Around 800 BC, the temple builders came into contact with the Phoenicians, a prosperous nation of merchants from Tyre and Sidon who moved westwards colonising parts of the North African coast, founding Carthage in the process. Commerce and trade were their only driving force and the islands were amongst the many who must have been spell-bound by their purple-dyed cloth.
Eventually the Carthaginians began to pose a substantial menace to the Roman supremacy in the Mediterranean. During the course of the three Punic Wars (at the end of which Carthage was, quite literally, razed to the ground!), Malta changed hands. In 218 BC, following an invasion led by the Roman Consul Titus Sempronius, Malta fell under Roman rule.
The most celebrated heritage of the Roman period in Malta is the town-house at Rabat, now the Museum of Roman Antiquities. However there is also evidence of a number of temples dedicated to idols such as Apollo, Proserpine and Juno at Marsaxlokk. The most significant event which occurred during this period is the arrival of St. Paul in 60 AD. The event, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles left its indelible mark on subsequent generations. Although for a while the inhabitants continued to frequent their pagan temples, Christianity progressively flourished until it was brought to an abrupt end by the Arabs.
The lack of archaeological and written material from the period of Arab rule does not help us to establish with certainty what happened to the Maltese during the Arab domination reputably starting from 800 to 1090 AD.
Recent documents have advanced the theory that Malta was almost depopulated by a hostile invasory force and, for a while, left it in a semi-deserted state. A few years prior to the arrival of the conqueror Count Roger of Normandy, the islands may havebeen colonised by a group of people of an Arab stock coming from North Africa.
Until the early years of the 16th century, the islands were politically dependent on the rulers of Sicily and the repercussions of what happened in Southern Italy were usually felt over here as well. The arrival of King Alfonso V of Aragon in 1432 was quite an unusual event, he being the first monarch ever to set foot on the islands. The King was given a warm welcome and stayed at the Inguanez Palace in Mdina. In 1530 Charles V of Aragon handed the islands, together with the castle of Tripoli to the Sovereign Military Order of St. John. The Knights had been expelled from Rhodes in 1522 by their eternal enemies, the Ottoman Turks and they had been seeking a base from where they could continue their relentless attacks on the Infidels.
With a military and hospitallier Order established in Malta, the population felt much safer. The Knights started to fortify the area around the Grand Harbour where they had their galleys and built their auberges. One can still see the original auberges in the old city of Vittoriosa. The Turks, however, had been preparing for a great invasion – an offensive which materialised in May 1565 when the great siege commenced.
The celebrated victory over the Turks on the 8th September 1565 forged the islanders with their rulers and heralded a new period of prosperity. The Knights invested in the islands starting with the colossal project of the building of Valletta and a string of fortifications protecting the harbour and coastal area, most of which can still be seen today.
During the 268 years of administration under the Order of St. John the Maltese population continued to increase, so much so that suburbs such as Floriana and Casal Paola flourished. Being a naval power, the Order built ship-building and ship-repairing facilities which were later to be modernised by the British. The Maltese were experienced seamen and many worked in the lucrative corsairing and other related industries.
The Artistic and Cultural Lives
The artistic and cultural lives of the islands were injected with the presence of artists such as Caravaggio, Mattia Preti and Favray (amongst many others) who were commissioned by the Knights to embellish churches, palaces and auberges. For many years the majestic fortification projects were the source of income of many Maltese, but towards the late 18th century the Order of St. John was losing its touch with the population in general. Gradually it became an increasingly anachronistic institution composed of denegrate knights.
High ranking knights were secretly conspiring with the French directory and there was sufficient discontent that when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the islands in 1798, the Maltese hailed him as their saviour and offered little resistance. Napoleon had promised liberty, equality and fraternity but the Maltese soon realised that these were vague promises.
The Inquisition was abolished and the liberty of the press was introduced. Today one can still visit the Inquisitor’s palace in Vittoriosa. The Inquisitor’s summer palace in Ghirgenti (limits of Siggiewi) is one of the official residences of the Prime Minister.
After only a few months of French administration, the Maltese rebelled and managed to block the enemy in Valletta. The Maltese asked the help of the British to rid them of the French and the islands were kept under Britain’s protection, later becoming part of the British Empire after the Treaty of Paris.
The influence of the British on the Maltese way of life right up to Independence in 1964 is evident in many aspects. The British system of administration, education and legislation was adopted and adapted by the Maltese. Malta became a Republic in 1974 and a member state of the European Union in May 2004.
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