The surprising history of Malta

The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta may now be a popular holiday destination, but it is also home to a rich history. First inhabited in around 5900 BC, Malta has since been fundamentally influenced by and reflected contemporary regional and international events. In this way Malta can be seen as a microcosm of global events.

The first great example of this was when from the 6th Century Malta became a site of confrontation between Islam and Christianity, a confrontation which was playing out throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. In Malta this conflict was initially between the Byzantine Empire and a dynasty of Arabs called the Aghlabids. Later, Malta was also the site of intense conflict between the Christian Knights of St John, who had been given the island in 1530, and the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which culminated in the Great Siege of Malta by the Ottomans in 1565. The Order eventually repelled the rebellion and the Knights’ period in power is often regarded as a golden age during which art and culture flourished. 

The centuries of conflict between Muslim and Christian powers reflects a further trend in the history of Malta, namely the influence outside powers have had on the island. In fact, Malta only became an independent republic in 1974 before this frequently finding itself torn between international powers and colonised by outsiders. However, this should not mask the popular resistance which has also played an important part in Malta’s history.

The greatest example of this is the popular resistance which brought the expulsion of the French from Malta. The French had assumed control of the islands in 1798 after Napoleon stopped there on his way to his Egyptian Expedition and forced Malta to hand its sovereignty to the French Republic. The French were extremely unpopular leading to local Maltese rebellions which weakened the French power, similar rebellions had also weakened the power of the Knights of St John, as a result the French were defeated. However, this Maltese autonomy did not last as Malta became a British protectorate. Although the defeat of the French had been predominantly due to Maltese resistance this was also supported by foreign aid primarily from Britain but also Portugal and the Neapolitans.

Malta’s period under British control particularly its position during WW2 is probably the best-known period of its history. Malta served as the headquarters of the British Mediterranean Fleet making it a key Nazi target during WW2, suffering devastating bombing with more than 1,500 civilians killed. In fact, in 1942 the island was awarded the George Cross for its bravery and resilience. Malta was also key to the Allied war effort with the invasion of Sicily being launched from Malta in 1943. 

Therefore, Malta’s unassuming status as a popular tourist destination masks a fascinating history, a history during which it both influenced and reflected global historical events and shifts. So, if you find yourself on holiday on Malta in between trips to the beach be sure to visit one of the ancient temples or WW2 bomb shelters dotted around the island. Alternatively, trace the influence of European Baroque and British classicism in the Cathedrals of the capital Valetta and consider the historical purpose of the city’s fortifications.

Featured image J VC on Flickr

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Our YouTube Channel