Throughout history, Malta has attracted numerous people and rulers who availed themselves of the strategic and central position of the islands. Malta’s rich 7000-year old history is a result of the legacy left behind by its inhabitants ranging from the temple builders, to the Phoenicians, from the Knights of St John, to the British.
The first Maltese inhabitants who came from neighbouring Sicily appear to have settled in Malta in the year 5200 BC. Two thousand years later, the inhabitants of Malta built the magnificent megalithic temples, which are the oldest free-standing structures in the world, pre-dating the Egyptian pyramids by some five hundred years. Malta and Gozo’s temples and the underground chamber of the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum are designated World Heritage Sites.
Eventually the sea-faring Phoenicians colonised the islands, followed by a short period of Carthaginian rule and by 218 B.C., the Maltese Islands were a Roman colony. During this time, the islands enjoyed economic prosperity. The Romans built a fortified capital on the site of present-day Mdina and Rabat. In 60 AD, St. Paul was shipwrecked in Malta on his way to his trial in Rome. During his short stay on the island, he managed to convert a good many of the inhabitants to Christianity.
Malta fell into Arab hands in 870. Unfortunately there are very few records from this era. It is speculated nonetheless that the Arabs introduced oranges, lemons and cotton to the islands, as well as the irrigation methods. They also undoubtedly left a lasting influence upon the language and place names of Malta.
The Norman adventurer Count Roger conquered Sicily and Malta soon after. The Normans, the Angevins, the Aragonese and the Castilians all controlled Malta during the following 400 years.
In 1530, the Knights of St. John were driven out of Rhodes by Suleyman the Magnificent and the Maltese Islands were offered to the Order by the Emperor Charles V. The Knights were not very keen about the islands as they described them as barren and lacking fresh water. Nevertheless, the Knights began to realise the potential of the islands and settled to life in Malta, building some magnificent fortifications and buildings in the process. These fortifications were instrumental for the Knights’ victory against the Turkish army during the Great Siege of 1565. During their 250 year stay in Malta, the Knights transformed the islands and built forts, bastions, watch towers, beautiful churches and palaces. Malta also became a centre of trade and commerce, and witnessed an unprecedented flourishing of the arts.
The Knights governed Malta until 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte took over the island. The French occupation of Malta was short-lived. Two years later, the British helped the Maltese overthrow the French and the islands became a colony. The British recognised the strategically invaluable position of Malta and it served as a naval base and a military hospital during the two world wars. A special relationship was forged between the British and the Maltese people during the Second World War. The bravery of the Maltese people during the World War II was acknowledged by King George V who awarded the whole population of Malta his George Cross. After the war, the movement for self-rule grew stronger and Malta acquired independence on September 21st, 1964. Malta became a republic in 1974. On 1st May 2004, Malta joined 9 other European countries and became an EU member state.