|Early settlements of Malta
Malta is home to the oldest freestanding structure in the world: the oldest of all the megalithic temples on the islands is il-Ġgantija, in Gozo (Għawdex) dating back to before 3500 BC. One of the very earliest marks of civilization on the islands is the temple of Ħaġar Qim, which dates from between 3200 and 2500 BC, stands on a hilltop on the southern edge of the island of Malta. Adjacent to Ħaġar Qim, lies another remarkable temple site, l-Imnajdra. The people who built these structures eventually died out or at any rate disappeared. Phoenicians colonized the islands around 700 BC, using them as an outpost from which they expanded sea explorations and trade in the Mediterranean.
After the fall of Tyre, the islands later came under the control of Carthage (400 BC), a former Phoenician colony, and then of Rome (218 BC). The islands prospered under Roman rule, during which time they were considered a Municipium and a Foederata Civitas. Many Roman antiquities still exist, testifying to the close link between the Maltese inhabitants and the people of Rome. The island was a favorite among Roman soldiers as a place to retire from active service. In 60 AD the islands were visited by Saint Paul, who is said to have been shipwrecked on the shores of the aptly-named “San Pawl il-Baħar” (Saint Paul’s Bay). Studies of the currents and prevalent winds at the time however, render it more likely that the shipwreck occurred in or around Daħlet San Tumas in Marsascala.
After a period of Byzantine rule (fourth to ninth century) and a probable sack by the Vandals, the islands were conquered by the Arabs in 870 AD. The Arabs, who generally tolerated the population’s Christianity, introduced the cultivation of citrus fruits and cotton, and irrigation systems. Arab influence can be seen most prominently in the modern Maltese language, a Semitic language which also contains significant Romance influences, and is written in a variation of the Latin alphabet.
The period of Arab rule lasted until 1091, when the islands were taken by the Siculo-Normans. A century later the last Norman king, Tancredo di Lecce, appointed Margarito di Brindisi the first Count of Malta. Subsequent rulers included the Swabian, Angevin, Aragonese, Castillians who reconstituted a County of Malta in 1283. The Maltese nobility was established during this period; some of it dating back to 1400. Around thirty-two noble titles remain in use today, of which the oldest is the Barony of Djar il-Bniet e Buqana.
Knights of Malta and Napoleon
In 1530 Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain gave the islands to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in perpetual lease. The Crown of Aragon had owned the islands as part of its Mediterranean empire for some time. These knights, a military religious order now known as the “Knights of Malta”, had been driven out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Empire in 1522. They withstood a full-blown siege by the Ottoman Turks in 1565, at the time the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean sea. After this they decided to increase the fortifications, particularly in the inner-harbour area, where the new city of Valletta, named after Grand Master Jean de la Valette, was built.
Their reign ended when Malta was captured by Napoleon en route to his expedition of Egypt during the French Revolutionary Wars in 1798. As a ruse, Napoleon asked for safe harbour to resupply his ships, and then turned his guns against his hosts once safely inside Valletta. The Grand Master knew that he could only allow a few ships at a time to enter the harbour, due to the Treaty of Trent. Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim capitulated, and Napoleon stayed in Malta for a few days, during which time he systematically looted the movable assets of the Order, and established an administration controlled by his nominees. He then sailed for Egypt, leaving a substantial garrison in Malta.
The occupying French forces were unpopular, however, due particularly to their negative attitude towards religion. Their financial and religious reforms did not go down well with the citizens. The Maltese rebelled against them, and the French were forced behind the fortifications. Great Britain, along with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, sent munitions and aid to the rebels. Britain also sent her navy, which instigated a blockade of the islands. The isolated French forces, under General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois, surrendered in 1800, and the island became a British Dominion, being presented by several Maltese leaders to Sir Alexander Ball.
British rule and World War II
In 1814, as part of the Treaty of Paris, Malta officially became a part of the British Empire, and was used as a shipping way-station and fleet headquarters. Malta’s position half-way between Gibraltar and the Suez Canal proved to be its main asset during these years, and it was considered to be an important stop on the way to India.
In the early 1930s, the British Mediterranean Fleet, which was at the time the main contributor for the commerce on the island, was moved to Alexandria as an economic measure. Malta played an important role during World War II, owing to its proximity to Axis shipping lanes. The bravery of the Maltese people in their long struggle against enemy attack moved HM King George VI to award the George Cross to Malta on a collective basis on April 15, 1942 “to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history”. Some historians argue that the award caused Britain to incur disproportionate losses in defending Malta, as British credibility would suffer if Malta was surrendered, as Singapore had been. A replica of the George Cross now appears in the upper hoist corner of the Flag of Malta. The collective award remained unique until April 1999, when the Royal Ulster Constabulary became the second – and, to date, the only other – recipient of the collective George Cross.
After the war, and after the Malta Labour Party’s unsuccessful attempt at “Integration with Britain”, Malta was granted independence on September 21, 1964 (Independence Day). Under its 1964 constitution, Malta initially retained Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Malta, with a Governor-General exercising executive authority on her behalf. On December 13, 1974 (Republic Day) it became a republic within the Commonwealth, with the President as head of state. A defence agreement signed soon after independence (and re-negotiated in 1972) expired on March 31, 1979 (Freedom Day) when the British military forces were withdrawn. Malta adopted an official policy of neutrality in 1980 and for a brief period was a member of the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries. In 1989 Malta was the venue of an important summit between US President Bush and Soviet leader Gorbachev, their first face-to-face encounter, which signaled the end of the Cold War.
Malta joined the European Union on May 1, 2004. Following the European Council of 21 to 22 June 2007 it joined the Eurozone on January 1, 2008.