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.