrey Wettinger (University of Malta) for his unstinting research and love of the period, to Professor Anthony Bonanno (University of Malta) for his major contribution to the study of antiquity in Malta, and to the documented works of the Rev. Dr. Andrew Vella.

The capital city of Malta is Valletta, and the main city in Gozo is Victoria. Malta covers an area of about 317 square km, and the population is now close to 440,000. Malta’s main industry is tourism, followed by textile manufacturing and component building.

Malta became a Republic in 1974 and achieved independence in 1964. It joined the European Union in 2004.

Some History

To go back to the very beginning, it is not easy to establish exactly how the first settlers came to Malta, though it is widely believed that they could have arrived from Sicily. There is also evidence that Malta formed part of a bridge that linked Africa to Europe because of fossils and bone remains appertaining to animals not endemic any longer to the islands. Very similar forms of archaeological evidence corroborate the theory that the earliest settlers were Sicilian. The evidence, in fact, is so striking that there is little to wonder when Malta was considered one of the two Sicilies when it fell under the jurisdiction of that reign.

There are early neolithic remains in Malta, with some of the oldest and most striking evidence that can be seen in Grey and Red Skorba, (Sqolba) and in the magnificent temples of Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, Tarxien and Ggantija in Gozo.

The Phoenicians came to Malta, and settled here, bringing with them trade, and, of course, their language. The roots of Maltese are Phoenician – the closest language of the Arabic languages that has similar striking features is Lebanese, even if the later colonization of Malta brought radical changes in Maltese. The name Malta (probably from malet, meaning shelter) goes back a very long time. The Phoenicians were replaced by the Carthaginians who strengthened their hold on Malta when the islands were plundered by the Romans around 255 BC. The Romans, however, did not give up so easily on Malta. Considering it as a strategic point for their war against Carthage, the Romans conquered Malta in 218 BC, at the very start of the second Punic War. And for almost a thousand years, Malta was Roman, a small republic within a greater republic. Little Latinization occurred, and this can be seen in the account St. Luke gives in his Acts of the Apostles, where the inhabitants are described as barbarians, meaning speakers of a language which is neither Greek nor Latin. In 535 AD, Malta became attached to Byzantium under the Emperor Justinian.

The Arabs took Malta in 870 AD. This take over was systematic – the emphasis on the spoken language was reinforced, most probably Christianization died out in this period, and evidence shows that the Maltese became Muslim to avoid paying a hefty tax called harag. The Arabs brought with them their agricultural knowledge, they introduced the production of cotton, and stayed on for 210 years, until the Normans, under Count Roger, took over the island, reinstating Christianity, and from then onwards Malta became part of the reign of the two Sicilies. The Aragonese and the Anjuvines also left their mark on Malta, but the greatest impact definitely came when Charles V gave Malta to the Knight-Hospitalliers of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, following their defeat by the Turks in Rhodes. 1530 was the year when Grand Master Jean de l’Isle Adam was handed the keys to the capital city of the time, Mdina.

The Knights were not exactly happy to be in Malta, but this was the only option left. Charles V did not want to give them Corse (Corsica). On their arrival here, the Knights made a study of the island and decided that they wanted to settle in the area where today there are the three cities of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea or what is known as the Cottonera Area, close to the Grand Harbour. They fortified the already existing Castel Sant’Angelo, and built their Auberges in Vittoriosa, most of which are still there, though heavy bombardment during the Second World War destroyed jewels of architecture and historical places… to many to mention.

In 1551, the Turks attacked Gozo, pillaged the island, destroyed the crops and took the whole population as slaves, leaving behind the old and the infirm. It was a warning – the Turks were determined to vanquish the Knights, and to infiltrate Europe. In May 1565, the Knights were hit again by the Turks. The Maltese found themselves taking refuge behind the bastions in Cottonera, and actively aiding the Knights against the Turks. The Maltese Dejma (militia) helped along too. A victory over the Turks was not only important for the Knights themselves, but the Maltese considered themselves by now an integral part of the system of government under the jurisdiction of the Grandmaster. The Knights lost St. Elmo to the Turks on the 23rd June 1565, but then continued fighting from the bastions of St Angelo and St. Michael, finally getting aid from Europe in September 1565. The Turks, depleted by malaria and following the loss of their general Dragut, confused and stricken as they were, retreated, and on the 8th September 1565, the Knights kept the Turks away from Europe, and that great event shaped the rest of Maltese and European history.

The Knights stayed in Malta, 28 Grandmasters ruled this island from 1530 to 1798, the greatest of these Grandmasters is still considered to be Jean Parisot de la Valette who not only led the Knights against the Turks in the Great Siege, but also paid for and monitored the building of a new city, the city that bears his name, Valletta, Malta’s capital city, another jewel of Renaissance and Baroque architecture, with Auberges, chapels and the magnificent Co-Cathedral dedicated, of course, to St. John the Baptist.

In 1798 Hompesch ceded the islands to the French, and the Knights left for Europe. For two years the Maltese fought the French bitterly, and the revolt against the French, coordinated by Dun Mikiel Xerri, ended in disaster as one of the group betrayed his friends in a moment of weakness. The French were notorious for their pillaging and their amassing of wealth – it is certain that they took from the island treasures of immense value. Up to this very day, among the Maltese lies the wish of bringing back to Malta that which rightfully belonged to it. Some of the treasure will probably never surface – one of Napoleon’s galleys sank off Alexandria, and it is believe that treasure, especially gold and silver, was to be found on this galley, most of it coming from Malta.

The British came to the aid of the Maltese. In 1800 the British ousted the French, and Malta became a British colony. British rule brought about a number of constitutions and political dissent too – the Second World War saw a number of Maltese of either Italian origins or who sympathized with the Italians being deported to Uganda. (Among these were my great aunt and my great uncle. My grandmother, being Italian, was forced back to Italy. It was only after the end of the Second World War that she could come back.) People suffered and gained under British rule, but it was evident that the Maltese wanted something different. India had achieved independence in 1947, and at that time Malta was politically in turmoil – should the islands integrate with the United Kingdom or should they strive for freedom? The second option seemed more viable. While the Church influenced the negative result of the integration referendum, the Maltese went on to obtain Independence on the 21st September 1964. The Prime Minister then was George Borg Olivier. Independence, however, was not enough. Dom Mintoff refused to see Malta only as an independent country still under the British crown. He, in fact, wanted no allegiance whatsoever to any foreign country, closing down the NATO base in Malta in 1971. In 1974 a new constitution was drafted, and on the 13th December 1974, Malta was proclaimed a Republic, the first president being Sir Anthony Mamo. The British Military and Navy bases in Malta were closed symbolically on the 31st March 1979, and Freedom Day is celebrated on this date.

Today’s Malta

After almost 50 years of Independence, Malta is still going strong, it remains the jewel of the Mediterranean. It is considered a safe place, envied for its climate, its natural and historical heritage and the Maltese are warm-hearted generous people, hard-working and hospitable. Many EU nationals have made Malta their home. Prior to EU entry, the largest group of foreigners who were resident in Malta were British.

To all those who wish to visit Malta; I would like to make a suggestion. Malta is not just sea and sun. There is so much to see here, natural beauty, which is not found elsewhere, and architectural and archaeological heritages that are unique to Malta and which the UNESCO has classified as unique World Heritage Monuments.

Source by Joselle M Camilleri