Malta History


Malta's central position in the Mediterranean has involved it, often unwillingly, in conflicts happening in the area, therefor giving it a depth of history and cultural heritage relatively too large for its size. Its history is one of the main attractions for tourists who visit this small, central and historic island. This extraordinary history, that goes back 7000 years, possesses the largest number of monuments and historic sites in the world. These are unique not just for Malta but for the world heritage as a whole, and should be preserved, as they form part of the remarkable Maltese identity. Enjoy cheap holidays to Malta.

Malta 's Prehistory - The Neolithic & Temple Period (5200BC - 2500BC)

The first settlers in Malta came from Sicily by boat around 5000BC. These early inhabitants were farmers and lived in caves for five or six centuries, later on building mud brick huts and starting off the village life.

Not much information can be gathered about these people but it is known that they traded honey and textiles with their northern neighbors for things not found in Malta . Most knowledge is assembled from tombs and temples, where pottery figurines, tools and art from those times is found. By 4000BC rituals and elaborate burials had been introduced, and many inhabitants started to build temples, several of them surviving to this very day and known as the oldest buildings in the world.

These temples consist of connecting rooms or chambers and may have imitated caves. There are distinct types of decoration in them, which had several uses to them. Cult or religion seemed to have involved fertility goddesses, animal sacrifices and ritual burials. A Dark Age surrounds the next 200 years.

Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are two of the erect stone megalithic temples situated on the south side of the island. The main complex has two entrances and many chambers, which include an 'Oracle room', and alters. This supports that a fertility goddess was worshipped. These sites are recognized all over the world as examples of the earliest evidence of man's civilization. Ggantija in Gozo, The Hypogeum and Tarxien are other examples of the Maltese temples.

The Phoenician Period (800BC - 218BC)

The Phoenicians came originally from the Levant , which is the area around modern Lebanon . They had a great tradition as sailors and traders. Between 1000BC and 900BC they colonized the coast of North Africa and later headed into the central and western Mediterranean.

Around 800BC, Phoenician culture and influence shows in Malta , typically in burials. 'Malet' was a word they used meaning ' refuge' and is a suggestion for the origin of the name ' Malta '. Malta was then known for its textiles. Because of its position in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea , it was on the busy trade routes. Later, around 600BC, Malta came under the direct control of Carthage , a Phoenician colony in what is now Tunisia . Carthage established itself as the powerful regional capital with trade routes and satellite colonies in Spain , Sicily and Southern France . Their language has left a permanent impression on the Maltese language and some place names have their roots from this time, for example 'Marsa' is derive from their word for harbor.

Not much remains of our Phoenician heritage, except for graves and tombs, which have, sadly, nearly all been robbed of their contents. There are the foundations of some Punic temples, but their towns and villages are hidden as they probably lie under what was built later. 

The Roman and Byzantine Period (218BC - 870BC)

The Romans took over Carthage quickly and extended their influence south beyond Malta . Therefor, Malta became a quite place remote from the center of activity, prospering under Roman control and protection. The Romans were usually tolerant and understanding as long as their subdue subjects' loyalty was to Rome .

New influences still emerged, thus we see more contact with the Greek cities, mainly in Sicily . Malta produced cloth, olives, oil and honey. Meli is the Greek word for honey and Melita is another suggestion for the origin of the island's name. Life in Malta was prosperous in the roman period, and there was wealth on the island. We now know that the Romans built the bases of many of the round towers that can be seen around the island. Towards the end of the 4 th century AD, the Roman Empire was split into two and Malta formed part of the eastern empire with Constantinople as its capital. Little evidence of Byzantine contact remains apart from small items such as coins.

Villa in Rabat

The Roman Villa in Rabat probably belonged to a rich Roman merchant or senior civil servant. It is beautifully sited, looking west over the valley towards Mtarfa. The ruins were discovered in 1881. The small museum was added in 1923. Here we can see various Roman remains, such as amphorae (clay pots) statuettes, pottery and glassware. Some of these were found on the site of this Roman villa, while others were found at other Roman sites in Malta - such as a Roman Tower near Safi and at Marsaxlokk.

The Roman villa in Malta contains various examples of Roman mosaics, these are pictures or patterns produced by an arrangement of small variously colored pieces of glass or stone. Work of this kind is art in itself. Mosaics originated around 500BC in Greece and were originally made from pebbles. Mosaics were usually imitations of paintings. They were extremely popular and extremely valued by Romans.

Publius was the Roman Governor of Malta when St. Paul landed on our island after being shipwrecked while on his way to stand trial in Rome . The story goes that St. Paul cured Publius' father of an illness. The Roman site of 'San Pawl Milqhi' is the traditional site of St. Paul 's first meeting with the Governor around 58AD.

The site was certainly an agricultural center founded in the 2 nd century BC. A fire destroyed it in 5 th century AD, but it flourished again in the 3 rd and 4 th centuries AD. The site had become a place of pilgrimage from the 7 th century Ad.

Publius Villa
St.Agatha's Catacombs In Rabat

Early Christians across the Mediterranean , used catacombs as a place of refuge and where meetings could be held. They were also used to bury the dead. It is said that St. Agatha has hidden there to escape persecution in Sicily during the 3 rd century AD.

In St Agatha's, there are over 500 graves of several types, the majority of children. There are sections for pagans and Jews, as well as for Christians. The walls are decorated with frescoes and paintings from the early Christian and Byzantine periods. Around the seventh Century, the catacombs ceased to be used.

The Arab Period (870AD - 1090AD)

In 870, Malta fell to Arabs, with Sicily falling shortly afterwards. Arab conquest and influence had spread westwards in the Mediterranean in the 7th and 8th Centuries AD, and already extended to Spain , Southern France , parts of Italy and Sicily . Their occupation of Malta was to last for the next 220 years.

During this period, Christianity was sometimes tolerated, but more often suppressed. Malta lost its independence. Our inheritance from this period is mainly cultural, as little of the art and buildings of the time have survived. The basis for the modern Maltese language was laid, thus replacing one Semitic language (Phoenician from the Punic period) with another. New crops were introduced, notably cotton and citrus fruits, as were new farming and irrigation methods. And the origin of many of our place names can be traced.

The Norman & Early Medieval Periods (1090AD - 1530AD)

In 1090, Count Roger the Norman drove out the Arabs in a short battle won with the help of the Maltese, to whom he gave the red and white colors of our present flag. He restored the Catholic Church in Malta and joined Malta with Sicily , which he recovered in 1091.

Malta re-established its trade links. Control passed in the later Norman period to an overlord who added piracy and slave trading to the island's occupations. Then in 1194, Malta came under Swabian rule, a change again in 1266, when Angevin rule dominated - at this time the language adopted a Latin script - and then in 1292, Aragon took over. But they soon passed control to a corrupt Sicilian aristocrat and thus began the rule of the so-called Counts of Malta.

They maintained their hold until 1397, when finally, and at the request of the long-suffering Maltese, the Aragonese took more interest in the island. The Aragonese formed the Universita`, thus giving the island a measure of self-determination.

By 1530, when Emperor Charles V gave the island to the displaced Knights of St John , Malta had for 50 years been part of the united empire of Aragon and Castille. It was on the front line facing the growing menace of the Ottoman (or Turkish) Empire in the East.

There remains little which is intact from this period. But the cores of several houses in Mdina and Victoria in Gozo date from this period. It was the Swabian King Frederick II who introduced falconry to the island.

Norman House In Mdina
Bir Miftuh Chapel

This is a fine example of a late medieval town house. Called the Palazzo Falzon, it is built in the 'siculo-norman' (meaning Sicilian/Norman style) but probably not before 1495. It was originally the property of the Aragonese Vice Admiral Falzon. It survived until the Knights arrived in 1530 from Rhodes . For a short time it was the home of Grand Master de l'Isle Adam. It is a two storey house built around a courtyard and has very lovely '2 light' windows. It is now a museum and contains some good 18th and 19th Century paintings, a collection of armour, tools, and a kitchen display from the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Lying between Luqa and Gudja is the Church of Santa Marija ta' Bir Miftuh, one of the best preserved from the late medieval period. Built by 1436, this was the Church for one of the ten main parishes on Malta . There was a Church here from early in the mediaeval time. The present Church was originally bigger and existed side by side with two or three other chapels which are now gone. In it are some fine early 17th Century murals and a painting, only recently uncovered when repairs and restoration were made. There are tales of buried treasure and intrigue. Near to the site is a Bronze Age water cistern system. Mdina is the old Capital city of Malta and has been occupied since ancient times. During the Arab stay on our island this great city was reduced to its present size, walls and moat were built around it and it was re-named Mdina.

Mdina remained the capital of Malta throughout the mediaeval period. Here the rich nobles built their palaces. Mdina has a number of mediaeval remains. Palazzo Santa Sofia in Villegaigon Street is the oldest building there and is thought to be 13th Century.

The Period Of The Knights (1530AD - 1798AD)

The proper name of the Knights of St John is the Sovereign and Military Order of the Knights Hospitaler of St John of Jerusalem - the Knights of St John, the Knights of Rhodes, the Knights of Malta, and the Knights Hospitalers. The Knights originate from the time of the Christian Crusades in the 11th and 12th Centuries AD when, as a religious order, combining the roles of soldiers and monks, they ran hospitals and provided accommodation and protection for pilgrims to the Holy Land.

In 1291, Islamic forces took the Holy Land , and the Knights were thrown out. They went first to Cyprus , and then to Rhodes . There they stayed for more than 200 years, building extensively, and developing a strong navy. The forces of Islam, lead by the Turks, continued to push westwards and Christendom and Islam were often at war. The Knights were in the forefront and their command of the sea routes was vital.

By the time they came to Rhodes , and later to Malta , the military order was organized into 8 groups or langues, representing the countries from which the aristocrats who became Knights came. Each had its own lodging house or auberge. They elected a Grand Master as their head. The eight pointed cross represented the eight virtues or the eight langues. Each langue had a different duty - for example the English were responsible for cavalry training. Each defended a stretch of the fortifications.

But in 1523, the Knights were defeated by the Turks in a siege on Rhodes and were evicted, lucky to leave with their lives. Charles V thought that Malta was an ideal base from which to defend the Central Mediterranean from Turkish raids. He ordered the Knights to move here and they arrived in Malta in late 1530.

The Knights chose to settle in Birgu where they built their auberges and a Conventual church, on similar lines to their previous base in Rhodes . And they set about improving the island's defenses against the common enemy in the East. Arab forces were becoming increasingly aggressive and moving west. Christians captured in these raids were being sold for ransom or as slaves. Short of funds, the Knights and Maltese become corsairs - a kind of pirate - attacking towns in North Africa and Turkish shipping.

In revenge, in 1551, Suleyman the Magnificent raided Gozo and sold all 5000 inhabitants into slavery. Eventually, in May 1565, the Turks, under Suleyman's generals, attacked Malta with 180 ships and 30,000 men. Facing them on Malta were no more than 8000, of whom 700 were Knights and the rest were Maltese or mercenaries. They took refuge in Mdina and Birgu. The First Great Siege of Malta had begun.

The story of the Great Siege is heroic - the brave defense of Fort St. Elmo, the resistance in Birgu, the suffering of attacker and defender alike through casualties, disease, and the heat of summer and finally, the eventual reinforcement from Sicily and the defeat of an increasingly demoralized enemy. The result was a newfound respect for the Knights and people of Malta , which earned financial support from Europe for their position as a bulwark against Islam, and confirmation of the Knights dominant position in Malta.

The Knights moved to Valletta , which became the capital, and built its magnificent fortifications. And with Turkish power in decline, the Knights re-established themselves as a naval power, revived their corsairing and slave trading activities, and established the Grand Harbor as a safe port for friendly, mainly Christian, visitors. When added to the funds that came from Europe and the property owned by the Order, the next 200 years were rich and powerful times, though two outbreaks of plague took a toll in life.

Eventually, serious problems undermined the Knights' position; tensions grew between the Church and the Knights. The poorer Maltese became resentful. For their part, the Knights became complacent and insular. When Muslim shipping targets became harder to find, and when revolution broke out in France removing a valuable source of income by the confiscation of the Order's property, funds became a problem. Defenses were weak and in 1798, they were ill prepared to resist Emperor Napoleon of France when he arrived on his way to Egypt . Fearing invasion, the Knights refused him port facilities, so Napoleon gave them three days to leave. With 500 ships and 30,000 men facing them, after half-hearted resistance, they did, somewhat to the relief of the Maltese inhabitants.

The Presidents Palace

The President's Palace was once the Grand Master's Palace. It was built between 1571 and 1574. Today it is The President's office and the seat of Malta 's parliament. It is open to the public.

The palace is a treasure trove of art. In the Tapestry Chamber hangs a unique collection of Gobelin tapestries. Frescoes depicting the Great Siege of 1565, by Perez d' Aleccio, adorn the Hall of St Michael and St George, formerly the Order's Supreme Council Hall. The decorations on the ceiling of the corridors are by Nicolo Nasini. Many of the State Apartments are embellished with friezes describing episodes of the Order's history. In the various State Apartments are outstanding works of art by famous painters.

Here also is housed the Armory of the Knights. This collection consists of almost 6000 pieces of armour from all over Europe . They cover the period from about the 16th Century to the middle of the 18th Century. Here is Grand Master Wignacourt's gold inlaid suit of armour made in about 1615. There are also the suits of armour worn by Grand Masters La Vallette and Garges. The steps leading up to the State Apartments are low to allow knights in armour to climb them.

St.John's Cathedral

The Church of St. John the Baptist was built between 1573 and 1577 by a Maltese engineer, Girolamo Cassar. The Cathedral, once the church of the Order, is historically and artistically one of the most important monuments on our islands.

The rich interior of the cathedral shows the love of the Knights for the arts. The great rounded vault of the nave leads you to look towards the high altar. The nave has six bays on either side, with one allocated to each langue or nationality of the Knights. The interior is a mass of color and intricate carvings. Mattia Preti painted the rounded ceiling between 1622 and 1666. The paintings show eighteen scenes from the life of St. John.

The mosaic floor of the nave and side chapels is composed of multi-colored, inlaid, marble tombstones showing he coats-of-arms of the nobles who lived in Malta at this time.

In the Oratory is the magnificent painting of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio, one of the most important paintings in Malta .

In the Church Museum are the Cathedral's priceless collection of Flemish tapestries and another beautiful painting by Caravaggio of St. Jerome.

Casa Rocca Piccola
Auberge De Castile

Casa Rocca Piccola

This small 16th Century palace is in Republic Street, Valletta . It was built when Valletta was first being developed after the move from Vittoriosa following the First Great Siege in 1565. It has a garden, which is unusual as it was forbidden to have one then because of the shortage of water. Many things of interest from earlier days are laid out in the period style, and show how privileged people then lived. It is possible to visit the private chapel, library, bedrooms and reception rooms that contain paintings, furniture, costumes and other family treasures. There are two bomb shelters under the palace - one, using the mediaeval well, was for the public in the Second World War, the other was made in 1935 for the family then occupying the house.

Near the remains of the nineteenth century opera house, bombed in the Second World War, is the most impressive of the four surviving auberges in Valletta . There were eight in all. The Auberge de Castile belonged to the Spanish and Portuguese Langue and is an example of Maltese baroque. In 1741, the original building was remodeled in this style for Grand Master Pinto, a man always keen to display his wealth and importance. His statue and coat of arms are above the main entrance to emphasize his prestige. The wide staircase leading to the entrance is impressive. Castile , as it is called, is now the Prime Minister's office, so the building is closed to the public.

The Valletta Bastions

When they first arrived, the Knights were slow to fortify their base because they hoped their stay was temporary. And when the urgency became obvious, there was neither the time nor money to fortify the strategic peninsula of what is now Valletta . So they concentrated instead on Birgu, and a hasty improvement of Fort St Elmo. Despite limitations, they served the Knights well in the Great Siege. But when it ended, the fortifications of Birgu were badly damaged. With support from Europe , it was decided to fortify Valletta . There had been several earlier plans. Finally, those of the Italian engineer Laparelli were adopted. These consisted of four bastions stretching from Marsamxett harbour to the Grand Harbor . In between, a number of smaller bastions were to line the irregular front.

In 1571, just five years after the start of the construction work, the Knights moved to Valletta .

Nine cavaliers, or key strongpoints, were planned, but only two were eventually built. These guard the main gate and are higher than the ramparts of the bastions. They were substantially rebuilt when Floriana was fortified. One, St. John's , is the Knights' present embassy in Malta . Further modifications continued - deeper ditches and higher ramparts, the Vendome bastion adjoining Fort St. Elmo built in 1614. Under Grand Master Verdala, the series of bastions, curtains, ramparts and cavaliers were finally completed and fifty guns were placed in position.

By the 17th century, warfare technology and continued concern about the Turks prompted a review of the fortifications. In 1635, the Pope sent an engineer, Paolo Floriani, who proposed a new line of defense based on the peninsula outside Valletta . Work started in 1636 and was completed 9 years later. Floriana, as it is now called, is named after him.

Gradually, a ring of fortifications was built to protect the capital. At the end of the century, three new bastions were built in front of Fort St Elmo. Further forts and redoubts protected the flanks. There are also the substantial fortifications that enclose the three cities, adding further protection to the Grand Harbor - the Margharita Lines protect Cospicua and the Cottonera Lines provide an outer wall. Of nearly 50km of fortifications built by the Knights, those in and around Valletta are some of the finest in the world.

The French Period (1798AD - 1800AD)  

Napoleon himself only stayed for 6 days, time enough to load his flagship, L'Orient with as much booty as he could. Much of it was sunk at the Battle of the Nile and lost forever. He left military garrisons in Mdina and Valletta . He abolished the Inquisition and slavery. Rapid administrative and legislative change followed some of which, to Malta 's credit, survives to the present day. The French needed funds to support their European war and further looting and confiscation of property became commonplace. After 3 months, relief at the departure of the Knights had turned to anger, and the Maltese rose up in Mdina when Church property was stolen. They killed the French garrison, and laid siege to the French in Valletta . Help was sought from the British who had just won the Battle of The Nile under Lord Nelson. Their reinforcements blockaded the harbour and the French, many of whom had already died from starvation and disease, surrendered in 1800.

THE BRITISH PERIOD (AD1800 to 1964 AD)  

When the French surrendered, Malta effectively came under British control. The British could have returned Malta to the Knights. But a petition from the Maltese asked the British to stay. Under the Treaty of Paris, Malta became a Crown colony. As Britain 's interests extended during the 19th century with the growth of its Empire, so did the strategic and geographic importance of Malta .

By the middle of the century, the Crimean War, the advent of steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, made necessary substantial investment in the military infrastructure of the island and the dockyard.

During the Second World War, Malta fought shoulder to shoulder with the British against Hitler's Nazi Germany. Such was Maltese heroism during the Second Great Siege that they were awarded the George Cross on 15 April 1942 . The George Cross appears on our Flag and the medal itself is in The President's palace.

Over time, the Maltese were given a measure of autonomy on local matters and domestic affairs. This lasted until 21st September 1964 when Malta at last achieved independence as a sovereign nation.

The Victoria Lines

 A natural fault runs roughly east to west across Malta . The Knights had planned a line of defense to run along it to protect the island from attack from the North. But it was the British who between 1870 and 1900 built a series of four forts with intervening walls, gun emplacements and redoubts along the 12 km of the ridge. This was to protect the strategically vital Grand Harbour from invasion from the northern beaches. This is an outstanding example of Victorian military architecture.

Fort Madliena (1875) is the most northerly. Further along is the most impressive, Fort Mosta , built over some 7th Century catacombs. The other forts are Fort Pembroke and, further along the Dwejra lines, Fort Bingemma .

Fort Rinella
 Msida Bastions Cemetery

This is one of our many fine examples of British Victorian military architecture. It was built in 1870 to guard the Grand Harbour , together with the Cambridge Battery at Sliema. Here there is one of only two surviving examples of the world's largest gun, the 100 tonne Armstrong. The other is in Gibraltar . Built in England , getting it here in 1882 was quite a feat. It required a special road and railway. It could hurl a 2000lb projectile accurately over 6 km. We can still see some of the complex system of hydraulics and engines required to fire it, including its own coal power station.  

This garden on the bastion is the site of a cemetery. It is one of four burial grounds located close to the bastions at Floriana. The other three cemeteries, Quarantine, Greek Orthodox and Cholera are no longer in existence as they have been built over. These bastions were built in the 17th Century and saw action briefly when Napoleon's French troops arrived in June 1798. Soon after the British and Maltese defeated the French in September 1800, Protestant burials began in this bastion area. The earliest memorial discovered intact is dated 1806. The visitor enters the Garden through a high gateway and, in keeping with the Bastion's original defensive purpose, there is a fine pair of George III cannon, each weighing four tonnes.

In this cemetery, we have some knowledge of 530 persons buried there, although the total number of burials would be greater. The principal occupants of the cemetery are British Army and Naval personnel, British civil service officials and merchants, as well as their wives and children.


Malta has been a sovereign, independent since 1964 and joined the EU in the 1st of May 2004.

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