Malta has often been referred to as the island of sunshine and history and with good reason. For, throughout your stay in Malta you will find a surfeit of both. Malta’s history was, in a sense, pre-destined for it by excellent natural harbor and strategic location. The harbor provided a sheltered base for naval fleets whilst the island itself, situated at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, enabled its colonizing power to exercise control over shipping in this vast and turbulent sea. Hardly surprising therefore, that Malta has always exerted an irresistible attraction to the would-be military powers of successive epochs. Control over Malta was a prerequisite to domination of the Mediterranean and for this reason all the various powers that, at one time or other, held sway over the Mediterranean at that same time exercised control over Malta. The long list of Malta’s colonizers, the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Castilians, Knights of St. John, the French, and finally, the British is indicative of the important role Malta played in the molding of European and Mediterranean history. The list of important visitors to the island, from the Apostle Paul to Napoleon and Nelson is equally impressive. It is no exaggeration therefore, that Malta’s history is a good starting point for a study of the history of the region. If you want to enjoy Malta soak up its history. History, in Malta, stares you in the face and you cannot escape from it. The good thing is that you will enjoy its captivating intensity.
The intelligent visitor is never satisfied with just skimming the surface of his holiday destination. His appetite for learning urges him to delve deeper into the origins and history of the country and the people he is visiting. In this respect few other countries provide as much satisfaction as Malta, for the island is steeped in history. Every square inch of its land and its temples and monuments bear witness to a civilization which, in May ways, is unparalleled. In spite of its small size Malta’s strategic location, at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, has meant that, over the centuries, the island has played a very important role in the vicissitudes of the region, right from the early days of civilization up to the present times.
All the various periods of Malta’s history make fascinating reading, but there are two particular periods – the Neolithic period and the period of the Knights of St. John – which stand out from the rest because they are unique to Malta. On their own the remains of these two periods constitute a good enough reason to visit Malta.
Until recently, the Egyptian pyramids were thought to be the oldest architectural monuments in existence. Recent archaeological research however, has shown that the earliest Neolithic temples on Malta are about 1.000 years older than the famous pyramids of Giza. Huge rocks, several tons in weight were used in the construction of these temples. Even with modern techniques and tools this would not be an easy task today. How these enormous loads were moved, or even lifted, 5.000 or 6.000 years ago remains a mystery.
The earliest temples, such as the one at Ggantija on Gozo, were built by the piling of huge rocks on top of each other. They did not have any carving or decoration. Later temples, such as the one at Hagar Qim, in Malta were made of huge stones fitting very closely together and ornately decorated. Carving was done with only very primitive flint and obsidian tools. No archaeological remains made of metal from this period have been discovered on Malta. One theory is that this prehistoric people did not use metal because they foresaw, in its use, their own future destruction.
The subterranean burial place at Malta’s Hal Saflieni, the so-called Hypogeum, is an even more astonishing relic and its accidental discovery in 1902 caused quite a sensation in world archaeological circles. The temple must have been literally carved into the rocks over hundreds of years with simple tools made from flint and obsidian. Starting at ground level the Hypogeum descends several storeys below ground and covers an area of more than 500 square meters. The Hypogeum was certainly a place of worship and burial – the bones of over 7000 people have been found – and could also have been used as a place for the training of priestesses. A number of relics support this hypothesis.
All trace of the mysterious people who built the Hypogeum disappeared suddenly around 2.000 BC – at the height of their culture. How this peaceful people disappeared we will never know. It remains pure speculation as to whether conquerors with modern metal weapons wiped out this unarmed, unfortified people, or weather a sudden epidemic destroyed all human life on Malta for centuries. Equally strange and mysterious are the cart ruts found on many of the rocky ridges in Malta. The most popular theory is that these were made by primitive slide-carts used before the invention of the wheel.
Many hundreds of years after the Neolithic period and precisely in 1530, the Knights of the Order of St John brought about another epoch of great cultural significance to the island. This is not to say that between the sudden disappearance of the Neolithic culture and the arrival of the Knights nothing had happened. Quite the contrary. Many relics and remains bear witness to important historical events in this period. However, no unique or individual culture had originated from the many peoples – the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Castilians – who colonized the island in this prolonged interval.
The history of the Knights of St John begins in the middle of the eleventh century in the Holly Land. The Order’s original duties were to care for the sick and wounded Christian pilgrims to the Holly Land and to help the poor. But very soon their duties expanded; the fight against the “infidels” became of equal or even greater importance. The Knights became “Soldiers of Christ”. They acquired and maintained huge estates and castles in the Holly Land and finally owned a large fleet.
With the loss of Acre to the Moslems in 1291, however, the fate of the Knights was sealed. They withdrew to Rhodes and acted as a shield against the Turks for two centuries until 1522 when Suleiman the Magnificent ousted the Knights from Rhodes. They now needed a new homeland and, in 1530, moved to Malta to which they were given tenure by Emperor Charles V.
The Knights quickly improved trade and commerce on the island, built new hospitals and, most important, erected new strong fortifications. But Suleiman wanted to destroy the Order completely and use Malta as a base from which to attack Southern Europe. In 1565 he set out with a strong fleet to drive the Knights out of Malta. The siege which his navy laid on Malta, referred to by the Maltese as the Great Siege of 1565, lasted four months with fighting of almost unimaginable ferocity. Although heavily outnumbered, the Knights stood firm and finally won, assisted by the Maltese people and by last minute reinforcements from Sicily. The Turks had no alternative but to beat retreat leaving behind them an impressive number of dead amongst whom the feared corsair Dragut. The Knights of St John had successfully protected Southern Europe and Christendom. After their victory against the Turks, the Knights turned enthusiastically to the further development of Malta and Gozo. A golden era in culture, architecture and the arts followed. Many of Malta’s most attractive buildings were built during this period. A new fortress city, Valletta, was built and named in honor of the Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette under whose inspired guidance the knights and the Maltese had defied Turkish onslaught. Valletta is one of the earliest examples of a planned city built on the grid system. The Knights of St John, coming as they did from the richest families in Europe, could afford to hire the best talent available and the buildings of Valletta, its fortifications and the art treasures in its museums and churches are the work of the best European engineers and artist of the time. It was the magnificence of its palaces and other treasures that led Sir Walter Scott to describe Valletta as “The city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire marked the beginning of the end of the military vocation of the Order. The absence of a serious military threat to the Order’s existence, increasing wealth, arrogance, lack of discipline and debauchery ate into the moral fabric of the Order. Thus when, in 1798, Napoleon, on his way to Egypt, dropped anchor outside Grand Harbor on the pretext that his expedition needed fresh water supplies, he found an Order which had lost its morale. Not surprisingly, the French Navy did not have to fire a single shot to secure Malta’s surrender from the Knights. On the 12th June, Napoleon entered Valletta bringing to an end 268 years of rule by the Knights of St John. Napoleon spent six eventful days in Malta during which, through numerous edicts, he tried to transform the island into a typical “Department” of France.
However, French rule in Malta was short-lived. By 1800 the Maltese, with the help of Nelson, managed to drive the French garrison out of Malta and sought the protection of the British throne. That was to mark the beginning of a close association between Malta and Britain lasting over 160 years; Malta became independent in 1964 and adopted a Republican Constitution in 1974.
The Maltese People – friendly and relaxed
Visitors to Malta are invariably struck by the rare sense of hospitality and friendliness of the Maltese people. The Apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked off Malta in AD 60, was probably the first long-stay winter visitor to the Island and the hospitality shown him by the locals is well recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Two thousand years later Maltese hospitality remains as warm and as unaffected as it was then. The Maltese welcome the company of foreigners and being helpful to them comes naturally. Also, they take great interest in what is happening in the rest of the world, and, with their flair for languages, communication with visitors is easy. They have an admirable sense of humor and like most Mediterranean people, tend to be rather jovial. These qualities endear the Maltese to the foreign visitors. It is generally said that foreigners are tourists in Malta only on their first visit; on their second and subsequent visits they return to Malta as their friends. The pace of life in Malta is very relaxed by European standards. The Maltese enjoy life and their broad smiles tell you that they are a happy people. They find great strength and unity in their common language, religion and strong family ties.
Folklore and festivals
The Maltese love festivals and the warm Maltese climate make it possible to enjoy these colorful events throughout the whole year. Between May and October every town and village in Malta and Gozo celebrates the feast day or “festa” of its patron saint. The festa is the most important event in each village’s annual calendar and the villagers eagerly look forward to this very special day.
Considerable preparation goes into these celebrations. The village church, which is the pride of every villager, is draped with red damask and decorated with beautiful flowers. All it’s gold and silver treasures, as well as the crystal chandeliers, are put on display thus creating a fitting setting for the statue of the patron saint which is placed in a prominent position in the Church. The church façade is illuminated with hundreds of multicolored bulbs, as also are the streets, across which are suspended massive and colorful drapes. Hundreds of flags are flown on roof tops whilst drapes and light bulbs are hung across the width of the covered balconies which are typical of Maltese traditional houses. The houses on the main streets, through which the religious procession passes, are generally given a fresh coat of paint for the occasion, and on festa day are lit up and adorned so that they look their best.
There is a three-day build-up to the feast and the atmosphere throughout is one of gaiety and merriment. On the festa day, as the statue of the saint is carried shoulder- high along the streets of the village the church bells ring and several massed bands play marches. Children throw confetti from balconies on to the passing procession. The nougat and candy-floss stands make excellent business whilst the crowds walk up and down the village streets stopping every now and than for a drink or to greet an old friend. The noise becomes quite deafening as the statue is about to re-enter the church; at this stage noisy but colorful fireworks are let off in abundant quantities. The Maltese specialize in the manufacture of fireworks and, in Maltese inter-village rivalry; fireworks often constitute the bench mark for comparing the success of the various festas. During the summer season there is a festa practically every weekend and no holidaymaker to Malta should leave the Island without experiencing one.
Besides the local parochial “festas”, there are others which are celebrated on a national scale. The “Imnarja”, a Harvest festival which is celebrated on June 29, is characterized by a night-long picnic at Buskett Gardens, Rabat on the eve of which the native dish, stewed rabbit, is consumed in large quantities, accompanied by equally large volumes of wine. Exhibits of local agricultural produce, band marches, decorated carts and folklore singing competitions enliven the night-long proceedings. The following day, the festivities reach a climax when bare-back donkey and horse races are held in the street leading to Rabat. The prizes awarded for these races are brocaded banners which the winners traditionally donate to their village church.
The 8th September Regatta held in Grand Harbor, celebrates Malta’s victories during the Great Siege of 1565 and the Second World War. The magnificent Fort St Angelo provides an imposing backdrop to the sleek and colorful Maltese boats. Rowing teams from the cities bordering Grand Harbor take part in a number of very exciting races, marked by extreme rivalry between the participating teams and their respective supporters. The Maltese really let their hair down in the revelry of Carnival in mid-February. The main defile takes place in the capital, Valletta, but in every town and village children dress up in colorful clothes and cover their faces in masks or make-up to camouflage their identity. The Valletta defile is very spectacular containing as it does many floats of a high professional standard.