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MALTA

Set in the clear blue Mediterranean Sea, the Maltese islands are the most southerly European country. The archipelago consists of five islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino, together with two other uninhabited islands Cominetto and Filfla. Malta's strategic location at the cross-roads of the Mediterranean has meant that, over the centuries, the island has played a very important role in the region, right from the early days of civilisation to the present times. Great Britain formally acquired possession of Malta in 1814. The island staunchly supported the UK through both World Wars and remained in the Commonwealth when it became independent in 1964. A decade later Malta became a republic. Over the last 15 years, the island has become a major freight transshipment point, financial center, and tourist destination. It is an official candidate for EU membership.  

The two official languages are Maltese and English. The English language is a leftover of about 160 years of British colonisation of Malta. Maltese, whose closest languages are Lebanese, Hebrew and classic Arabic, is the only Semitic language which is written in Roman alphabet. Italian, too, is widely spoken among the younger generation, particularly due to the television programs which are transmitted from nearby Italy.

All the various periods of Malta's history make fascinating reading, but there are two particular periods - the Neolithic period and the Knights of St John - which stand out from the rest because they are unique to Malta. Until recently, the Egyptian pyramids were thought to be the oldest architectural monuments in existence. Recent archaeological research however, has shown that the earliest Neolithic temples on Malta are about 1000 years older than the famous pyramids of Giza. Huge rocks, several tons in weight were used in the construction of these temples. How these enormous loads were moved, or even lifted, 5000 or 6000 years ago remains a mystery. Equally strange and mysterious are the cart ruts found on many of the rocky ridges in Malta. The most popular theory is that these were made by primitive slide-carts used before the invention of the wheel.

Many hundreds of years after the Neolithic period and precisely in 1530, the Knights of the Order of St. John brought about another epoch of great cultural significance to the island. The history of the Knights of St. John begins in the middle of the eleventh century in the Holy Land. The Order's original duties were to care for the sick and wounded Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and to help the poor. But very soon their duties expanded; the fight against the "infidels" became of equal or even greater importance. The Knights became "Soldiers of Christ". In 1530 the Knights moved to Malta which was given to them by Emperor Charles V. The Knights quickly improved trade and commerce on the islands, built new hospitals and, most important, erected new strong fortifications. After their victory against the Turks, the Knights turned enthusiastically to the further development of Malta and Gozo. A golden era in culture, architecture and the arts followed. Many of Malta's most attractive buildings were built during this period. In 1798 Napoleon, on his way to Egypt, dropped anchor outside Grand Harbour on the pretext that his expedition needed fresh water supplies. He found an Order which had lost its morale. Not suprisingly, the French Navy did not have to fire a single shot to secure Malta's surrender from the Knights. However, French rule in Malta was short-lived. By 1800 the Maltese, with the help of Lord Nelson, managed to drive the French garisson out of Malta and sought the protection of the British throne. That was to mark the beginning of a close association between Malta and Britain lasting over 160 years. Malta became independent in 1964 and adopted a Republican Constitution in 1974.

The capital of Malta is the city of Valetta. The Knights, particularly Grand Master Jean La Vallette, were responsible for the establishment of the historical old city of Valletta soon after the defeat of the Ottoman the Turk. Valletta was to be, decreed La Vallette himself, "a city built by gentlemen, for gentlemen." Valletta, considered the world's first planned community, was heavily fortified with bastions rising sternly from the sea-water all around it. Malta's capital city is a small, walkable city, its narrow and sometimes steep streets thick with European-style palaces and churches, can be easily seen and enjoyed in a day. Near the city's main gate is what little is left of the Opera House, once an magnificent opera theatre designed by E.M. Barry, architect of London's Royal Opera House. It was bombed and completely destroyed in 1942 during World War II. Fortunately, not all Malta's sites suffered the same destruction.

The most impressive sight in Valletta is the baroque Co-Cathedral of St. John's, with its floor covered with 369 inlaid marble tombstones and a painting by Caravaggio in the oratory. The original cathedral is situated in the former capital city of Mdina. Valletta's cathedral is dedicated to the Knights' patron saint, John the Baptist—whose life is depicted in paintings around the enormous vault—the church embodied the wealth and power of the Knights of Malta who are members of e religious order traditionally professed Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

The Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta is one of city's most impressive restorations. Built as a hospital in the 1500s by the Knights it was elegantly restored to practical use as a conference venue and a museum. The wards—great sweeping halls with vaulted ceilings and marble floors—now are exhibition areas and a modern theatre has been added. Here, one may see the Malta Experience, an audio-visual presentation about Malta's intricate and colourful history.


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