Malta stands on an underwater ridge that extends from North Africa to Sicily. Millions of years ago Malta was submerged, as shown by marine fossils embedded in rock in the highest points of Malta. As the ridge was pushed up and the straits of Gibraltar closed through tectonic activity, the Maltese archipelago was created from a bridge of dry land that extended between the two continents, surrounded by large lakes.
Man first arrived in Malta around 5200 BC. These first Neolithic people probably arrived from Sicily (about 100 kilometres/60 miles north. During the centuries that followed there is evidence of further contacts with other cultures, which left their influence on the local communities, evident the colours and designs still seen within local crafts.
The ‘Temple period’ (starting around 3600 BC) created Malta’s prehistoric temples and these are the oldest freestanding buildings in the world. After the Temple period came the Bronze Age. From this period there remains of a number of settlements and villages, as well as Dolmens-altar-like structures made out of very large slabs of stone.
Phoenicians and Greeks
Phoenicians from Tyre colonised the islands around 1000 BC, using them as an outpost from whom they expanded sea explorations and trade in the Mediterranean. In the late eighth century BC, a Greek colony called Melite (from the Dorian Greek word for “honeybee”) was founded on the main island.
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. Many Roman antiquities still exist, testifying to the close link between the Maltese inhabitants and the people of Rome.
In AD 60, the islands were visited by Saint Paul, who is said to have been shipwrecked on the shores of the aptly-named “Saint Paul’s Bay”. Studies of the currents and prevalent winds at the time however, render it more likely that the shipwreck occurred in or around St. Thomas Bay in Marsascala.
Arabisation and the Maltese language
Malta was occupied by Sicilian Arabs in AD 870. The following 260 years of Arab rule had a very great influence on the existing civilization. Many place names in Malta date to this period. The city of Mdina, extensively modified in this period, also bears slight resemblance to towns found in the North of Africa.
Maltese evolved quickly into a distinct language. It is a Semitic language, derived from Arabic and later much influenced by Italian and to some degree also by English. For many centuries, the Maltese language was only used in spoken form, and Italian was used for writing. Today the Maltese language, written in the Latin alphabet, is used as the standard language of Malta, alongside British English.
In 1127, Norman rule was established in Malta. This marked the gradual change from an Arab cultural influence to a European one.
Until the 13th century, however, there remained a strong Muslim segment of society. Malta was an appendage of Sicily for 440 years. During this period, Malta was sold and resold to various feudal lords and barons and was dominated successively by the rulers of Swabia, Aquitaine, Aragon, Castile, and Spain. Eventually Aragon, who then ruled Malta, joined with Castile in 1479, and Malta became part of the Spanish Empire.
Malta’s administration thus fell in the hands of the local nobility, mostly of Sicilian and Spanish origins, who formed a governing body called the Università.
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 Hospitallers of St. John out of Rhodes. Wanting to protect Rome from invasion from the South, in 1530, Charles V handed over the island to these Knights.
For the next 275 years, these famous “Knights of Malta” made the island their domain. They built towns, palaces, churches, gardens, and fortifications and embellished the island with numerous works of art and enhanced cultural heritage.
The Great Siege
By this time the Knights had occupied the city of Birgu, which had excellent harbours to house their fleet. Also Birgu was one of the two major urban places at that time, the other most urban place being Mdina the old capital city of Malta. The defences around Birgu were enhanced and new fortifications built on the other point where now there is Senglea. Also a small fort was built at the tip of the peninsula where now stands the city of Valletta and was named Fort St. Elmo.
On May 18, 1565, Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Malta. By the time the Ottoman fleet arrived, the Knights were as ready as they could be. First the Ottomans attacked the newly built fort of St. Elmo and after a whole month of fighting the fort was in rubble and the soldiers kept fighting till the Turks ended their lives. After this they started attacking Birgu and the fortifications at Senglea but to no gain.
After a protracted siege ended on September 8 of the same year, which became known in history as “the Great Siege”, the Ottoman Empire conceded defeat.
After the Siege
The year after, the Order started work on a new city with fortifications like no other. It was named Valletta after Jean Parisot de Vallette, the Grand Master who had seen the Order through its victory. Since the Ottoman Empire never attacked again, the fortifications were never put to the test, and today remain one of the best-preserved fortifications of this 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 fortune 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.
Over the years, the power of the Knights declined; their reign ended when Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet arrived in 1798, en route to his expedition of Egypt. As a ruse, Napoleon asked for safe harbor to resupply his ships, and then turned his guns against his hosts once safely inside Valetta. 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. He then sailed for Egypt leaving a substantial garrison in Malta.
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.
In 1800, Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire. 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. Home rule was refused to the Maltese however, and the locals suffered considerable poverty. Malta obtained a bicameral parliament with a Senate (abolished in 1949) and an elected Legislative Assembly, although the Constitution was often suspended.
World War II
Before World War II, Valletta was the location of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet’s headquarters However, despite Winston Churchill’s objections, the command was moved to Alexandria, Egypt, during the mid-1930s. At the time of the Italian declaration of war (June 10, 1940), Malta had a garrison of less than four thousand soldiers and about five weeks’ of food supplies for the population of about three hundred thousand.
Being a British colony, situated close to Sicily and the Axis shipping lanes, Malta was bombarded by the Italian and German air forces. 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.
The first air raids against Malta occurred on 11 June 1940; there were six attacks that day. The island’s biplanes were unable to defend due to the Luqa Airfield being unfinished; however, the airfield was ready by the seventh attack.
During the first five months of combat, the island’s aircraft destroyed or damaged about thirty-seven Italian aircraft. 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.”
Attempted integration with the United Kingdom
After the war, the islands were given self-rule.In December 1955, a Round Table Conference was held in London, on the future of Malta. 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.
Under the proposals, the Maltese Parliament would retain responsibility over all affairs except defence, foreign policy, and taxation. The Maltese were also to have social and economic parity with the UK, to be guaranteed by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), the islands’ main source of employment.
Malta was the only British colony where integration with the UK was seriously considered.
Malta became an independent state on 21 September 1964. This is celebrated as Independence Day or ‘Jum l-Indipendenza’ in Maltese. Malta remained in the Commonwealth and recognised the Queen as head of state. The Maltese pound – now called the Maltese Lira (LM) – ended its link with the Pound Sterling. Malta became a republic in 1974, with the last Governor-General, Sir Anthony Mamo, as its first President. In 1979 the last British forces left the island.
Eventually Malta became a Republic on December 13, 1974 (which is called Republic Day), and gained absolute autonomy on March 31, 1979 (which is called Freedom Day).