What comes to your mind when you hear the word Malta? Most of my friends would think of the knights, the Mediterranean Sea and a lovely beach holiday. Very true, Malta is all of these: the knights of St. John found shelter on the island and ruled it for several hundred years; the tiny nation of 400,000 inhabitants occupies even tinier fortress island in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea and yes, Malta is a famous travel destination. Still, there is so much more to be discovered about Malta. For one thing, we could easily describe it as soaked with history piece of land.
In order to get an idea of how diverse Malta is we need to look at its 7000 years of history. So many cultures have blended on this island that you could easily say it is a natural focal point where European, Mediterranean and Oriental worlds meet. I like to say: ‘If Sicily is just around the corner, Tunisia is across the road’. That is why Malta is fascinating: so many different people came here and not only took (Napoleon was a famous taker) but also left something, namely their mark on the Maltese eclectic culture. For instance, you can see the British heritage not only in the design of the old telephone booths and post boxes but also in the legal and political systems. Interested in the Italian influence on the Maltese way of life? Walk on one of the narrow streets in any Maltese village and listen to the sound coming out of the open windows. Yes, you’ve got it – most probably it is some Italian show on RAI or one of the Berlusconi’s TV channels.
The modern Maltese language is another feature of the island that leaves you wondering. It is the only Semitic language in the world written in Latin alphabet. The Tunisians and other Arabs would understand quite a bit of the local dialect. On the other hand you hear the heavy influence of Italian and English in almost every sentence. Some sources affirm the roots of the language are to be found in the Arabic rule during 9th-11th centuries. Stubbornly, I am prone to believe that it has something to do with the Phoenician heritage of the Maltese.
Browsing the Maltese history pages we get a glimpse on the most significant periods. There was a time when the Mediterranean Sea was not connected to the Atlantic ocean by the strait of Gibraltar and was an inner lake. The Maltese islands were a tip of a mountain dividing the western «Mediterranean» lake from the eastern one. The island boasts with well preserved heritage from these prehistoric times; the Neolithic temples and the UNESCO protected Hypogeum are good examples. After the colonisation by the omnipresent in the 1st Millennium BC Ancient Greeks, the commercially-savvy Phoenicians settled on the island and used it as an outpost for their commercial activities between their great colony of Cartage and Southern Italy. After the Punic wars the island became a thriving Roman province and later on fell under the control of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire.
At the end of 9th century the Arabs conquered the islands and ruled until 1090 AD with a capital Mdina. The magnificent fortress of the so-called Silent City was further fortified by the knights of St. John. They ruled the island from 1530 to 1798 and shaped the European features of Malta leaving numerous artifacts, including many Renaissance and Baroque buildings. Thanks to these gentlemen on the narrow streets of nowadays Mdina you feel like taking a stroll in a real medieval town. Following the brief invasion of the French on their way to Egypt in 1798, the island became part of the British Empire. Some of the most conspicuous traces left by the British are the left-hand driving and the English – the nations’ second official language.
What used to come in my mind when I heard the name Malta? The Bush – Gorbachev summit in 1989 maybe? Well, seriously, I admit the knights and the capital Valletta were first to pop up. In fact, Valletta is so inextricably associated with the notion of Malta that I’ve noticed people frequently referring to the international airport as ‘Valletta airport’ or to the national stadium as ‘Valletta stadium’. I am afraid that neither is true. I can see the bewilderment of many: How come? It is just that the island of 316 sq km hides so much to be discovered. Or let me rephrase: Malta has put on display under the open skies so much to be seen. And hey, this was just a glimpse on the Maltese history, did I mention diving?…
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