The Maltese Islands
Megaliths, medieval dungeons and Calypso’s Cave – The Maltese Islands are positively mythic. The narrow meandering streets of their towns and villages are crowded with Renaissance cathedrals and Baroque palaces. As the countryside is dotted with the oldest known human structures in the world, the Islands have rightly been described as an open-air museum.
The Maltese archipelago lies virtually at the centre of the Mediterranean, with Malta 93km south of Sicily and 288km north of Africa. The archipelago consists of three islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino with a total population of 400,000 inhabitants over an area of 316sq km and a coastline of 196.8km (not including 56.01 km for the island of Gozo).
Malta is the largest island and the cultural, commercial and administrative centre. Gozo is the second largest island and is more rural, characterised by fishing, tourism, crafts and agriculture while Comino is largely uninhabited.
Culture & Heritage
With 7,000 years of history, the Maltese Islands are steeped in culture and heritage. The Islands went through a golden Neolithic period, the remains of which are the mysterious megalithic temples dedicated to the goddess of fertility. Later on, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Byzantines, all left their traces on the Islands.
In 60 A.D. St. Paul was shipwrecked on the island while on his way to Rome and brought Christianity to Malta. The Arabs conquered the islands in 870 A.D. and left an important mark on the language of the Maltese. Until 1530 Malta was an extension of Sicily, the Normans, the Aragonese and other conquerors who ruled over Sicily also governed the Maltese Islands. It was Charles V who bequeathed Malta to the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem who ruled over Malta from 1530 to 1798. The Knights took Malta through a new golden age making it a key player in the cultural arena of 17th and 18th century Europe. 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.
In 1798 Bonaparte, on his way to Egypt, took over Malta from the Knights. The French presence on the islands was short lived as the English, who were requested by the Maltese to help them against the French, blockaded the islands in 1800. British rule in Malta lasted until 1964 when Malta became independent. The Maltese adapted the British system of administration, education and legislation. Malta became a Republic in 1974 and a member state of the European Union in May 2004.
This legacy, unique in the Mediterranean, is reflected in the country’s national architecture and collections. There are so many areas of heritage and culture to be explored – the 16th century masterpiece Grandmasters’ Palace, which is now parliament, the “Sacra Infermeria”, which is now a fully equipped conference centre, the St. James Centre for Creativity – a superbly restored fortification where contemporary works of art are exhibited against the original rough-textured walls and rediscovered spaces. With these buildings, past and present blend into an enduring and admirable lesson in the art of living.
The arts have always played a large role in Maltese culture and continue to do so with cultural events occurring frequently. The National Museum of Fine Arts, housed in an exuberant Rococo building dating from the 1570’s, exhibits some magnificent art, ranging from the early Renaissance to modern times.
Both present day established and budding artists are encouraged through support and exhibitions in public areas to celebrate their efforts. There is almost always an exhibition of some kind running.
Theatre and music are also very popular in the Islands. A variety of theatres and open-air venues offer an enormous ensemble of plays, musicals, operas and both classical and modern music concerts.
The Maltese Flag
The Flag of Malta (Maltese: Bandiera ta’ Malta) is a basic bi-colour, with white in the hoist and red in the fly: colours from the blazon of the arms of Malta. Tradition states that the colours of the flag were given to Malta by Count Roger of Sicily, in 1091. The banner of Count Roger was a chequered red and white flag and he gave a set from this banner.
A key stronghold during the Crusades, much of the heraldry of Malta is influenced by the colours and devices of the Knights of Malta. Their badge was the characteristic Maltese cross, and their arms were a white cross on a red field. From these colours came the red and white shield that was used during Malta’s colonial period. In the upper hoist corner (in the canton of the white field) is the George Cross (showing a design of St. George and the Dragon), outlined in red, with the motto “For Gallantry” encircling the cross.
The honour was awarded in 1942 by King George VI to the entire Maltese population, for their exceptional bravery and gallantry during World War II. In 1964, the blue canton on which the cross was originally placed was replaced by a red fimbriation. This flag was adopted upon Malta’s being granted dominion status within the British Empire, on 21 September 1964. The dominion of Malta existed until 1971 when Malta became a republic, although the flag remained the same. The Maltese national flag is unique in bearing a decoration from another country, in this case the United Kingdom and this raised controversy in the years following Malta’s independence.