MALTA: THE CROSSROADS OF ANCIENT MEDITERRANEAN HISTORY

TRAVEL by Eric Mackenzie Lamb

The Republic of Malta has always been one of the places I’ve wanted to visit. But due to today’s ever-changing Covid-19 restrictions on travel, the small island nation was difficult to get to. However, I did finally make it last summer. And what I saw was nothing short of fascinating. And that’s not even mentioning its history.

First, some background.Malta is an island country of the European Union consisting of an archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea. It lies 50 miles south of Italy, 176 miles east of Tunisia, and 207 miles north of Libya. With a population of around 515,000 over an area of just 122 square miles, it’s the world’s tenth smallest country in area. And its capital, Valletta, is the smallest in the E.U.

First, some background.

Malta is an island country of the European Union consisting of an archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea. It lies 50 miles south of Italy, 176 miles east of Tunisia, and 207 miles north of Libya. With a population of around 515,000 over an area of just 122 square miles, it’s the world’s tenth smallest country in area. And its capital, Valletta, is the smallest in the E.U.

Malta’s rugged coast. Image by the author.

The country’s national language is Maltese, which was derived from Sicilian Arabic over centuries, while English serves as its second official language.  Below is an example of how strikingly different they are from each other.

Inhabited since approximately 5,900 BC, Malta’s location in the central Mediterranean has historically given the island great strategic importance as a naval base, with a succession of powers having contested and ruled the islands, including Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, the Knights of St John, and the French and British. Each left an indelible mark on the country’s culture. In 58 AD, Paul the Apostle remained in Malta for three months after his ship washed up on the island’s shore during a storm. Malta has had Christianity for centuries, although it was predominantly Muslim while under Arab rule. Muslim rule ended with the invasion of the island by Roger I and the Knights of Malta in 1091. Today, Catholicism is the country’s official religion but its  constitution guarantees freedom of worship for all.

Malta became a British colony in 1813, serving as a way station for ships as well as headquarters for the British Mediterranean naval fleet. During World War II, despite being besieged by the Axis powers, Malta became a strategic base for British military operations in North Africa. In 1964, the British parliament passed the Malta Independence Act. The country became a Republic in 1974 and a member state of the Commonwealth of Nations, with its own seat at the United Nations. It officially joined the European Union in 2004.When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Malta’s strategic position, halfway between the Strait of Gibraltar and Egypt, proved to be its main asset and was considered an important stop on the way to India, a vital trade route for the British.Malta has three UNESCO World Heritage sites, as well as seven temples which are some of the oldest free standing structures in the world.

  • Government offices in Valletta. Image by the author.
  • A Catholic Church in Valletta. Image by the author.
  • Entrance to a cemetery for Turkish soldiers who died during the Ottoman era conflicts. It was commissioned by Sultan Abdul Aziz in 1873. Image by the author.
  • The remnants of a free standing Roman temple. Image by the author.

Finally, something you may not know: in 1989, Malta was the venue for a historic meeting between US President George H.W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Mikhael Gorbachev, an event which marked the end of the Cold War.Oh, and lest we forget: Malta even has its own carnival during the week leading up to Ash Wednesday. A touch of Caribbean culture?