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The Maltese Islands

History


Prehistory
Man first arrived in Malta around 5200 BC. These first Neolithic people probably arrived from Sicily (about 100 kilometres/60 miles north), and were mainly farming and fishing communities, with some evidence of hunting activities.

They apparently lived in caves and open dwellings. During the centuries that followed there is evidence of further contacts with other cultures which left their influence on the local communities, as evidenced by their pottery designs and colours.

One of the most notable periods of Malta's history is the Temple Period, starting around 3600 BC. The Ggantija Prehistoric Temple in Gozo is one of the oldest freestanding buildings in the world. Many of the temples are in the form of five semicircular apses connected at the centre. It has been suggested that these might have represented the head, arms and legs of a deity, since one of the commonest kinds of statue found in these temples is a fat woman — a symbol of fertility. The Temple Period lasted until about 2500 BC, at which point the civilization that raised these huge monoliths seems to have disappeared. There is much speculation about what might have happened and whether they were completely wiped out or assimilated.

After the Temple Period came the Bronze Age. From this period there are remains of a number of settlements and villages, as well as dolmens — altar-like structures made out of very large slabs of stone. One surviving menhir, a vertical upright stone megalith, still stands at Kirkop; it is one of the few still in good condition. Among the most interesting and mysterious remnants of this era are the so-called cart ruts that can be seen at Clapham Junction (Malta) and Xewkija (Gozo). These are pairs of parallel channels cut into the surface of the rock and extending for considerable distances, often in an exactly straight line. Their exact use is unknown. One theory is that beasts of burden used to pull carts along these channels, which guided the carts and prevented the animals from straying.

 

Phoenicians and Greeks

Phoenicians from Tyre colonized the islands around 1000 BC, using them as an outpost from where they expanded sea explorations and trade in the Mediterranean. They named the island Malat ("refuge") and lived in the area now occupied by the city of Mdina and its suburb Rabat.

In the late 8th century BC, a Greek colony called Melite (from the Doric Greek word for "honeybee") was founded on the main island. The name is thought to be in reference to an endemic species of bee on the island and the distinctive honey it produces.

 

Carthage and Rome

The islands later came under the control of Carthage (400 BC) and then of Rome (218 BC). The islands prospered under Roman rule, and were eventually distinguished as a Municipium and a Foederata Civitas. Many Roman antiquities still exist, testifying to the close link between the Maltese inhabitants and the people of Rome.

In AD 60, the New Testament records that Saint Paul was shipwrecked on an island named Melite, which many Bible scholars and Maltese conflate with Malta. It is believed that the shipwreck took place on the shores of the aptly named "Saint Paul's Bay".

In AD 440 the island was captured by the Vandals, which had recently occupied the Roman province of Africa. It was recovered by the east Roman general Belisarius in AD 533 along with the other Vandal possessions, and remained a part of the east Roman province of Sicily for the next 340 years.

 

Arab Period

Malta was occupied by the Fatimids from 870 to 1090 CE/AD. They exerted 220 years of influence on the existing civilization. In addition to their Siculo-Arabic language, cotton, oranges and lemons and many new techniques in irrigation were introduced. Some of these, like the noria ("waterwheel"), are still used, unchanged, today. Many place names in Malta date to this period. The Phoenician city of Mdina was extensively modified in this period.

 

Kingdom of Sicily

Between 1194 and 1530 the Kingdom of Sicily ruled the Maltese islands and a process of full latinisation started in Malta.

In 1091, count Roger I of Sicily, made an initial attempt to establish Norman rule of Malta and was greeted by the few native Christians. In 1127, his son Roger II of Sicily succeeded. This marked the gradual change from an Arab cultural influence to a European one. In 1191, Tancred of Sicily appointed Margaritus of Brindisi the first Count of Malta. Until the 13th century, however, there remained a strong Muslim segment of society.

After the Norman conquest the population of the Maltese islands kept growing mainly through immigration from the north (Sicily and Italy), with the exile to Malta of the entire male population of the town of Celano (Italy) in 1223, the stationing of a Norman and Sicilian garrison on Malta in 1240 and the settlement in Malta of noble families from Sicily between 1372 and 1450. As a consequence of this, one major academic study found that the contemporary males of Malta most likely originated from Southern Italy, including Sicily and up to Calabria.

 

Knights of St. John
In the early 16th century, the Ottoman Empire started spreading over the region, reaching South-East Europe. The Spanish King Charles V feared that if Rome fell to the Turks, it would be the end of Christian Europe. In 1522, Suleiman II drove the Knight Hospitalliers of St. John out of Rhodes. They dispersed to their commanderies in Europe. Wanting to protect Rome from invasion from the South, Charles V handed over the island to these Knights in 1530.

For the next 275 years, the famous "Knights of Malta" made the island their domain and made the Italian language official. They built towns, palaces, churches, gardens and fortifications and embellished the island with numerous works of art and enhanced cultural heritage.

The order of the Knights of St. John was originally established to set up outposts along the route to the Holy Land to assist pilgrims going in either direction. Owing to the many confrontations that took place, one of their main tasks was to provide medical assistance. Even today, the eight-pointed cross is still in use in ambulances and first aid organisations nation-wide. In return for the many lives they saved, the Order received many newly conquered territories that had to be defended. Together with the need to defend the pilgrims in their care, this gave rise to the strong military wing of the Knights. Over time, the Order became strong and rich. From being hospitalliers first and military people second, these priorities were suddenly reversed. Since much of the territory they covered was around the Mediterranean region, they became notable seamen.

 

Siege of Malta (1565)

From Malta, the Knights resumed their seaborne attacks on Ottoman shipping and before long the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent ordered a final attack on the Order. By this time, the Knights had occupied the city of Birgu, which had excellent harbours to house their fleet. Birgu was also one of the two major urban places at that time, the other being Mdina, the old capital city of Malta. The defences around Birgu were enhanced and new fortifications built on the other promontory where Senglea stands today. A small fort was built at the tip of the peninsula where the city of Valletta now stands and this was named Fort St. Elmo.

On 18th ofMay 1565, Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Malta. By the time the Ottoman fleet arrived, the Knights were as ready as they could be. The Ottomans first attacked the newly built fort of St. Elmo, and after a month of battle the fort was reduced to rubble. Nevertheless, the soldiers of the Order kept fighting until they were overrun by the Turks. Once Fort St. Elmo was defeated, the Turks turned their attention to Birgu and the fortifications at Senglea, but they never managed to conquer these fortifications.

The protracted siege known today as “the Great Siege” ended on the 8th of September of the same year. The Ottoman Empire conceded defeat as the approaching winter storms threatened to prevent them from leaving. The Ottoman Empire had expected an easy victory within weeks. They had 40,000 men arrayed against the Knights' meager 9,000, most of whom were Maltese soldiers and ordinary citizens bearing arms. Their loss of thousands of men was very demoralizing, and The Ottomans made no further significant military advances in Europe. The Sultan died a few years later.

After the War, the Order started work on a new city with fortifications like no other on a peninsula called Gholja Sciberras, which the Ottomans had used as a base during the siege. It was named Valletta after Jean Parisot de Valette, the Grand Master who had seen the Order through its victory over the Turks. Since the Ottoman Empire never attacked again, the fortifications were never put to the test and today remain one of the best-preserved fortifications from the renaissance period.

Unlike other rulers of the island, the Order of St. John did not have a "home country" outside the island. The island became their home, so they invested in it more heavily than any other power. Besides, its members came from noble families and had amassed considerable fortunes due to their services in the route to the Holy Land.

The architectural and artistic remains of this period remain among the greatest of Malta's history, especially in their "prize jewel" — the city of Valletta. However, as their main raison d'être had ceased to exist, the Order's glory days were over.

 

French Conquest

Over the years, the power of the Knights declined; their reign ended when Napoleon Bonaparte's fleet arrived in 1798, when his expeditionary fleet was en route to his Egyptian expedition. Napoleon asked for safe harbour to resupply his ships, and when they refused to supply him with water, Napoleon Bonaparte sent a division to scale the hills of Valletta. Grand Master Hompesch capitulated and Napoleon stayed in Malta for a few days during which he systematically looted the moveable assets of the Order and established an administration controlled by his nominees. Napoleon also established a liberal law system based on that of the French Revolution to replace the archaic and feudal system in place and freed 2,000 Muslim slaves kept on the island. He then sailed for Egypt leaving a substantial garrison in Malta. Since the Order had also been growing unpopular with the local Maltese, the latter initially viewed the French with optimism. This illusion did not last long. Within months the French were closing convents and seizing church treasures. The Maltese people rebelled, and the French garrison of General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois retreated into Valletta. After several failed attempts by the locals to retake Valletta, they asked the British for assistance. Rear Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson decided on a total blockade, and in 1800 the French garrison surrendered.

 

British Rule in 1800

Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Under the terms of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens, Britain was supposed to evacuate the island, but failed to keep this obligation – one of several mutual cases of non-adherence to the treaty which eventually led to its collapse and the resumption of war between Britain and France.

Although initially the island was not given much importance, its excellent harbours became a prized asset for the British, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal. The island became a military and naval fortress, the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet.

Before the arrival of the British, the official language since 1530 (and the one of the educated elite) had been Italian, but this was downgraded by the increased use of English. In 1934, English and Maltese were declared the sole official languages.

 

World War II

Being a British colony situated close to Sicily and the Axis shipping lanes, Malta was bombarded by the Italian and German air forces during the Second World War. Malta was used by the British to launch attacks on the Italian navy and had a submarine base. It was also used as a listening post, reading German radio messages including Enigma traffic.

On 15 April 1942, King George VI awarded the George Cross (the highest civilian award for gallantry) "to the island fortress of Malta — its people and defenders." President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period, called Malta "one tiny bright flame in the darkness."

In December 1955, a Round Table Conference was held in London, on the future of Malta, attended by Mintoff, Borg Olivier and other Maltese politicians, along with the British Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd. The British government agreed to offer the islands their own representation in the British House of Commons, with the Home Office taking over responsibility for Maltese affairs from the Colonial Office.

 

Independence 

On the 21st of September 1964, Malta became an independent state. This day is celebrated as Independence Day, or “Jum l-Indipendenza” in Maltese.

 

Republic Day 

Malta became a republic on 13 December 1974, with the last Governor-General Sir Anthony Mamo as its first President. The ‘Gieh ir-Repubblika’ Act, promulgated the following year, abolished all titles of nobility in Malta and mandated that they not be further recognized.

 

Freedom Day 

On the 31st of March 1979 the last British forces left the island after the end of the economic pact to stabilise the Maltese economy. This is celebrated as Freedom Day (Jum Il-─Želsien) on the 31st of March. Celebrations start with a ceremony in Floriana near the War Memorial. A popular event on this memorable day is the traditional regatta. The regatta is held at the Grand Harbour and the teams taking part in it give it their best shot to win the much-coveted aggregate Regatta Shield.

 

EU membership 

The Malta accession treaty was signed and ratified on the 1st of May 2004. In the context of EU membership, Malta joined the euro zone on 1st of January 2008.

 

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