Hulking megalithic temples, ornate Baroque churches, narrow old-world streets, and hilltop citadels are Malta’s human legacy. Dizzying limestone cliffs, sparkling Mediterranean seas, and charming rural landscapes make up its natural beauty. Malta’s odd position – near major Mediterranean shipping routes yet out of the way – has resulted in long stretches of isolation punctuated with often violent episodes of foreign intrusion.
In its 7,000 years of human habitation, Malta has been overrun by every major Mediterranean power: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs; Aragonians, the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem; Napoléonic French, the British, and now European tourists. The Turks of the Ottoman empire tried to take it back in 1565, without success, while Nazi Germany and Italy tried to take it in World War II—their air raids were devastating—but could not. Malta’s situation in the central Mediterranean has made it an important strategic base since the earliest days of navigation.
Step back into the Copper Age to marvel at Malta’s unique prehistoric temples. Dating from as early as 3800 BC, Hagar Qim and the other Neolithic temples on Malta are the oldest known human structures in the world, much older than Stonehenge in Britain and even older than the Egyptian pyramids. This megalithic temple complex is adorned with carved animals and idols, sacrificial altars and oracular chambers, all executed with nothing more than flint and obsidian tools. Giant limestone slabs form a series of ovals laid out in a pattern that some archaeologists have compared to Mother Goddess figurines found on the site. The view of the Mediterranean and the nearby island of Filfla is one of the best in Malta. Hagar Qim and its neighbour, the Mnajdra temple, are near the villages of Qrendi and Zurrieq, about 15km (9mi) southwest of Valletta. Besides serving as holy places, these structures are also timepieces – they mark the equinoxes by means of elaborate optical phenomena, with rays of light passing through holes and doorways and landing on exact spots on the altar on the specific days, a sight very popular with archeologists and tourists alike.
How far back in time the history of Malta goes has been a constant and lively issue of debate for a long time now. No one knows for definite how, or indeed when, the country got its name. One version is that the name comes from the Greek word meli (honey) or melta (bee). Other experts say that the name Malta stems from the Phoenician word mala, meaning bridge or harbour. We can say with some confidence though that the islands of Malta and Gozo have been inhabited for 7000 years.
The Phoenicians arrived and put down roots in around 800 BC and stayed for about 600 years. They were followed by the Carthaginians, who took possesion of the islands and used them as a training ground for their galley crews. During the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, the Maltese islands were attacked numerous times and finally ended up under Roman control in 208 BC. Roman baths and villas and remains still dot the island, with some excavations still taking place today.
The local inhabitants were introduced to Christianity in AD60 when a ship carrying St Paul as a prisoner on his way to being sentenced in Rome was shipwrecked on Malta. The rock St Paul was shipwrecked on still bears the name of this patron saint, while numerous sites in Malta still bear their connection to this event, while the famous village festa season opens with the remembrance of this day in Valletta on February 10.
On the partition of the Roman Empire, Malta passed under the control of Constantinople. The islands experienced a quiet and prosperous period until North African Arab attacks in AD870 culminated in the surrender of the islands to the governor of Muslim Sicily in 870. The Arabs exerted a powerful influence on the Maltese at the time, introducing citrus fruits and cotton and warping the language.Subsequently the Normans reconquered Sicily, and Malta passed back to Christian control in 1090. The Normans are thought to have granted the red and white Maltese national flag colours to Malta.The Norman rule of the 12th century witnessed a great expansion of trade and a flowering of the arts and sciences, reflecting the splendours of Sicily itself, but the death of the last Hautville king in 1194 ushered in a period of confusion. Prosperity alternated with internal chaos for the rest of the Middle Ages, as the island repeatedly became caught up in the great dynastic struggles of the Mediterranean. The Hohenstaufer (mainly Frederick II), the Angevins, the Aragonnese, the Venetians, the Genoese, the Papacy, the kings of France and the Arabs – all, at various times, attempted to gain control of Malta. Political stability did not return until the 16th century, when Malta, together with Sicily, became part of the vast empire of Charles V.
In 1530, Emperor Charles V of Spain, recognised the strategic value of the islands for Christendom and granted the islands as a fiefdom to the International Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem after the Ottoman Turks ousted the military order of hospitalers out of Rhodes. He entrusted the defence of Malta, Gozo and Comino to the Knights, along with the outpost of Tripoli. The document which ordered this, and was confirmed by the Pope, can still be seen in Valletta today. The annual rent the Knights had to pay was purely ceremonial – one live falcon annually.
In 1564 Süleyman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, decided to despatch the largest force of fighting ships and troops ever assembled in the Mediterranean to destroy the Knights of Malta. At this time the Ottoman Empire was at its strongest and greatly feared. In 1565 they laid siege to the islands. The Knights and the other inhabitants put up an incredibly defiant defence and, finally, Süleyman decided to deploy his janisaries (shock troops) to attack the Maltese defences. These elite troops had never failed before but, after intense combat, they were repulsed and elsewhere, Ottoman forces were subsequently routed. They returned home to face the wrath of the Sultan and never attacked Malta again. The knights, under La Valette, strengthened the island’s fortifications and succesfully controlled Malta until 1798 when Napoleon drove them out and claimed Malta for the French Republic. The handsome limestone buildings and fortifications that the wealthy Knights left behind are all around the islands.
With fame and power came corruption, and the Knights turned to piracy. By the time Napoleon arrived in 1798, they were too enfeebled to put up a fight. This was complicated by the fact that internal quabbles and the spirit of revolutionary France had already claimed the hearts of the Maltese and many Knights long before the physical French attack. The French were eventually ousted from Malta thanks to a blockade that was set up by British and Maltese forces around the islands. On 5 September 1800 the British officially took possession of the islands. In 1814, the Maltese islands were formally recognised as a British Crown Colony by the Treaty of Paris. Malta was to become one of the favorite holiday spots for famous British personages such as Samuel Coleridge, Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott.
During World War I, English navy seamen were garrisoned on Malta and the islands had the largest military hospital in the Mediterranean. Britain turned Malta into a major naval base, making it an inviting target for the Axis powers during World War II. After a long blockade and five months of non-stop bombing raids, Malta was devastated but held fast. Because of the country’s important strategic position in WW2 Malta was bombed incessantly by the Germans and Italians. After the war, the entire island was awarded the George Cross by Britain in recognition of the people’s fortitude and resistance. The George Cross still features on the Maltese national flag.
In 1956 a referendum came down heavily in favour of full integration with Britain, a policy then backed by the governing Maltese Labour Party (MLP) under Dom Mintoff. Successive rounds of talks failed, and by 1961 independence was sought by both the major political parties, the other being the conservative Nationalist Party then led by Dr Borg Olivier. Independence was achieved on 21st September 1964, and Dr George Borg Olivier was elected Prime Minister. The greatest problem that the Maltese islands had to face after independence was the dismal state of their economy. Without the British funded docks and naval base they had to find an alternative income. This was achieved with the development of small industries as well as tourism, both of which have been growing steadily in the last two decades. The two main political parties in Malta are the Nationalist Party and the Malta Labour party. Malta has been a member of the United Nations since 1964, and has become one of the few absolutely neutral countries in the world after the acceptance of a special declaration made by the Maltese government in the United Nations in 1987.
Dom Mintoff’s Malta Labour Party won the 1971 elections and began to pursue a policy of neutrality which principle became entrenched in the constitution. In 1979 the British military base was closed, and Malta became a republic. In May 1987, 16 years of MLP rule came to an end and Dr Edward Fenech Adami of the Nationalist Party became Prime Minister. The centre-right government had followed the general European pattern of liberalising the economy. The nationalists improved on their previous performance at the election held in February 1992 and were returned with an increased majority.
The major political issue of the late nineties was Malta’s application to join the European Union. Domestic opposition to the latter was led by the MLP, which claimed that EU agricultural policies would increase the cost of living, and also corrupt the Republic’s traditional neutrality in its foreign policies. In September 1996, the Fenech-Adami Government, pursuing its mandate of full EU membership, called a general election. Despite the PN’s record of economic achievement, the EU-indexed introduction of value added tax would seem to have been far more unpopular with the electorate than anyone realized. This led to the narrow victory of the MLP at the polls and the appointment of a new Government was formed by the MLP’s Dr Alfred Sant, who immediately announced that EU membership was no longer a future goal. Malta’s association agreement with the EU (signed in 1970) was to be replaced by the establishment of a ‘free trade zone’ between Malta and the EU. In September 1998, however, a split within the ranks of the MLP finally came to a head, after two years in which Dr Sant consistently found himself at loggerheads with Mintoff, the respected and still-active powerbroker of the MLP. After a blow-up over the 1998 budget and plans over a Yacht Marina developement in the Cottonera area, Mintoff broke with his party and crossed the floor – thus depriving Sant of his one seat majority. At a snap general election in September 1998, the Nationalist Party was returned to power and Fenech-Adami announced that EU membership was once again on the cards. Within months, Malta’s suspended application was once again submitted to the EU and the country made Godspeed to resume its road to membership, which was achieved on May 1, 2004.
The Malta Labor Party, under the helm of Dr. Joseph Muscat, is the current party in government in Malta, having won two elections since 2013.