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History of Malta

Prehistoric Civilization
Neolithic temple of Mnajdra.
Malta has been inhabited since around 5200 BC and a significant pre-historic civilization existed on the islands. One of the most notable periods of Malta's history is the temple period, starting around 3600 BC. The Temple period lasted until about 2500 BC, at which point the civilisation that raised these huge monoliths seems to have disappeared. There is a lot of speculation about what might have happened, and whether they were completely wiped out or their numbers fell to such levels that no trace remains of their presence.

Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans
Malta came under the influence of the Phoenicians probably around the 8th century BC, during which time the Phoenicians dominated trade routes throughout the Mediterranean. Originally the Phoenicians, and later the Carthaginians , established ports and trading settlements on the island. During the second Punic war, Malta fell under the control of the Romans, and was incorporated in the Republic of Rome in 218 BC . There are several remains of the Roman period in Malta, including some mosaics in the city of Melita (modern day called Mdina and part of Rabat).

St. Paul of Tarsus
It is during this period that St. Paul, one of the most prominent figures of Christianity , was shipwrecked on the island on his way to Rome. This event was described in the Bible, Acts 28:1-11 . Tradition has it that St.Paul converted the island to Christianity and that Publius became its first bishop, but there is no historical evidence to support this mass conversion. The first actual evidence of a Christian community on the island dates to the 4th century AD . Locations believed to have been associated with St.Paul's time spent on the island remain popular pilgrimage spots today.

Byzantines and Arabs
After the Roman Empire collapsed, Malta passed briefly under the hands of the Byzantines before it was occupied by Arabs from Sicily in 870 AD . This period had a very great influence on the existing civilisation. The Arabs introduced many new techniques in irrigation, some of which are still used, unchanged, today. Many place names in Malta also date back to this period. The city of Mdina, which was extensively modified in this period, also bears a resemblance to other towns in North Africa from this period.

Mother Tongue
The Maltese language also probably dates from this period. It is a semitic language, originally derived from Arabic and later extensively influenced by Italian and English. Although today it is written using a Latin alphabet, this is a rather recent addition, and for much of its history it was written using whichever alphabet was used by the ruling power in the island.

Knights of St. John

Knights of St. John.
Knights of St. John.
In 1530 the islands were given to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem , who had been driven out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Empire . For the next 275 years, these famous "Knights of Malta" made the island their domain. They built towns, palaces, churches, gardens, and fortifications and embellished the island with numerous works of art and enhanced cultural heritage.

The Knights of St. John was originally set up as an order to set up posts along the route to the Holy Land, to assist pilgrims going in either directions. Due to the many confrontations that took place, one of their main tasks was to provide medical assistance, and even today the 8-pointed cross is still in wide use in ambulances and first aid organisations. In return for the many lives they saved, the Order received many newly conquered territories that had to be defended. This, together with the need to defend the pilgrims in their care, gave rise to the strong military wing of the Knights.

This militant monastic order, now known as the "Knights of Malta", withstood a siege by the Ottomans in 1565 . The year after, the Order started work on a new city with fortifications like no other. It was named Valletta after the Grand Master who had seen the Order through its victory—Jean Paristot de la Valette. Since the Ottoman Empire never attacked again, the fortifications were never put to the test and today remain one of the best preserved fortifications of this period.

Unlike other rulers of the island, the Order of St. John did not have a "home country" outside the island. The island became their home, so they invested in it more heavily than any other power. Besides, its members came from noble families, and had amassed considerable fortune due to their services in the route to the Holy Land. The architectural and artistic remains of this period remain among the greatest of Malta's history, especially in their "prize jewel"—the city of Valletta.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte.
Over the years, the power of the Knights declined; when Napoleon Bonaparte 's fleet arrived in 1798, the Order leader Hompesch proved too indecisive to take on the determined Napoleon and while local Maltese forces offered to resist the occupation the Grand Master lacked resolve and submitted without opposition.

For the next five days, Napoleon reorganised Malta's administration, inaugurated a new education system, abolished slavery and gave religious freedom to the island's Jewish community. He also looted some six million francs from the Maltese treasury.

Within months the French were closing convents and seizing church treasures. The Maltese people rebelled, and the French retreated into Valletta. After several failed attempts by the locals to retake Valletta, they asked the British for assistance. Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson decided on a total blockade, and in 1800 the French garrison surrendered.

World War II

World War II
Royal Opera House in Valletta after an air raid.
Prior to World War II , Valletta was the location of the Royal Navy 's Mediterranean Fleet 's headquarters. However, despite Winston Churchill 's objections, the command was moved to Alexandria , Egypt , during the mid- 1930s . At the time of the Italian declaration of war (June 10, 1940), Malta had a garrison of less than 4,000 soldiers and ~5 weeks worth of food supplies for the population of ~300,000. In addition, Malta's air defenses consisted of ~42 anti-aircraft guns (34 "heavy" and 8 "light") and 4 Gloster Gladiators , for which 3 pilots were available.

Being a British colony , situated close Sicily and the Axis shipping lanes, Malta was bombarded by the Italians German air forces. Malta was used by the British to launch attacks on the Italian navy and had a submarine base. It was also used as a listening post, reading German radio messages including Enigma traffic. During the first five months of combat, the islands aircraft would destroy or damage ~37 Italian aircraft and result in Italian fighter pilot Francisco Cavalera to state, "Malta was really a big problem for us—very well defended." On Malta, 330 people had been killed and 297 were seriously wounded. On 15 April 1942 , King George VI awarded the George Cross (the highest civilian award for gallantry) "to the island fortress of Malta--its people and defenders." President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period, called Malta "one tiny bright flame in the darkness."

Malta Independence
After the war, Maltese independence was granted on September 21 , 1964 . It has remained a member of the Commonwealth , becoming a republic in 1974 . In the April 2003 referendum, voters expressed their will to join the European Union , which lead to the island joining as a full member on May 1, 2004.

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