The history of Malta is a long and colourful one dating back to the dawn of civilisation.
The Maltese Islands went through a golden Neolithic period, the remains of which are the mysterious temples dedicated to the goddess of fertility. Later on, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Byzantines all left their traces on the Islands.
In 60 A.D. St. Paul was shipwrecked on the island while on his way to Rome and brought Christianity to Malta. The Arabs conquered the islands in 870 A.D. and left an important mark on the language of the Maltese. Until 1530 Malta was an extension of Sicily: The Normans, the Aragonese and other conquerors who ruled over Sicily also governed the Maltese Islands. It was the Spanish Emperor Charles V who bequeathed Malta to the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, who ruled over Malta from 1530 to 1798 for the annual rent of one Maltese Falcon. The Knights took Malta through a new golden age, making it a key player in the cultural scene of 17th and 18th century Europe. The artistic and cultural lives of the Maltese Islands were injected with the presence of artists such as Caravaggio, Mattia Preti and Favray who were commissioned by the Knights to embellish churches, palaces and auberges.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte took over Malta from the Knights on his way to Egypt. The French presence on the islands was short lived as the English, who were requested by the Maltese to help them against the French, blockaded the islands in 1800.
British rule in Malta lasted until 1964 when Malta became independent. The Maltese adopted the British system of administration, education and legislation.
His Royal Highness Prince Philip and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth lived in Malta for a period between 1949 and 1951 – the only foreign country in which the Queen has ever lived. It has even been suggested that Malta is where her son Charles was conceived. The Queen re-visited the villa that was their home during her state visit to Malta in 1992 and returned in 2015 for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
Modern Malta became a Republic in 1974 and joined the European Union in May 2004.
Image: Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, Paola
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
The Maltese Islands have three sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. These are the City of Valletta, the Megalithic Temples and the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum.
In all, seven megalithic temples are found on the islands of Malta and Gozo, each the result of an individual development. The two temples of Ġgantija on the island of Gozo are notable for their gigantic Bronze Age structures. The Ġgantija Temples are the oldest, free-standing monuments in the world and are a testament to the Island’s inhabitation for at least 1,000 years before the famous Egyptian pyramids of Giza were constructed.
On the Island of Malta, the temples of Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra and Tarxien are unique architectural masterpieces, given the limited resources available to their builders. The Ta’ Ħagrat and Skorba complexes show how the tradition of temple-building was handed down in Malta. These temples were inscribed on the World Heritage List as a group and represent a unique architectural tradition that flourished on the Maltese Islands between 3600 and 2500 B.C.
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a rock-cut underground complex that was used both as a sanctuary as well as for burial purposes by the temple builders. It was discovered during construction works in 1902. The three underground levels date from around 3600 to 2400 B.C. The monument is considered one of the essential prehistoric monuments in the world.
The capital of Malta, Valletta, is inextricably linked to the history of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller, Order of St John of Jerusalem. Built after the Great Siege of 1565 and named after Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette, this fortified city has hundreds of monuments, all within a relatively small space, making it one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.
To learn more about Valletta, visit here
Mdina & Rabat
The history of Mdina and its suburb Rabat is as old and as chequered as the history of Malta itself. The origins of Mdina, Malta’s medieval capital, can be traced back to more than 4,000 years. Mdina is still home to Malta’s noble families and impressive palaces line its narrow, shady streets. Mdina is one of Europe’s finest examples of an ancient walled city and unusual in its mix of medieval and Baroque architecture. Lamp lit by night, Mdina transforms itself into the ‘Silent City’. The city can be toured on foot (only residents’ cars are permitted access) or on horse-drawn cab known locally as karozzin. Just outside the gates of Mdina is the “Domus Romana”, a museum erected on the site of a Roman town house which includes spectacular mosaic floors dating back to the 1 st century BC. Rabat has an intriguing network of ancient catacombs which were used as graves in Roman times. St Paul’s Catacombs represent the earliest and largest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta.
Image: Ggantija Temples, Xaghra Gozo
The seven megalithic temples dedicated to the goddess of fertility were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a group. The oldest, Ggantija on the island of Gozo, dates back to 3,600BC making it the oldest free-standing structure in the world.
The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered to be one of the most important prehistoric monuments in the world. For more information click here
Image: The Mosta Dome, Mosta Malta
The Mosta Dome is the third largest unsupported dome in the World and is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, which is celebrated on the 15th of August. It is an annual public holiday in Malta and is the focus of the holiday’s festivities. On 9 April 1942, the church was nearly destroyed during World War II when an Axis bomb penetrated the dome of the church during mass but failed to explode. The detonator was removed and a replica bomb is now displayed as a memorial. The locals considered the bomb failing to explode to be a miracle and the church now includes a gallery that highlights other miracles attributed to prayers said in the church. The Dome was designed by Giorgio Grognet de Vassé, a French citizen who lived in Mosta. Mosta residents, at that time totalling only 1500, built the church over 27 years. Grognet chose the type of stone by insisting on having one slab from each quarry operating in the Islands.
The Three Cities
The Three Cities offer an intriguing insight into Malta and its history. Left largely unvisited, these cities are a slice of authentic life as well as a glimpse into Malta’s maritime fortunes.
The Three Cities can rightly claim to be the cradle of Maltese history, as Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua have provided a home and fortress to almost every people who settled on the Islands.
Their harbour inlets have been in use since Phoenician times: the docks always providing a living for local people, but also leaving them vulnerable when Malta’s rulers were at war. As the first home to the Knights of St. John, the Three Cities’ palaces, churches, forts and bastions are far older than Valletta’s.
The local communities here celebrate holy days and festas arguably better than anyone else on the Islands. The most spectacular events are the Easter processions when statues of the “Risen Christ” are carried at a run through crowded streets.
Image: Grandmaster’s Palace, Valletta Malta
Victoria & Cittadella
All roads in Gozo lead to Rabat, also known as Victoria. The Citadel is visible from almost all the Island, rising steeply above the surrounding countryside.
The Citadel in Gozo owes its roots to the late medieval era, but the hill has been settled since Neolithic times. For centuries, the Citadel served as a sanctuary from attack by Barbary corsairs and Saracens. At several times during Gozo’s history, these raiders took its population into slavery.
After the Great Siege of 1565, the Knights set about re-fortifying the Citadel to provide refuge and defence against further attack. Until 1637, the Gozitan population was required by law to spend their nights within the Citadel for their own safety. In later, more peaceful times, this restriction was lifted and people settled below its walls, creating the prosperous town of Rabat, now known as Victoria.
Victoria is not just the geographic heart of Gozo, it is also the centre of everyday activity. It manages to combine the bustle of its market and shops with a relaxed and sociable atmosphere. It is a great place to watch the Islanders go about their day, especially when the main market square, It-Tokk, comes to life.
Browse around Victoria’s market and narrow winding streets and you’ll find everything from delicious fresh produce, cheeses and wines, to antiques, craft goods, fishing nets and knitwear. The town also has a thriving cultural life all its own, with some surprising attractions ranging from opera to horse races in the main street on festa day.
You can find information on other historical sites on the islands here.
You can learn more about the archaelogical sites on the Islands here.