The Traveler's Journal  
Travel Articles by David Bear
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Isolated, strategic location is key to Malta's history


These rows of standing limestone blocks are the main corridor of Mnajdra, one of two neolithic temple complexes perched high on Malta's southern coast. They predate the Great Pyramids of Egypt by at least 1,000 years

Despite being surrounded by water, the stony terrain of the Maltese islands is not naturally fertile. There are no consistent rivers or significant surface water and few natural resources other than the omnipresent limestone out of which seemingly every structure on the islands has been constructed. Yet their isolated but strategic location has placed the islands at the crossroads of civilization for millennia.

The earliest human residents are believed to have arrived from Europe over land bridges sometime before the end of the last Ice Age, perhaps 10,000 years ago. Their Bronze Age descendants erected temples of huge blocks of limestone stood on end, the tumbled remains of which can be seen in several dozen locations around the islands. In fact, Ggantija, a complex of 10 circles of huge chiseled standing stones on a hill in the center of Gozo, is reckoned to be the oldest surviving freestanding structure on earth, outdating the Great Pyramids of Giza by at least 1,000 years.

But the civilization that erected them disappeared, leaving few clues to its culture, and for many centuries the islands were wild and untamed.

Just 5 inches tall and 2 inches wide at the shoulders, the corpulent, headless, hard-fired clay figurine known as the Venus of Malta has celebrated at least 5,000 birthdays. She was unearthed at a neolithic temple on the island of Malta

Malta's recorded history began about 800 B.C., when the islands were inhabited by the Phoenicians and later by their North African colony, the Carthaginians. In 208 B.C., after Rome defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars, the islands became part of the Roman Empire. Maltese lore claims that St. Paul, then a prisoner being transported to Rome, was shipwrecked on the islands in 60 A.D. and converted the population to Christianity.

Eight centuries later, Arabs from North Africa arrived and took over, erecting the city of Rabat around Roman ruins on a hilltop in the center of Malta. Next to their city they constructed a walled fortress, the M'dina.

Arabs ruled the islands for 200 years, tolerating the Christian population and introducing the cultivation of citrus fruits and cotton, before themselves being ousted by Crusaders in 1090. The population then came under the "protection" of French and Spanish kings of the Holy Roman Empire until 1530, when they were deeded to the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem for the annual rent of one Maltese hunting falcon.

Originally organized to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land, this order consisted of the younger sons of European nobility, and it gradually grew into a military and charitable force. Having been expelled from Rhodes by the Turks, the Knights of Malta immediately started to build a series of small fortifications around the Grand Harbor, but in May 1565, an Ottoman armada arrived with an army of 30,000 to drive them out. After a three-month siege of hot and bloody battles, a force of 700 knights and 8,000 troops under the command of septuagenarian Jean de la Vallete finally broke the siege and drove the invaders away.

Knights of the Order were hailed as the savior of Europe, and grateful monarchs showered them with riches. They immediately set about building the enormous, walled city of Valletta on the high stony peninsula above the deep water Grand Harbor on Malta's northeast corner. The city was studded with elaborately embellished churches, palaces, and public buildings set amid a grid of steep, narrow streets that trail down the hillsides.

The Knights of the Order of St. John ruled the islands for more than three centuries, growing increasingly despotic and supporting themselves on piracy, until Napoleon arrived in 1798 on his way to Egypt and took control without a struggle. Two years later, the Maltese, with the backing of England, drove out the French. The islands were then absorbed into the British Empire and developed as a mid-Mediterranean naval base. Despite a ferocious, devastating and ultimately unsuccessful five-month siege and bombardment by German and Italian air forces in 1942, that situation lasted for 150 years.

In 1964, Malta finally gained its independence and joined the British Commonwealth. Despite flirtations with the Soviets during the late 1970s, it remained a democracy and rejuvenated its economy with trade and tourism.

After a long campaign, Malta was admitted into the European Union in 2004.

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