Archaeologists discovered pottery at the Skorba Temples that matches that found in Italy, indicating that the Maltese islands were originally inhabited around 5200 BCE mostly by Stone Age hunters or farmers who had come from the Italian island of Sicily, perhaps the Sicani. The demise of dwarf hippos and dwarf elephants has been connected to the advent of humans on the island of Malta. Prehistoric agricultural communities from the Early Neolithic era have been found in both open regions and caverns, such as Gar Dalam.
The Sicani were the only tribe known to have been on the island at the time, and they are thought to be closely connected to the Iberians. The Maltese people cultivated grains, reared animals, and, like other ancient Mediterranean civilizations, venerated a fertility figure shown in Maltese prehistoric artifacts with proportions comparable to those found in similar statuettes, such as the Venus of Willendorf.
Gar Dalam pottery is comparable to pottery discovered near Agrigento, Sicily. From this early era, a culture of megalithistemple builders either replaced or emerged. Around 3500 BC, these people constructed some of the world’s earliest free-standing structures, the megalithic gantija temples on Gozo; other early temples include those at aar Qim and Mnajdra.
Temples of unique architecture, usually a complicated trefoil form, were utilized between 4000 and 2500 BCE. Animal bones and a knife discovered beneath a detachable altar stone indicate that animal sacrifice was part of temple ceremonies. According to preliminary evidence, the sacrifices were offered to the goddess of fertility, whose statue is currently housed at Valletta’s National Museum of Archaeology. Around 2500 BC, the Maltese Islands’ civilization seems to have vanished. Archaeologists believe the temple builders died as a result of hunger or illness, although this is not proven.
Another archaeological feature of the Maltese Islands that is often attributed to these ancient builders are equidistant uniform grooves dubbed “cart tracks” or “cart ruts” that can be found in several locations throughout the islands, the most prominent of which are those found in Misra Gar il-Kbir, also known as “Clapham Junction.” These may be the result of wooden-wheeled carts degrading soft limestone.
After 2500 BC, the Maltese Islands were depopulated for many decades until a fresh wave of Bronze Age immigrants arrived, bringing with them a civilization that cremated its dead and brought smaller megalithic monuments known as dolmens to Malta. In most instances, there are tiny rooms here, with a huge slab set on upright stones as a cover. They are said to come from a different people than the ones who constructed the earlier megalithic temples. The people is said to have come from Sicily due to the resemblance of Maltese dolmens to certain minor structures discovered on the Mediterranean’s biggest island.
Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans
Phoenician merchants who utilized the islands as a stopover on their trading routes from the eastern Mediterranean to Cornwall joined the island’s inhabitants. The Phoenicians lived in what is now Mdina and the nearby town of Rabat, which they named Maleth. The Romans, who occupied Mdina much later, referred to it (and the island) as Melita.
Following the collapse of Phoenicia in 332 BC, the region was taken over by Carthage, a former Phoenician colony. During this period, the inhabitants of Malta mostly farmed olives and carob, as well as producing textiles.
Marcus Atilius Regulus captured the island after a bloody battle during the First Punic War. After his mission failed, the island returned to Carthage, only to be captured again in 218 BC, during the Second Punic War, by Roman Consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus. Since then, Malta has been designated as a Foederata Civitas, which means it is free from paying tribute or following Roman law, and it is under the authority of the province of Sicily. The renowned Cippi of Melqart, important in understanding the Punic language, was dedicated in the 2nd century BC, indicating that Punic influence remained strong on the islands. Local Roman coinage, which ceased in the first century BC, also reflects the slow pace of Romanization on the island, as the very last locally minted coins still bear inscriptions in Ancient Greek on the obverse (such as “MEI,” meaning “of the Maltese”) and Punic motifs, demonstrating the resistance of the Greek and Punic cultures.
Cicero, a Roman Senator and orator, remarked on the Temple of Juno and the lavish behavior of the Roman governor of Sicily, Verres, in the first century BC. Pliny the Elder and Diodorus Siculus both described the island in the first century BC, praising its harbors, the affluence of its people, beautifully adorned homes, and the quality of its textile goods. In the second century, Emperor Hadrian (r. 117–38) elevated Malta to the status of municipium, or free town: the island’s local affairs were managed by four quattuorviri iuri dicundo and a municipal senate, while a Roman procurator based in Mdina represented the proconsul of Sicily. After their ship was wrecked on the islands in 58 AD, Paul the Apostle and Luke the Evangelist were washed ashore on the islands. Paul the Apostle was on the islands for three months, teaching the Christian religion that has since flourished on Malta. The Roman Domus, situated beyond the walls of Mdina, is the only surviving archaeological remnant from the Roman era in Malta today.
When Theodosius I died in 395, the Roman Empire was split for the final time, and Malta, like Sicily, came under the authority of the Western Roman Empire. Several times throughout the Migration Period, when the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Malta was attacked and invaded or inhabited. The islands were conquered by the Vandals from 454 to 464, and then by the Ostrogoths from 464. On his journey to capture the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa in 533, Belisarius unified the islands under Imperial (Eastern) authority. Little is known about Byzantine administration in Malta: the island was based on the Sicilian theme and had Greek Governors and a small Greek army. While the majority of the population remained composed of ancient, Latinized residents, religious allegiances shifted between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople throughout this time period. Greek families were brought to the Maltese communal under Byzantine control. Malta was ruled by the Byzantine Empire until 870, when it was conquered by the Arabs.
Muslim period and the Middle Ages
Malta became engaged in the Muslim–Byzantine Wars, and the capture of Malta is inextricably connected with the conquest of Sicily, which started in 827 when admiral Euphemius betrayed his fellow Byzantines by asking that the Aghlabids attack the island. According to the Muslim chronicler and geographer al-Himyari, after a violent struggle against the occupying Byzantines in 870 AD, Muslim invaders, first led by Halaf al-Hadim, and later by Sawada ibn Muhammad, looted and pillaged the island, destroying the most important buildings and leaving it practically uninhabited until it was recolonised by Muslims from Sicily in 1048–1049 AD. It is unclear whether this new settlement occurred as a result of demographic expansion in Sicily, a higher standard of living in Sicily (in which case the recolonisation may have occurred a few decades earlier), or as a result of the civil war that erupted between the Muslim rulers of Sicily in 1038. The Muslims brought fresh irrigation, fruits, and cotton, and the Siculo-Arabic language from Sicily was adopted on the island, ultimately evolving into Maltese.
Christians on the island enjoyed religious freedom; they had to pay jizya, a non-Muslim tax, but were exempt from the levy that Muslims had to pay (zakat).
As part of their invasion of Sicily, the Normans conquered Malta in 1091. The local Christians welcomed the Norman commander, Roger I of Sicily. The legend holds that Count Roger I tore a piece of his checkered red-and-white banner and gave it to the Maltese, creating the foundation of the current flag of Malta in gratitude for having fought on his behalf.
The Norman era was fruitful; Malta was included into the newly created Kingdom of Sicily, which also included the island of Sicily and the southern half of the Italian Peninsula. The Catholic Church was restored as Malta’s official religion under the See of Palermo, and considerable Norman architecture sprang up throughout the island, particularly in its historic capital Mdina. Tancred, the last Norman ruler, declared Malta a fief of the realm and appointed a count of Malta. Because the islands were much sought after owing to their strategic significance, the men of Malta were militarized to fight off takeover attempts; early counts were experienced Genoese privateers.
From 1194 until 1266, the kingdom was held by the Hohenstaufen dynasty. When Frederick II of Hohenstaufen started to reorganize his Sicilian realm during this time, Western culture and religion began to have a greater impact. For 72 years, Malta was a member of the Holy Roman Empire. Malta was made a county and a marquisate, but its commerce was completely destroyed. For a long period, it was only a fortified fortress.
In 1224, there was a major deportation of Arabs, and the whole Christian male population of Celano, Abruzzo, was transported to Malta in the same year. Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, ordered in 1249 that all surviving Muslims in Malta be exiled or forced to convert.
For a short time, the kingdom passed to the Capetian House of Anjou, but heavy taxes made the dynasty unpopular in Malta, owing in part to Charles of Anjou’s war against the Republic of Genoa, and the island of Gozo was destroyed in 1275. Following the assaults, a major uprising on Sicily known as the Sicilian Vespers occurred, resulting in the Peninsula being divided into the Kingdom of Naples.
Crown of Aragon rule and the Knights of Malta
From 1282 until 1409, Malta was governed by the House of Barcelona, an Aragonese dynasty, with the Aragonese assisting Maltese rebels in the Sicilian Vespers in a naval fight at Grand Harbour in 1283.
The island was governed by relatives of the Aragonese monarchs until 1409, when it was officially transferred to the Crown of Aragon. Early in the Aragonese supremacy, the monarchy’s sons were given the title “Count of Malta.” During this period, most of the local aristocracy was established. However, by 1397, the title “Count of Malta” had returned to a feudal basis, with two families vying for the honor, causing considerable strife. As a result, Martin I of Sicily abolished the title. When the title was restored a few years later, the Maltese rose up against Count Gonsalvo Monroy, who was supported by the local aristocracy. Despite their opposition to the Count, the Maltese expressed their devotion to the Sicilian Crown, which pleased Alfonso V of Aragon enough that he did not punish the Maltese for their revolt. Instead, he integrated the title back into the crown and vowed never to give it to a third party. As a consequence of these series of events, Mdina was awarded the title of Città Notabile.
On March 23, 1530, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, granted the islands in perpetuity to the Knights Hospitaller, led by Frenchman Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the Order, in exchange for an annual payment of one Maltese Falcon. The Ottoman Empire drove these knights, a military religious order now known as the Knights of Malta, out of Rhodes in 1522.
Barbary pirates took the inhabitants of the island of Gozo (about 5,000 people) as slaves and transported them to the Barbary Coast in present-day Libya in 1551.
The knights, commanded by Frenchman Jean Parisot de Valette, Grand Master of the Order, resisted the Ottomans’ Great Siege of Malta in 1565. The knights were successful and repulsed the assault with the assistance of Spanish and Maltese troops. “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta,” Voltaire remarked of the war. Following the siege, they decided to strengthen Malta’s defenses, especially in the inner-harbour region, where the new city of Valletta, named after Valette, was constructed. They also built watchtowers around the coastlines, named for the Grand Masters who ordered the construction, like as the Wignacourt, Lascaris, and De Redin towers. Many architectural and cultural projects were completed during the Knights’ presence on the island, including the embellishment of Città Vittoriosa (modern Birgu), the construction of new cities such as Città Rohan (modern ebbu) and Città Hompesch (modern abbar), and the introduction of new academic and social resources. In 1675, the plague killed about 11,000 individuals out of a population of 60,000.
The Knights’ rule came to an end in 1798, when Napoleon conquered Malta on his route to Egypt during the French Revolutionary Wars. The authority of the Knights had dwindled in the years leading up to Napoleon’s conquest of the islands, and the Order had grown unpopular. This was about the period when the French Revolution embodied the global ideals of freedom and liberty. People both within and outside the Order petitioned Napoleon Bonaparte to depose the Knights. Napoleon Bonaparte did not waste any time. In 1798, his fleet arrived on way to his campaign to Egypt. As a ploy to the Knights, Napoleon requested safe harbor to replenish his ships, then turned his cannons on their hosts once within Valletta. Grand Master Hompesch surrendered, and Napoleon arrived in Malta.
Napoleon stayed at the Palazzo Parisio in Valletta from June 12 to June 18, 1798. He reorganized national administration by establishing a Government Commission, twelve municipalities, a public financial administration, abolishing all feudal rights and privileges, abolishing slavery, and freeing all Turkish and Jewish slaves. A family code was drafted on the court level, and twelve judges were appointed. Public education was organized according to Bonaparte’s ideas, with elementary and secondary education provided. He then set off for Egypt, leaving a sizable force at Malta.
The French troops left behind grew unpopular with the Maltese, owing to their hatred against Catholicism and pillaging of local churches to finance Napoleon’s military operations. The Maltese were so enraged by French financial and religious practices that they revolted, compelling the French to flee. The United Kingdom, together with the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, supplied ammunition and assistance to the Maltese, and the United Kingdom also deployed its fleet, which blockaded the islands.
In 1800, General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois surrendered his French troops. Maltese authorities requested that the island become a British Dominion and submitted it to Sir Alexander Ball. The Maltese people drafted a Declaration of Rights in which they consented to be “protected and ruled by the King of the free people, His Majesty the King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” The Declaration also stated that “his Majesty has no right to cede these Islands to any power…if he chooses to withdraw his protection and abandon his sovereignty, the right of electing another sovereign, or of governing these Islands, belongs solely to us, the inhabitants and aborigines, and without control.”
British Empire and the Second World War
Malta formally became a part of the British Empire in 1814, as part of the Treaty of Paris, and was utilized as a maritime way-station and naval headquarters. Malta’s location midway between the Strait of Gibraltar and Egypt proved to be its major advantage when the Suez Canal opened in 1869, and it was regarded an essential halt on the way to India, a vital commercial route for the British. Because of its location, many culinary and botanical items were introduced in Malta, including wheat (for bread manufacturing) and bacon (from the National Book of Trade Customs, which may be found at the National Library).
Due to the huge number of injured troops who were housed in Malta between 1915 and 1918, Malta became known as the Nurse of the Mediterranean.
In 1919, British soldiers opened fire on a crowd protesting increased taxes, killing four Maltese men. Every year, the occasion known as Sette Giugno (Italian for June 7) is celebrated as one of five National Days.
Valletta was the headquarters of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet prior to World War II. Despite Winston Churchill’s concerns, the command was relocated to Alexandria, Egypt, in April 1937, for fear of being too vulnerable to aviation assaults from Europe.
During WWII, Malta played a vital role for the Allies; being a British colony near Sicily and the Axis trade routes, Malta was attacked by Italian and German air forces. The British utilized Malta to conduct assaults on the Italian fleet and maintained a submarine station there. It was also utilized as a listening station, reading German radio communications as well as Enigma traffic. The Maltese people’s courage during the second Siege of Malta prompted King George VI to bestow the George Cross on Malta collectively on 15 April 1942 “to give testimony to a valor and dedication that will long be renowned in history.” Some historians believe that the prize led Britain to pay excessive sacrifices in holding Malta since British reputation would have suffered if Malta surrendered, as British troops in Singapore did. The George Cross is currently shown in the top hoist corner of the Maltese flag. The collective George Cross remained unique until April 1999, when the Royal Ulster Constabulary became the second – and, to date, the only other – recipient.
Independence and Republic
After lengthy talks with the United Kingdom headed by Maltese Prime Minister George Bor Olivier, Malta gained independence on September 21, 1964 (Independence Day). Malta originally maintained Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Malta and therefore Head of State under its 1964 constitution, with a Governor-General exercising administrative power on her behalf. The Malta Labour Party, headed by Dom Mintoff, won the General Elections in 1971, culminating in Malta proclaiming itself a republic within the Commonwealth on 13 December 1974 (Republic Day), with the President as head of state. On March 31, 1979, a defense pact inked shortly after independence (and renegotiated in 1972) expired.
Malta declared its neutrality in 1980. Malta hosted the first face-to-face meeting between US President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989, signaling the end of the Cold War.
Malta sought to join the European Union on July 16, 1990, via its foreign minister, Guido de Marco.
Following difficult discussions, a referendum was conducted on March 8, 2003, which resulted in a favorable outcome. General elections on 12 April 2003 provided Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami a clear mandate to sign the Treaty of Accession to the European Union on 16 April 2003 in Athens, Greece.
Malta became a member of the European Union on May 1, 2004. Malta joined the eurozone on January 1, 2008, after the European Council on June 21–22, 2007.