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Malta has be en inhabited since around 5200 BC and a significant pre-historic civilisation existed on the islands before the arrival of the Phoenicians who named the main island Malat, meaning safe haven.
Malta stands on an underwater ridge that extends from North Africa to Sicily. Millions of years ago Malta was all submerged, as shown by marine fossils embedded in rock in the highest points of Malta. As the ridge was pushed up and the straits of Gibraltar closed through tectonic activity, the sea level was lower, and Malta was on a bridge of dry land that extended between the two continents, surrounded by large lakes. Some caverns in Malta have revealed bones of elephants, hippopotami, and other large animals from Africa, while others have revealed animals from Europe.
Few places in the world have such a rich history as Malta and Gozo does and as it is small everywhere is easily accessible. Where ever you stay on the island you are never far from a neolithic temple , imposing bastions or an ornate church.
Man first arrived in Malta around 5200 BC. These first Neolithic people probably arrived from Sicily (about 60 miles north), and were mainly farming and fishing communities, with some evidence of hunting activities. They apparently lived in caves and open dwellings. During the centuries that followed there is evidence of further contacts with other cultures, which left their influence on the local communities, evidenced by their pottery designs and colours.
One of the most notable periods of Malta's history is the temple period, starting around 3600 BC. Malta's prehistoric temples are the oldest free-standing buildings in the world (photo). They are older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge. Many of the temples are in the form of five semicircular rooms connected at the centre. It has been suggested that these might have represented the head, arms and legs of a deity, since one of the commonest kinds of statue found in these temples is a fat woman — a symbol of fertility. The Temple period lasted until about 2500 BC, at which point the civilisation that raised these huge monoliths seems to have disappeared. There is much speculation about what might have happened and whether they were completely wiped out or assimilated.
After the Temple period came the Bronze Age. From this period there are remains of a number of settlements and villages, as well as dolmens — altar-like structures made out of very large slabs of stone. Among the most interesting and mysterious remnants of this era are the so-called cart ruts as they can be seen at a place on Malta called Clapham Junction. These are pairs of parallel channels cut into the surface of the rock, and extending for considerable distances, often in an exactly straight line. Their exact use is unknown. One suggestion is that beasts of burden used to pull carts along, and these channels would guide the carts and prevent the animals from straying.
After the Roman Empire collapsed, Malta passed briefly into the hands of the Byzantines before it was occupied by Sicilian Arabs in 870 AD. This period had a very great influence on the existing civilization. The Arabs introduced many new techniques in irrigation, some of which are still used, unchanged. Many placenames in Malta also date to this period. The city of Mdina, extensively modified in this period, also bears slight resemblance to towns found in the North of Africa.
The Norman takeover of Malta isolated the Maltese dialect of Arabic from Islamic contact and mainstream Arabic, and Maltese evolved quickly into a distinct language. It is a Semitic language, derived from Arabic and later much influenced by Italian (Sicilian and Standard Italian), and to some degree also by English. For many centuries, the Maltese language was only used in spoken form, and Italian was used for writing. Today the Maltese language, written in the Latin alphabet, is used as the standard language of Malta, alongside British English.
In 1090, count Roger I of Sicily, made an initial attempt to establish Norman rule of Malta. In 1127, his son Roger II of Sicily succeeded. This marked the gradual change from an Arab cultural influence to a European one.
Until the 13th century, however, there remained a strong Muslim segment of society. Malta was an appendage of Sicily for 440 years. During this period, Malta was sold and resold to various feudal lords and barons and was dominated successively by the rulers of Swabia, Aquitaine, Aragon, Castile, and Spain. Eventually Aragon, who then ruled Malta, joined with Castile in 1479, and Malta became part of the Spanish Empire.
Malta's administration thus fell in the hands of the local nobility, mostly of Sicilian and Spanish origins, who formed a governing body called the Università.
In the early 16th century, the Ottoman Empire started spreading over the region, reaching South-East Europe. The Spanish king Charles V feared that if Rome fell to the Turks it would be the end of Christian Europe. In 1522, Suleiman II drove the Knight Hospitallers of St. John out of Rhodes. They dispersed to their commanderies in Europe. Wanting to protect Rome from invasion from the South, in 1530, Charles V handed over the island to these Knights.
For the next 275 years, these famous "Knights of Malta" made the island their domain. They built towns, palaces, churches, gardens, and fortifications and embellished the island with numerous works of art and enhanced cultural heritage.
The order of the Knights of St. John was originally established to set up outposts along the route to the Holy Land, to assist pilgrims going in either direction. Owing to the many confrontations that took place, one of their main tasks was to provide medical assistance, and even today the eight-pointed cross is still in wide use in ambulances and first aid organisations. In return for the many lives they saved, the Order received many newly conquered territories that had to be defended. Together with the need to defend the pilgrims in their care, this gave rise to the strong military wing of the Knights. Over time, the Order became strong and rich. From hospitallers first and military second, these priorities reversed. Since much of the territory they covered was around the Mediterranean region, they became notable seamen.
After several retreats and defeats, including the loss of their last stronghold in Rhodes (at Turkey's doorstep) the Order was offered the island of Malta. From here they resumed their seaborne attacks of Ottoman shipping, and before long the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent ordered a final attack on the Order. By this time the Knights had occupied the city of Birgu, which had excellent harbours to house their fleet. Also Birgu was one of the two major urban places at that time, the other most urban place being Mdina the old capital city of Malta. The defences around Birgu were enhanced and new fortifications built on the other point where now there is Senglea. Also a small fort was built at the tip of the peninsula where now stands the city of Valletta and was named Fort St. Elmo.
On May 18, 1565 Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Malta. By the time the Ottoman fleet arrived the Knights were as ready as they could be. First the Ottomans attacked the newly built fort of St. Elmo and after a whole month of fighting the fort was in rubble and the soldiers kept fighting till the Turks ended their lives. After this they started attacking Birgu and the fortifications at Senglea but to no gain. After a protracted siege ended on September 8 of the same year, which became known in history as "the Great Siege", the Ottoman Empire conceded defeat as the approaching winter storms threatened to prevent them from leaving. The Ottoman empire had expected an easy victory within weeks. They had 40,000 men arrayed against the Knights' nine thousand, most of them Maltese soldiers and simple citizens bearing arms. Their loss of thousands of men was very demoralising. The Ottomans made no further significant military advances in Europe and the Sultan died a few years later.
The year after, the Order started work on a new city with fortifications like no other, on a peninsula called Sciberras which the Ottomans had used as a base during the siege. It was named Valletta after Jean Paristot de la Valette, the Grand Master who had seen the Order through its victory. Since the Ottoman Empire never attacked again, the fortifications were never put to the test, and today remain one of the best-preserved fortifications of this period.
Unlike other rulers of the island, the Order of St. John did not have a "home country" outside the island. The island became their home, so they invested in it more heavily than any other power. Besides, its members came from noble families, and had amassed considerable fortune due to their services in the route to the Holy Land. The architectural and artistic remains of this period remain among the greatest of Malta's history, especially in their "prize jewel" — the city of Valletta.
However, as their main raison d'être ceased to exist, the Order's glory days were over.
Over the years, the power of the Knights declined; their reign ended when Malta when Napoleon Bonaparte's fleet arrived in 1798, en route to his expedition of Egypt. As a ruse, Napoleon asked for safe harbor to resupply his ships, and then turned his guns against his hosts once safely inside Valetta. Grand Master Hompesch capitulated, and Napoleon stayed in Malta for a few days during which he systematically looted the moveable assets of the Order and established an administration controlled by his nominees. He then sailed for Egypt leaving a substantial garrison in Malta. Since the Order had also been growing unpopular with the local Maltese, the latter initially viewed the French with optimism. This illusion did not last long. Within months the French were closing convents and seizing church treasures. The Maltese people rebelled, and the French garrison of General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois retreated into Valletta. After several failed attempts by the locals to retake Valletta, they asked the British for assistance. Rear Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson decided on a total blockade, and in 1800 the French garrison surrendered.
In 1800, Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Although initially the island was not given much importance, its excellent harbours became a prized asset for the British especially after the opening of the Suez canal. The island became a military and naval fortress, the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet. Home rule was refused to the Maltese however, and the locals suffered considerable poverty. In 1919, there were riots over the excessive price of bread. These would lead to greater autonomy for the locals. Malta obtained a bicameral parliament with a Senate (abolished in 1949) and an elected Legislative Assembly, although the Constitution was often suspended.
Before the arrival of the British, the language of the educated elite had been Italian, but this was increasingly downgraded by the increased use of English. In 1934, English and Maltese were declared the sole official languages. The British associated Italian with the Mussolini regime in Italy, which had made territorial claims on the islands, although the use of Italian by nationalists was more out of cultural affinities with Italy than any sympathy with Italian Fascism.
Before World War II, Valletta was the location of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet's headquarters. However, despite Winston Churchill's objections, the command was moved to Alexandria, Egypt, during the mid-1930s. At the time of the Italian declaration of war (June 10, 1940), Malta had a garrison of less than four thousand soldiers and about five weeks' of food supplies for the population of about three hundred thousand. In addition, Malta's air defences consisted of about 42 anti-aircraft guns (34 "heavy" and eight "light") and four Gloster Gladiators, for which three pilots were available.
Being a British colony, situated close to Sicily and the Axis shipping lanes, Malta was bombarded by the Italian and German air forces. Malta was used by the British to launch attacks on the Italian navy and had a submarine base. It was also used as a listening post, reading German radio messages including Enigma traffic.
The first air raids against Malta occurred on 11 June 1940; there were six attacks that day. The island's biplanes were unable to defend due to the Luqa Airfield being unfinished; however, the airfield was ready by the seventh attack. Initially, the Italians would fly at about 5,500m, then they dropped down to 3,000m (in order to improve the accuracy of their bombs). Major Paine stated, "[After they dropped down], we bagged one or two every other day, so they started coming in at [6000m]. Their bombing was never very accurate. As they flew higher it became quite indiscriminate." Mabel Strickland would state, "The Italians decided they didn't like [the Gladiators and AA guns], so they dropped their bombs [30km] off Malta and went back."
By the end of August, the Gladiators were reinforced by 12 Hawker Hurricanes which had arrived via the HMS Argus. During the first five months of combat, the island's aircraft destroyed or damaged about 37 Italian aircraft. Italian fighter pilot Francisco Cavalera observed, "Malta was really a big problem for us—very well-defended." On Malta, 330 people had been killed and 297 were seriously wounded. In January 1941, the German Fliegerkorps X arrived in Sicily as the Afrika Korps arrived in Libya.
On 15 April 1942, King George VI awarded the George Cross (the highest civilian award for gallantry) "to the island fortress of Malta — its people and defenders." President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period, called Malta "one tiny bright flame in the darkness."
After the war, the islands were given self-rule, with the Maltese Labour Party (MLP) of Dom Mintoff favouring closer integration with the United Kingdom, and the Nationalist Party (PN) of Dr. George Borg Olivier favouring further independence.
In December 1955, a Round Table Conference was held in London, on the future of Malta, attended by Mintoff, Borg Olivier and other Maltese politicians, along with the British Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd. The British government agreed to offer the islands their own representation in the British House of Commons, with the Home Office taking over responsibility for Maltese affairs from the Colonial Office.
Under the proposals, the Maltese Parliament would retain responsibility over all affairs except defence, foreign policy, and taxation. The Maltese were also to have social and economic parity with the UK, to be guaranteed by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), the islands' main source of employment. This received overwhelming support in a referendum on 14 February 1956, although a boycott by the PN and the Roman Catholic Church meant that the result was inconclusive. Further disagreement with the MLP over finance lead to the talks breaking down in 1958, with direct rule being imposed by London.
Malta was the only British colony where integration with the UK was seriously considered, and subsequent British governments have ruled out integration for remaining overseas territories, such as Gibraltar.
It was soon clear that the locals now favoured independence, and on 21 September 1964, Malta became an independent state. Malta remained in the Commonwealth and recognised the Queen as head of state. Dom Mintoff became Prime Minister again in 1971 and moved towards loosening ties with the United Kingdom and pursuing a non-aligned foreign policy, establishing close ties with Libya. The Maltese pound - now called the Maltese Lira (LM) - ended its link with the Pound Sterling. Malta became a republic in 1974, with the last Governor-General, Sir Anthony Mamo, as its first President. In 1979 the last British forces left the island.
Mintoff remained Prime Minister until 1984, Labour then lost to the PN in 1987, now led by Eddie Fenech Adami. The PN sought to improve Malta's ties with Western Europe and the United States.
Fenech Adami also advocated Malta's membership of the European Union (EU).
This became a divisive issue, with Labour being opposed. The PN government fell in 1996, and Labour's Alfred Sant, now Prime Minister, withdrew Malta's application for EU membership. The PN returned to power in 1998, and reapplied for EU membership. A referendum on EU membership in 2003 saw a small majority in favour of membership, although Labour stated that it would not be bound by the result were it returned to power in the forthcoming general election that year. However, the PN was returned to office, and Malta joined the EU in May 2004.
Malta is a republic enjoying representative democracy, whose parliamentary system and public administration is closely modelled on the Westminster system. The unicameral House of Representatives, known in Maltese as il-Kamra tad-Deputati, is elected by direct universal suffrage through single transferable vote every five years, unless the House is dissolved earlier by the President on advice of the Prime Minister. The party who wins the majority forms the cabinet. The House of Representatives is made up of 65 Members of Parliament. However, where a party wins an absolute majority of votes, but does not have a majority of seats, that party (the cabinet) is given additional seats to ensure a parliamentary majority. By the Constitution of Malta, the President appoints the Prime Minister, who in general is the leader of the party forming the cabinet.
The President of the Republic is elected every five years by the House of Representatives. The role of the president as head of state is highly ceremonial.
The main political parties are the Nationalist Party, which is a Christian democratic party, and the Malta Labour Party, which is a social democratic party.
The Nationalist Party is currently at the helm of the government, the Prime Minister being Dr. Lawrence Gonzi. The Malta Labour Party, led by Dr. Joseph Muscat is in the opposition.
The Government is also investing to get the bigggest investment to Malta: the smart_city@Malta. This is a Dubai investment - a city for IT companies, with hotels and landscaping. They are also managing to get EU aid to upgrade the infrastructure eg closure of the rubbish dump at Maghtab and waste disposal.
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