The Maltese islands form a small archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, 100km south of Sicily and 290km north of the coast of Africa. They have one of the oldest civilizations in the Mediterranean, dating back to stone-age times. There is a population of around 400,000 and the official language is Maltese. English is of course spoken widely as are some other European languages like Italian.
Malta is a Democratic Republic with Parliament, Cabinet, Prime Minister, and a President head of state. Valletta is the capital with the seat of government. This city dominates the main island's historic and natural Grand Harbour, and within it can be found some of Malta's richest historical, architectural and archaeological heritage and culture.
Up to 2007, the currency unit used to be the Maltese Lira which was equivalent to about $3.7 Canadian. In 2008 there was a changeover to the Euro, Malta having been in the European Union since 2003. Of interest to tourists are the excellent beaches, first class hotels and restaurants, scenic trails, long sunny season, and historical attractions everywhere.
Malta Coat of Arms
Malta's position in the middle of the Mediterranean
The first inhabitants of Malta could have crossed over a land bridge that used to link N.Africa to Sicily in remote stone-age times.
Copper-age temples abound on the islands, some dating back to 3600 B.C. making them older than the Egyptian pyramids.
ARTIFACTS FROM STONE AGE AND BRONZE AGE AT THE VALLETTA MUSEUM
Around 800 B.C. the Phoenicians colonized Malta and mixed with the local population. They also started the Maltese off with the rudiments of our language. After the establishment of Carthage and its Punic Wars with Rome, the island changed hands several times, ending up as a "Foederata Civitas" with the fledgeling Rome, a few hundred years before the birth of Christ.
Model of a Phoenician trading ship in the Maritime Museum of Birgu.
Part of a mosaic floor in the Rabat Roman residence
In the New Testament of the Bible in the Acts of the Apostles Ch 28 V. 39 on, we find some of Malta's earliest history, describing in detail St. Paul's shipwreck and the conversion of the Maltese. According to tradition, Paul also installed Publius, the local Roman governor, as Malta's first Bishop.
In 870 A.D. the Arabs invaded and took Malta in their advance Westward, enslaving the whole population. It was over 200 years later that the Maltese were liberated by Count Roger the Norman. In time the islands were annexed to Sicily.
But Malta went through worse times in the 1370's when it started to be ceded out to Feudal Lords who squeezed every penny they could get out of the population.
Emperor Charles V. of the Two Sicilies, in 1530, gave Malta in perpetual sovereignty to the Knights of the Order of St.John of Jerusalem who were without a home at that time. This did not relieve the Maltese from Arab attacks, in fact during this time Arab pirates ransacked Gozo, the sister island clearing out its entire population as slaves.
Statue of St.Paul.
In July 1565, a Great Siege was raised by the Ottomans and Arabs against the Knights of the Order and the Maltese population. They were repulsed after a series of fierce battles within the same year.
Next year, right where the enemy had stationed themselves during the Siege, a great City was started, named Valletta after the Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette. Its planner was Francesco Lapparelli, sent by the Pope himself. Gerolamo Cassar, a Maltese architect, designed St. John's Cathedral and most of the Knights' Auberges.
Aerial photo of Valletta
In 1798, on his way to Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte took the islands. The decadence of the Order and the plotting of the French Knights and some Maltese, made it easy for him. He ordered the ransack of Churches, and the Maltese revolted and blockaded the French in Valletta. It was when the French were on the verge of surrendering that some Maltese sought out British assistance and by 1800 the French were out. Nelson left Alexander Ball, the captain of one of his ships, as Governor. Fourteen years later Malta was confirmed as a British Crown Colony at the treaty of Paris.
Left: This Silver gate in St.John's Cathedral was painted black and so escaped falling under Napoleon's greedy hands.
From 1835 to the end of W.W.II a series of ill-fated Constitutions was implemented by the British Government and rescinded because of various political situations.
On the 7th June 1919 there was even an uprising by the Maltese against British rule and a few fell to British army rifles.
The monument on the right, until recently, used to stand close to where they fell, in Valletta
Malta's second great siege started in May 1940 with the first air attacks of the Italian Regia Aeronautica and the Maltese digging their first Air raid shelters in the Maltese limestone. At that time there were only three outdated Gloster Gladiator biplanes for Malta's defence. Later came some Spitfire and Hurricane fighters and Swordfish torpedo bombers. At this time the German Luftwaffe started raiding us with their Heinkels and Stukas. Most Maltese remember the tanker Ohio and the remnants of a large convoy, limping into the harbour.
It is no secret that Malta was not conquered by the enemy, in fact the invasion of Sicily was planned here. Among important visitors of the time, we find U.S. President Roosevelt, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and His Majesty King George VI who later bestowed the George Cross upon the islands and the Maltese for valour.
The George Cross was at this time incorporated in the Maltese National Flag.
1959: A constitution and self-government restored in 1947 are suspended in 1959 following lengthy negotiations with Britain.
1960: Malta celebrates the 19th centenary of St.Paul's shipwreck. Amongst other visitors, is the
1964, September: Malta becomes Independent but keeps Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Malta.
1974: Malta becomes a republic and stays within the Commonwealth. The last Governor General
Sir Anthony Mamo (Maltese), becomes its first President.
1979: The last of the British troops clear out of their bases in Malta. A few years later plans are drawn
to apply for the entry of Malta into the European community.
1989: Gorbachev and Bush meet at the Malta Summit to start thawing out the Cold War.
1990, May 25th to 27th: Pope John Paul II visits the Maltese islands, the first ever visit by a Pontiff.
2001: Pope J. P. II returns, this time to Beatify three locals:
Ignazju Falzon, Dun Gorg Preca and
Maria Adeodata Pisani.
2003, May: Malta ratifies entry in the European Union after a "yes" vote referendum.
2007, June: Blessed George Preca is Canonized as the first Maltese Saint.
2008: Malta adopts the Euro as currency.
2010, May: Pope Benedict XVI visits Malta.
Jean Parisot de la Valette:
French Grand Master of the order of St.John. Headed the Knights and Maltese defending Malta against the Turks during the Great Siege of 1565. The future capital city Valletta was named after him.
Maltese architect Gerolamo Cassar: Designed the new city's Cathedral of St. John and most of the Auberges, that is the buildings for the Knights' various langues.
Pictures on Left : Outside and inside views of the Cathedral of St.John.
Dun Mikiel Xerri: Maltese priest, leader and patriot who plotted against the French during the blockade of Valletta at the end of the 1700's. Died in front of a firing squad for his country.
Right: A re-enacted scene of this ultimate patriotic act.
Dun Karm Psaila: Maltese National Poet who wrote the words of the Maltese National Anthem.
Below: A bust of Dun Karm at the National Library in Valletta.
Sir Temi Zammit:
Writer, Archaeologist and Doctor. In the '20s found the source of Brucellosis (Undulant fever) in unpasteurized goat milk. Rector of the University of Malta, he was appointed Director of the National Museum on his retirement.
Photo on Left.
After studying in Malta and Italy, he was appointed first organist and Maestro di cappella by Grandmaster De Rohan. After the French revolution he went to France and started a family. It was there that he composed the opera "Cendrillon".
Picture on Right.....
One word of caution: Historical facts are written differently by different nations, each side with its own biased slant toward itself. The fact that we were under British rule for a couple of hundred years, or the proximity of Italy and the Italian blood in some of us Maltese, gives food for thought!
In the Maltese islands, the material readily and abundantly available for building is the Globigerina limestone, in Maltese Tal-Franka. Historical and residential buildings have been made of this material from time immemorial. The bastions surrounding Mdina, Valletta and the three cities and also the Coastal Towers dating from the time of the Knights are made of this same stuff. This material is hard wearing, though soft to work, and lends itself easily to sculpture.
A rural building of limestone of days gone by is the Mithna or grain mill. This is a round tower with wooden machinery and sail frames. Now that electricity has taken over, all but a few round limestone towers remain, a few being brought back to life for heritage purposes and tourism.
Particular to Malta are Gallariji, balconies made of wood or of the same limestone. Numerous Niches can be found on older buildings especially in street corners, and these contain statues or paintings of Saints many times with a small votive lantern in front.
Something particular to the Maltese Islands made out of limestone in olden days and up to WWII was the Kenur or primitive cooker, fireplace, barbecue, call it what you will. This was carved in the shape of a four cornered tower and lit with firewood scraps. As can be imagined it came back into common use during the second world war.
A layer of harder rock called Taz-Zonqor also exits and in many places could be found mixed with the soil. Farmers of old cleared the bits and pieces and built rubble walls Hitan tas-Sejjieh all around their fields with it. These walls are a typical and common sight all around the islands. Small round shelters called Girna(s) were also built with it.
It is surprising how hard wearing this material is, in fact the Neolithic temples were built of this stuff by primitive Maltese even before the Pyramids of Egypt were thought of, and we can still see some of the monolithic rocks standing!
Up to a few decades ago, street Kerbs were made of Zonqor. Now they have been replaced by concrete, but the old kerbs were sliced up, polished and used as floor tiles in restored historical buildings.
Also from this rock are cut the Salini or coastal salt pans where sea water is evaporated in the hot Malta sun to extract sea salt.
In Malta, like in most countries before the age of mechanization, people used horses, donkeys and mules to pull carts and carriages for transport, while the poorest which was the majority, went on foot. The Karozzin is a descendant of the carriage or caleche. This mode of transport was a boon for the British services during the war years and after. It is still part of the scene nowadays though used solely by tourists.
The advent of steam and electricity also brought Malta its Railway and Tramway (see Hamrun page), but these gave way to the more versatile Buses. These took a peculiar local shape being built locally over imported truck chassis. Since the 70's until recently, buses had been imported from the U.K. but a great many of the old ones were still in use. Up to the 70's Malta buses were painted in different colours according to destination, then they were all painted light green and then orange with a red stripe.
Since 2011 all the old buses were retired and an international company Arriva was given the task of running buses, mostly brand new made in China, on a newly organized set of routes.
BUSES: Old and not so new
Fishing around the islands and transport in between, used to be done with Lateen rigged Luzzus. Now most of these boats are used for fishing and are all motorized. A few bigger ones carry tourists for cruises around the harbours and around the islands themselves.
Access between Malta and Gozo is by large ferries which carry cars and freight too. There are also larger ferries to and from Sicily including a large catamaran.
The harbour Dghajsa is a close cousin of the Venetian Gondola and like the Karozzin did a lot of service for the British forces during the war. Now in ever dwindling numbers it is used for tourists, with an outboard motor many times taking the bit out of the rower's chore.
Luzzu for fishing
Malta had around four different airports during the second world war. After the war, the one at Luqa was refurbished and a few decades ago lengthened, making it an international airport able to accommodate the largest of Jumbo jets. Air Malta, started in the 1950's, is now a very viable airline which owns its aircraft and has connections to all the main European cities, North Africa and the Middle East.
In the eighteenth century women started wearing the Ghonnella. The origin is probably from an outer skirt, in Italian Gonna - Gonnella, which the peasants and common folk turned up over their heads to protect them from the scorching sun or from rain. This developed into a particular kind of outerwear in itself, afterwards being made mostly in black and with a stiff part on top. This costume was discarded in the mid 1960's for more fashionable garb.
Bizzilla is a kind of 'crochet' work done on a mount called Trajbu and with weights called Combini. This, like Gbejniet (see further on), is a speciality of Gozo, Malta's sister island. Whole tablecloths of bizzilla can be found and tourists always buy that bizzilla doiler or collar when they visit Gozo.
Basic food to the Maltese is Hobz, the rough crusty bread made in sizeable round loaves. But when there is talk about Maltese food with foreigners who have heard about Malta, the mention of Pastizzi comes up. This is a snack, a kind of flaked pastry pocket filled with ricotta cheese or peas and onions. Other varieties exist. Maltese emigrants to Canada, Australia, U.K. and other countries have taken to making and selling them, spreading their popularity still more. Qassatat are round versions of Pastizzi with an open middle.
Gbejniet are small cheeses made from goat's or sheep's milk. These may be eaten soft, sometimes added to soups, but best hardened and mature, and left either plain or peppered. They are a great sidekick for the local beers Cisk Lager and Hopleaf. It is a Gozo speciality.
Bigilla is a mashed puree of dried broad beans, garlic, olive oil and herbs which is used as an appetizer, snack or side dish. Some prefer to eat it hot.
A sweet snack is found with Imqaret which are deep fried dough pockets filled with date and herbs. Imqaret are shaped like diamonds.
Galletti are plain, round, brittle, flat dough cakes which are made with flour and semolina. Again they go well with Gbejniet, Bigilla and the local beer.
Hobz - Maltese bread
Lampuki is a favourite seasonal fish for Malta. It is the Dorado or Coriphene and it migrates through the Mediterranean. It is caught between September and as late as February. This fish can be fried in slices and presented in a special tomato, caper and basil sauce, or made into the favourite 'Lampuki Pie".
Foreigners who keep Fniek, Rabbits as pets think the Maltese are a cruel race, but the animal is popular even outside Malta as food. Usually it is fried, roasted or stewed in tomato sauce and it is in the latter case that it is presented with a plate of spaghetti.
Some of the Maltese sweets are seasonal. The Kwaresimal, a heavy brownish bar made without eggs or milk, topped with almond and covered with honey, is as the name implies, made to be consumed during Lent.
A favourite with the children at Eastertime is the Figolla, many times made in the shape of a mermaid or a basket. This is a layer of marzipan or date in between layers of sweet pastry. The top is decorated in icing sugar.
Qaghaq tal-ghasel are treacle rings made out of treacle and almond filling, held in a thin pastry shell slashed all over to show the dark filling. This is usually made for the feast of St. Martin.
Classical music composition especially church music flourished in Malta during the 18th and 19th centuries. Even the 20th century saw refined work of this genre by Maltese composers. Please do have a look at the notes about Nicolo' Isouard further up and about Mro. Charles Camilleri in my other section about Hamrun.
Influences from cultures such as Spanish and Arabic have also left a mark on our Folk music. Our 'Ghana' which is a sort of improvising singing duel between two males or a male and a female, is still popular especially during the feast of Imnarja, which is the feast of St.Peter and St.Paul. There are festivities and lots of Ghana at the Buskett gardens on this occasion, accompanied with drinking of home made wine and eating the famous Fenek.
Maltese GHANJA in MIDI
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