Malta is a great place for history lovers who like to get a little cultural exposure as well as a golden tan on their holiday. Thanks to its strategic position in the Mediterranean, Malta has found itself at the centre of many a historic fracas, and as a result has an intriguing and still visible history, especially in its many defensive structures.
In fact, even if you just take a passive interest in the history of Malta, it’s pretty hard to visit these islands without hearing mention of at least the Knights of Malta, whose crest adorns many a fridge magnet in tourist shops.
But there is so much more to the history of these craggy limestone islands than the Order of St John. We’ve created a potted history for you here so that on your next trip to the sun-soaked Med you can get started seeking out fascinating historic sites, or just relax in the knowledge that you’ve already dipped your toes into the past of this beautiful destination.
Let’s start at the beginning
The original inhabitants of Malta are thought to have come from nearby Sicily. If Neolithic structures are your thing then don’t miss the fantastic temples that date from 3600-3200 BC, especially the Ggantija Temples on Gozo. Thought to be part of a fertility cult, these well-preserved temples are older than the pyramids at Giza.
The Classical Era
You might have heard of the Phoenicians before, as traders of purple dye and the inventors of our modern alphabet. They naturally took up residence on Malta as they spread out form modern-day Lebanon and across the Mediterranean region. By 600 BC Malta had been wrested from the Phoenicians and become part of the great city state of Carthage (in modern-day Tunis). Carthage was an ancient enemy of Rome, so it’s not surprising the Romans eyed these islands as a worthy trophy and that by 200BC Malta was an Imperial Province. During this time Malta was famous for producing honey, and its name is derived from the Latin for honey (mel mellis).
The Middle Ages
It is in the Middle Ages that Malta first becomes associated with Christianity, with St. Paul being shipwrecked there in 60AD. However, it also became a strategic pawn passing between Arab and European hands and was often sacked by corsairs from the Barbary Coast and other pirates and raiders. The Maltese flag is said to have been created in 1090, when a Norman count invaded the islands from Sicily and tore off part of his red and white flag and gifted it to the people.
The Modern Age
The Knights of Malta took up sovereignty on Malta in 1530, after the Emperor Charles V gifted the islands to them for the annual rent of one falcon a year. But the presence of the Knights didn’t prevent the Ottomans attacking Gozo, Malta’s smaller sister island, and abducting the whole 5,000-strong population into slavery. This turbulent era saw the construction of many of the island’s fortifications, especially in Valetta. You can easily take a day trip to Valetta from the Radisson Blu Resort, Malta St. Julian’s, just a 20-minute drive along the coast. The Knights were forced to leave Malta by Napoleon, before it became a British Crown Colony in 1814 after the locals revolted against the French.
Malta finally achieved self-rule in 1921, but it wasn’t stable until 1964, when Malta became independent from Britain. However, Elizabeth II of Britain became Queen of Malta at this time at the people’s request (she spent much of her early married life on Malta when Prince Phillip was serving in the military there), so relations remained cordial between the two nations.
Today Malta is a full member of the European Union, so you’ll need to stock up on Euros for your holiday. But the influences of the many occupiers and visitors to Malta over the years have left their mark not least in the fact that all the locals speak English and it is one of the most popular holiday destinations for Brits.