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The Maltese Archipelago comprising of Malta, Gozo and Comino lie just 90 kilometres south of Sicily and 350 kilometres north of the African coast. They offer little natural resources but possess natural, deep and well-protected harbours and it was precisely for this reason why the different Mediterranean powers, whether for trade or for control, always desired to occupy these islands.
The earliest settlement of the islands is believed to be around 5200BC, evidence of which can be found in natural caves such as Ghar Dalam (meaning Dark Cave), Skorba and Ta’Hagrat which where actually open air villages. Around 3600BC early man started to erect megalithic structures which brought about an incredible Temple building period. The main temples include Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, Tarxien and of course the largest free standing megalithic structure in the world, Ggantija. Other unique structures including the Hypogeum and the Xaghra Stone Circle indicate large necropolises catering for area communities. The Temple Culture came to an end around 2500BC.
Throughout the years our islands have been occupied by a number of different civilisations. One of the earliest were the Phoenicians from Lebanon (Syria), traders who made good use of Malta’s excellent harbours. The Phoenicians were followed by the Carthaginians and during the Second Punic War 218BC Malta was taken over by the Romans.
The most important event during the Roman period was the shipwreck of St Paul the Apostle as told in the Acts of the Apostles 27 and 28. Traditionally it is believed St Paul introduced Christianity into Malta. The main sites connected with the saint's visit include St Paul’s Grotto, San Pawl Milqi (Roman Villa), St Paul’s Shipwreck Church and St Paul’s Cathedral & Museum in Mdina. Other interesting sites related to Roman period include large complexes of tombs, ‘catacombs’ which were used by religious communities. Worth visiting are St Paul’s Catacombs and St Agatha’s Catacombs both in Rabat.
The long Roman occupation lasted until 535AD when it finally fell under Byzantine rule, later under Arab rule and then Angevin rule until the 16th century.
In 1530 the Order of St John arrived in Malta, this was the start to a 268 year rule by the Military and Hospitaller Order of St John. During their time the Knights offered the islands security, medication and jobs. This was the start of a Golden era for the Maltese Islands. The Order settled in the harbour, in a small seaside village called Birgu. They built a magnificent line of fortifications to provide adequate defence in case of attacks such as the Great Siege of 1565 when the mighty Turkish Armada was defeated. They continued to fortify the harbour and on 28th March 1566 the foundation stone of the new city of Valletta was laid. They added magnificent palaces, theatres, churches and gardens all of which you can see today. Do not miss St. John's Co. Cathedral which was the conventual church of the Order, the Grand Masters Palace and the beautiful Upper Barraka Gardens from where you can admire stunning views of the spectacular harbour.
Under the Order’s rule the Maltese Islands flourished however this came to an end in 1798 when in June of that year Napoleon’s fleet cast anchor off the islands and launched an invasion. In a few hours the Order capitulated and Napoleon entered Valletta. During his short sojourn of 6 days he issued rules and regulations which the Maltese were not happy with. In fact after a few months the Maltese rose up in revolt and asked the British for help. The French troops were blockaded inside Valletta. Two years siege followed until the French capitulated and the British took over Malta.
The British took the islands into the 20th century, during which time there were two world wars, independence, formation of a republic and the closure of the British bases. The largest natural harbour in the Mediterranean was excellent for the needs of the British fleet so much so that it became its home port and major modern developments took shape. During the First World War Malta was nicknamed “nurse of the Mediterranean” but the Second World War was to be a completely different story. The day after Mussolini declared war on Britain and its allies in June 1940, Malta had suffered its first attack from the air. 16,000 tons of bombs fell on the island during the war, with a loss of 35,000 buildings and over 6000 casualties. In 1942 Malta and its people were awarded the George Cross by King George VI as an official recognition of the island’s courage. This cross is part of the national flag.
After the war, the political situation changed drastically. The Maltese were asking for more representational government and a much more liberal constitution. This political work was to lead to the granting of independence from Britain on 21st September 1964. On 13th December 1974 Malta was declared a republic within the Commonwealth, thus retaining the connection with Britain. Five years later, on 31st March 1979, there was the final closure of the British base in Malta. Finally, for the very first time, no foreign troops were stationed on the islands. Malta is a member of the United Nations and also of the Commonwealth. Moreover, in May 2004 it joined the European Union.
© 2013 Joan Sheridan Freelance Tour Guide. All rights reserved.