Good things come in small packages and Malta is a perfect example. Located in the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and Tunisia, the island nation of Malta is smaller than Martha’s Vineyard and has a population of about 400,000 people. But the sites for the traveler are extensive and impressive.
Our first visit to Malta, and its capital, Valletta, was a year ago, a one-day stop on a cruise ship. As we entered the Grand Harbor, we were smitten, captivated by the golden stone of the fortifications built by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century and we knew we would be back. This year we are staying two weeks which we hope will give us enough time to really get to know the place.
The Knights of St. John were driven out of Rhodes in 1522 and were given a new home, the island of Malta, by Charles V of Spain. They arrived in Malta in 1530 and settled in the fishing village of Birgu on the Grand Harbor. They built the magnificent fortifications on the harbor and Auberges, one for each "langue" (literally, tongue, but meaning nationality) in the village. Their greatest adversary was Suleyman the Magnificent, head of the Ottoman Empire, who attacked them often. The Knights withstood the Great Siege of 1565 and, under Grand Master de la Valette, built a new capital city, Valletta, across the harbor from Birgu. Valletta today, with its churches, palaces, auberges, hospitals, treasuries, and so forth, is a World Heritage Site. The Knights remained until 1798 when they surrendered control to Napoleon.
But the history of the island is much older than the story of the Knights. The earliest inhabitants, thought to have come from Sicily, built farming settlements in 5200-4000 BC. The oldest extant monuments are megalithic temples built between 3600-2500 BC, the oldest surviving freestanding structures in the world. My favorite statues from these temples are the "fat ladies" of Malta, well-endowed fertility figures.
Later invaders were the Phoenicians (800 BC), Carthage (400 BC), Romans (200 BC). In 60 AD St. Paul was shipwrecked on Malta and stayed for three months, converting many of the islanders to Christianity. The Arabs invaded in 870 AD and retained in control until the end of the 11th century when the Normans arrived.
During WWII, Malta, important in the line of defense for the Allies, was bombed for 154 straight days and the islanders were close to starvation and surrender. King George VI awarded the Malta citizens the George Cross for civilian bravery. Malta gained independence in 1964 and became a republic in 1974. Malta is now one of the EU countries and uses the euro as its currency.
With such a history, you can imagine the varied things to see: from the Hypogeum, a three-level underground necropolis, to Caravaggio’s "Beheading of St. John the Baptist" in the Co-Cathedral of St John to the Grand Master’s Palace to the beaches and fishing villages to the Noble City of Mdina and on and on. We also enjoyed a two-day trip over the the island of Gozo where we explored the Citadel in Victoria and the Ggantija Temples.
The Maltese center their lives around Family, Church, and Work. They are quite strict Catholics: even as we were visiting they were debating whether or not to accept divorce. Malta is the only EU country which allows no abortion. They speak an interesting language, Malti, the only Semitic language written in our alphabet, with influences from Italian. Almost everyone also speaks English and many are fluent in Italian.
One of the things that really struck me while we were here is that the air is so clear it seems like I am seeing with new eyes. My husband tells me that it’s because there’s no pollution. We’ve seen no beggars on the streets although there seem to be plenty of young men around during the day.