As I’ve mentioned before, the Maltese are incredibly warm and friendly people. In general, they go out of their way to be helpful and kind. As rare as this is in a world where everyone seems increasingly rushed, frantic, and brusque, it’s even more incredible given the history of Malta.
From the earliest times, Malta has been attractive to other peoples. Fossilized bones found in a prehistoric cave (Ghar Dalam) suggest that Malta was once linked to southern Europe via a land bridge. The island also claims the oldest man-made structures on earth (that’s right, older than Stonehenge, older than Easter Island, even older than the pyramids)! These stone structures have been dated to 3600 B.C., and some pottery fragments unearthed on the island are similar to those found in Sicily, suggesting that the earliest Maltese likely came from somewhere else themselves (see note).
At any rate, it seems that Malta always has enticed others, a fact which can be attributed largely to it’s strategic location in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, those enticed others often weren’t desirable visitors. As I’d mentioned previously, Malta had once been a hotbed of pirate activity, seemingly at a peak between the 11th and 15th century. During this time, according to Lonely Planet, “Malta remained a minor pawn on the edge of the European chessboard, and its relatively small population of down-trodden islanders paid their taxes by trading, slaving, and piracy, and were repaid in kind by marauding Turks and Barbary corsairs.
Just around the corner from our apartment is pretty Balluta Bay, which apparently was a major pirate lair. In fact, one shopkeeper in the area told me an interesting story about the two Maltese villas located prominently in front of the posh Le Meridien hotel (picture attached). When the hotel was being planned, they initially wanted to tear down the villas and build right on the sea front. They ended up building around the villas, however, due to their historical significance. Way back when, the villas were reputed pirates’ lairs - supposedly, the pirates could set anchor in Balluta Bay, and then ferry their loot on shore, through underground tunnels that met the sea, right into the villas above! If you look closely at the shoreline on the right, you can see some arched indentations where these tunnels supposedly came out. On our tour last weekend, the guide explained that many of Malta’s curvy twisted streets were planned that way, not due to the topography, but as a defense for the islanders being pursued by pirates. Remember “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where Indiana Jones and crew are spirited away from the bad guys by people in Cairo’s bazaar? It’s the same principle - make the streets incredibly complex and windy, and any non-natives are sure to get lost - trust me, it works beautifully!
At various points in Maltese history, the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Angevins (French), Aragonese and Castilians (Spanish) ruled the island. In the 1500’s the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave Malta to the Knights of St. John after the Knights were forced out of Rhodes by the advancing Ottoman Turks, on a campaign, it seems, to take over the entire known world. In 1551, the Turkish admiral Dragut Reis, under the infamous Ottoman ruler Suleyman the Magnificent, invaded the smaller Maltese island of Gozo and carried off virtually all its inhabitants - over 5000 men, women, and children - forcing them into slavery. The Turkish reign of terror created some deep scars - one of the professors at the univerity told me that growing up, when children misbehaved, they were commonly told to improve their behavior or “the Turks will carry you off!”
The Turks were held at bay by the Knights of St. John during a long, brutal siege in 1565, of which I’ll write more later. After the siege, the Knights embarked on a campaign of fortifying the island. One remnant of those fortifications is a series of watch towers ringing the island. Just up the road from our apartment, in the other direction from Balluta Bay, is St. Julian’s Tower, build in 1658 (pictures attached). The Knights ruled Malta relatively benignly for a couple centuries, but as their influence waned, the island became a hot target for a new despot - Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon took Malta from the Knights in 1798. Although he himself was only in residence on the island for six days, he set up a brutal and oppressive regime, and managed to spirit away the majority of the Knights’ silver, gold, paintings, and tapestries, looted from the Knights’ churches, auberges, and hospital. Unfortunately, most of this treasure was lost forever when Napolean’s fleet was sunk by the British Admiral Nelson at the Battle of the Nile. The Maltese later revolted against the French when they tried to pillage an important Mdina church, and they sought help from the British to overthrow the French once and for all. This led to a period of British rule that continued until 1964, even through WWII when Malta was again under siege. In 1964, for the first time in millenia, Malta became an autonomous nation. Given their history, then, it’s even more incredible that the Maltese are so welcoming and friendly - but then, maybe the tourists on which Malta’s economy thrives don’t seem so threatening in comparison to old Dragus Reis.
Note: The information in this blog comes from a variety of sources: discussions with various people I meet along the way, information provided from tours we’ve taken, the historical segments of the book “The Kapillan of Monsarrat” which has been acclaimed for its accuracy, and from my Lonely Planet guide, “Malta & Gozo.” Although I won’t claim that the information contained within this blog is completely error-free, please note that I do strive for accuracy.
To follow Michelle on her journey in Malta, visit her blog site at http://inet.ga.psu.edu/blogs/mghough