Attempting to comprehend Malta’s history is like trying to synthesize Western civilization for the last 7,000 years – and most of that’s covering only those glimpses of tangible clues left by the ancients. While not the oldest inhabited of Old World areas, the Maltese archipelago boasts some of the world’s earliest temple ruins from 3600 B.C., predating Egypt’s pyramids by 1100 years. Just as important, if not more so, is Malta’s place in history as one of the most sought after and fought over spots on earth. And it is just a spot – the main island, Malta, is a speck in the Mediterranean Sea of just 95 sq. miles (the entire archipelago totals 122 sq. mi.). But as the mantra goes, it’s all about location.
The Maltese archipelago lies 50 mi. south Sicily, east of the curve of northern Africa where Tunisia and Libya meet. Most likely it was once part of a land bridge connecting mainland Europe to Africa. First inhabited by Stone Age migrants from Sicily, Malta subsequently was conquered by nearly every pre-Christian civilization of the Mediterranean, followed by half of Europe during the next two millennia: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Pre-Ottoman Muslims, Normans, Aragonese, the Holy Roman Empire, the Knights of the Order of St. John, the French, and, finally, the British. Malta’s unique location at the center of the Mediterranean and the cradle of Western civilization made it a focal point of shipping, trade, and political power for centuries. Never a stranger to war and conflict, Malta is probably best known for two epic historical conflicts: the centuries-long battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of Malta (as the spearhead for Christian Europe), and, the battle for control of the Mediterranean in World War II.
The Knights of Malta began humbly enough as monks of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem who cared for the Christian wounded and sick during the early crusades, and thus became known also as the Knights of St. John, or Knights Hospitallers. (For simplicity’s sake I will refer to them hereafter as the Knights of Malta, their papal name since 1530.) Eventually they evolved a military function in addition to their ministrations, defending Christendom’s tenuous hold on the Holy Lands from the dreaded Saracens (Muslim Arabs). The Saracens, then later, the Ottoman Turks, drove the Knights first from the Levant, then Cyprus and Rhodes, before the Knights finally settled in Malta in 1530, granted to them by Charles V of Spain & the Holy Roman Emperor, for the simple annual tithe of one Maltese (peregrine) falcon. By this time the Knights had become very militaristic and popular, viewed by Christian Europe as the Defenders of the Faith,” their ranks drawn from the most noble (and wealthy) families of Europe. In Rhodes and Malta the militarized Knights fought the Muslims, and Barbary pirates of the Mediterranean eastern rim, yet themselves began to act more as “corsairs” — a gentlemanly term for pirates — as they harassed and plundered non-Christian ships plying the Mediterranean. Certainly, the Ottomans were not pleased, as the pesky Knights were impeding the empire’s westward control of the Mediterranean, their sea trade, and their designs on snaring this island to gain a toehold toward conquering Europe.
The Ottoman-Knights conflict culminated in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 where the greatly outnumbered Knights prevailed after months of bloody battles, reinforced at the last moment by a Spanish-led relief force from Sicily. Both sides sustained extensive casualties, and much of the fortifications and towns surrounding Malta’s greatest asset, its magnificent harbor, lay in ruins. Recognizing Malta’s fragile vulnerability as well as its strength of location, the Grand Master of the Order, Jean de Valette, ordered massive reconstruction of the former forts and towns, as well as a new Maltese home-base for the Knights, the exquisitely designed city of Valletta.
Fast forward 375 years and Malta, now a British colony, found itself again a focal point in the early years of WWII. The British Mediterranean fleet was based in Valletta, battling Axis naval and air forces to control the crucial shipping and supply routes of the Mediterranean. Caught geographically between Axis forces in Africa, Sicily, and the Italian mainland, Malta was pounded from 1940-42 by the Italian and Nazi air forces with 3,343 air raids dropping over 15,000 tons of bombs, the greatest amount of bombing in WWII. By mid-1942 the island’s civilian and military population were near starvation due to the relentless Axis bombing of cities and ports and minefield blockades. The British naval and air forces were nearly out of fuel and sitting ducks on the airfields and in harbor. Malta was only a day or two from surrender when the crippled British tanker Ohio, engines gone, her back broken and decks awash after days of Luftwaffe attacks, limped into the Grand Harbour on August 15, literally towed and pushed the last 40 miles to Valletta by two British destroyers and a few merchant ships, the sole remnants of a 60+ ship Allied relief convoy. The much-needed food and fuel enabled the island to survive long enough for Allied forces to gain control of the North African campaign and begin to turn the tide in the Mediterranean.
King George VI of great Britain awarded the Maltese collectively the George Cross for their bravery, endurance and contributions in WWII; the cross is incorporated into the national flag:
In the aftermath of WWII, Valletta and the cities surrounding the Grand Harbour were in ruins. Whole areas had to be razed and rebuilt. By and large, the municipalities strove to retain the 16th c. architectural style as envisioned by Grand Master de Valette and his architects, thus maintaining an elegance and individuality recognizable world-wide. The native, honey-hued sandstone also adds a softness and glow unique to Maltese architecture which still, to this day, incorporates distinctive balconies into even the smallest buildings’ facades.
Malta gained independence from Great Britain in 1964, but remained a constitutional monarchy until full independence as a republic in 1974. In 2004 Malta joined the European Union, and has generally prospered, with tourism a major economic factor. Most recently the country celebrated another milestone, celebrating Valletta’s recognition as the European Capital of Culture for 2018. We attended the opening ceremonies on January 20, enjoying seeing this ancient city aglow in lights, showing off its historic sites with modern 3-D computer imaging displays, acrobatic feats, chorale ensembles, and old-fashioned fireworks.
Malta has a far richer, deeper history than the few events I’ve focused upon – or would want to attempt in this forum. From ancient temples with their perplexing imagery and statuary to medieval times then contemporary life, Malta is a fascinating and complex country which deserves attention and appreciation.
Scenes in and around Valletta:
On the other side of Manoel Island is the old Lazaretto Hospital, used to quarantine visitors, particularly those suspected of carrying the bubonic plague in the early 1500s. The oldest extant remains, above, date back to the 1700s. The buildings are now under reconstruction.
Valletta and Malta were stunning and far too complex to try and condense into pictures in this one posting. Perhaps a future post will show more of the island and its wonders. Stay tuned to updates that will direct to an additional post on Malta.