Story of Malta
Updated: Mar 9, 2022
View of Valletta from Tigne Point at sunset
The Republic of Malta, previously known as ‘Melita’ is a small southern European island country consisting of an archipelago of 3 islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino. It lies south of Italy and east of Tunisia in the Mediterranean Sea.
13 interesting facts that you probably didn’t know about Malta:
The main island of Malta is only 27 km long and 14.5 km wide.
Malta’s capital city Valetta is tiny – covering only 0.8 square Km
Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it considered as one of the world’s most concentrated historical areas.
Malta is staunchly Catholic with 98% of its population practicing Christianity.
Malta ranks among the top 10 most densely populated countries of the world
Malta has one of the highest per capita refugee acceptance rate but North African migrant issue remains highly debatable
There are over 350 churches in Malta
In the winter of 2017, a very strong storm crashed the Gozo’s famed Azure window into the ocean
Maltese people are very engaged in politics with over 90% turnout and almost equally split on all major topics!
Malti became the official language only in 1934 (along with English) before which it was Italian, which was spoken only by very few people. Malti is most linked to North African Arabic dialect and influenced by Sicilian, Spanish, Italian French and English. It happens to be the only Arabic language written in Latin alphabets!
Malta’s capital city Valetta was the first planned city in Europe
The Great Siege of Malta was the turning point in the history of Europe and one the of bloodiest battles between Christianity and Islam – the then invincible Turks were defeated and couldn’t invade Mediterranean Europe.
The order of the Knights of St. John from the 11th century still remains to this day. Now called the Sovereign Order of Malta, it has diplomatic relations with over 100 states and the European Union, and permanent observer status at the United Nations. (http://www.orderofmalta.int/)
The story of Malta
As a child history was one subject I (and so as Joy) absolutely loathed and during the sunny afternoon breaks for lunch, we little people discussed in heated tones why we need to learn something that is already in the past! Did we care about what people did a few hundred years ago in another island? Of course not, let along trying to invent memory tags to remember the sequence of events and the year!
It has taken a long time to appreciate the reasons for appreciating history and now it seems amazing that though things look so different in isolation, when seen as part of a timeline shows how connected we all are. Malta is perfect example of how history defines everything and how sometimes geography defines history! Malta was for the sea travellers what a service station is for the present-day drivers. It was a place to stop and rest during the long sea journeys between mainland Europe and Africa.
Located in centre of the Mediterranean sea, Malta was therefore destined to be a strategic location that attracted different rulers – the Phoenicians (a seafaring people from present day Lebanon), Carthaginians (from present day Tunisia), Romans (of course!), Byzantines (from Constantinople – present day Istanbul), the Normans (descendants of Viking settlers in France), the Turks, the French and the British (obviously!).
However, the first known inhabitants in the islands of Malta are thought to have arrived on boats from Sicily. They are called the temple builders, as they built massive stone temples almost 1000 years ago and these structures today are one of the world’s oldest structure (timeline wise think of pyramids of Egypt). But these settles somehow perished and with them the temple building and the finesse of its artwork.
There are a few snapshots from history that gives some context to the architecture, food and just understanding Malta! Like always you can just turn up and look at monuments or eat a ‘traditional’ meal at a restaurant, but knowing a little bit always makes it so much more appealing.
St. John's Co-Cathedral - 16th century cathedral
The knights of St. John and the Great Siege
Malta has had the most influence from the ‘Knights Hospitaller of St. John’s’. Who were they? In the 11th century Jerusalem, some rich merchants from Amalfi, Italy founded a hospital for poor pilgrims. This hospital was run by monks and was raised to an independent religious order called the ‘Hospitallers’. This order then set up more hospitals along the pilgrimage route between Italy and Jerusalem. When Jerusalem was captured by Islamic armies, the order was forced to take refuge in the Island of Rhodes – in the hope of capturing Jerusalem again but ended up staying in Rhodes for 200 years and evolved into a strong naval force. The order consisted of European noblemen who lived lives of monks and soldiers, wore a hooded monk’s robe with a eight point cross (also referred to as ‘Maltese’ Cross, though this was adopted much later in Maltese culture – apparently the locals referred to as the ‘windmill’).
Body armour of Knights from Knights Hospitaller of St. John’s
Malta was gifted to the order by Roman Emperor Charles V for a small rent of 2 falcons a year, when the order was forced out of Rhodes island by the ever-expanding Roman Empire. Malta was then the part of Spanish empire. Charles biggest threat were the Turks and he hoped that the order would be able to contain the Turkish naval forces from Malta. But then they arrived they were utterly disappointed with their gift and so were the islanders who had had some unwelcome guests turn up one day! This awkward co-existence continued, and the order started focussing on re-building and fortifying the island.
On 18 May 1565, an invasion, which became known as the ‘Great Siege’, began when a fleet of Ottoman ships carrying 48,000 strong army arrived at the island and docked at Marsaxlokk harbour. Apparently, the Knights had just 6000 members-around 500 Knights and 5,500 Maltese soldiers. This was one of the bloodiest battles between Christianity and Islam with over 10,000 Ottoman deaths around a third of the Maltese population was wiped away during this 4-month long battle in the intense summer heat of Malta. While the Turks beheaded the Knights and sent the decapitated bodies on wooden crucifixes floating across the harbor the knights decapitated the Turkish prisoners and used their heads as cannonballs. Finally, on 7 September, relief forces arrived from Sicily – 28 ships with around 8000 men, though still very few, the exhausted Turkish army tried to escape, getting killed in the process. 8 September 1565 marked a new era for Christianity in the Mediterranean and securing Malta’s place as a turning point in Europe’s history. To this day, 8 September is celebrated as Victory Day in Malta.
16th Century Musketeer's powder flasks made from cow horns
The knights of St. John were showered with honours and money from the monarchs of Europe and the construction of the city of Valetta began – named after grandmaster of the order Jean Parisot de da Valette. Valetta is the first planned city in Europe and used a grid pattern for its street (where streets are at right angle to each other).
After around 200 years, Napoleon invaded and the order was forced to take refuge first in Russia and then in Italy – the order remains to this day in Palazzo di Malta in Rome and also has a grandmaster! Now called the Sovereign Order of Malta, it has diplomatic relations with over 100 states and the European Union, and permanent observer status at the United Nations. (http://www.orderofmalta.int/)
Lonely Planet Malta and Gozo by Brett Atkinson