The history of Malta is as old as human civilisation itself. Its sites cover all the great landmarks in humanity’s past, from the UNESCO heritage site The Hypogeum, where the earliest traces of human art can be found, to sites telling of its multiple invasions throughout the centuries. From the Phoenicians to the Holy Roman Empire, the Muslim conquest and the British legacy, each has left its mark on the monuments, buildings and language of the Maltese islands.
The most prominent of these assimilating forces, however, are the Christian crusaders who left a lasting legacy with the heritage of the knights of St. John. After the knights, the French revolution and Malta’s surrender to Napoleon resulted in Malta becoming a colony of Britain to repulse the French, who were looting their churches and cathedrals to finance their campaign in North Africa. Although a fully independent nation today, these conquests have left their mark and a colourful heritage on the island, from its politics and language, to its art and culture.
Malta – Megalithic to Modern
The prominent cities in Malta each have a distinct history and flavour, depending on the era they were built in. Each city has had its rise and fall, and the seat of power has shifted throughout the centuries. For today, Valletta is the only one that’s considered a real city. Locals refer to it as Il-Belt, which means “The City” in Maltese. To find out more about Valletta, take a look at our post “Valletta – The Renaissance Fort“. When we first visited, we did not know it was built relatively recently, at least in comparison to Birgu (which, along with Senglea and Cospicua, is commonly referred to as “The Three Cities”) and, certainly, Rabat and Mdina. Most, if not all, of its buildings were built from the 16th century onward, with most buildings in the Baroque and Neo-Classical manner.
Birgu – Beginning with the Phoenicians
In comparison, Birgu has a past which dates back to the Phoenicians, and has in turn been settled and built upon by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and a host of other conquering forces. As the oldest maritime city in Malta, it reached prominence during medieval times. Only a few buildings from that era have survived, unfortunately, as Malta has often been a battleground amongst world powers due to its geographical location and excellent harbours. Nevertheless, reconstruction, both during the 16th century and today, follows the contours and alignments of the original buildings from medieval times. We wrote more about Birgu in our post “Birgu – The Medieval City“.
Mdina and Rabat – Influences by the Romans and the Christian Crusaders
Even older still are the cities of Mdina and Rabat. Although a wall surrounds Mdina, most people experience both cities as one. I was confused at first as to which came first, but the answer isn’t so simple. Mdina was first founded by Phoenician settlers and was later renamed by the Romans to Melite. Melite was significantly larger than present day Mdina, and is now divided between Mdina and Rabat. Very little from Roman times has survived into the present day, but nevertheless, the city feels architecturally ancient due to the moat surrounding it, believed to be built in the 8th century, during the Byzantine period.
Marsaxlokk Fishing Village – An important Phoenician Trading Post
Another ancient living site is Marsaxlokk. Once, it was an important trading post for the Phoenicians, and also an anchorage for the Ottoman fleet. Today, it is a sleepy fishing village that comes to life on Sundays, when a huge brick-a-brack market, mixed in with a handful of fresh fish and fruit stalls, set up shop along the habour front. In my opinion, this day is best avoided if you want to visit the town. I prefer a sleepy sunset on a Monday with not another tourist in sight over overcrowded streets on a blistering Sunday afternoon. For more on Marsaxlokk and its market, take a look at our post “Marsaxlokk Market on Sunday“.
Malta is very built up, as most city-islands are. After all, there is nowhere else to go, for beyond the island is the sea. There’s lots to do there, from diving to exploring its pre-historic sites, watching a performance in Valetta’s historical venues and taking walking tours within Valetta and Mdina. We have been to the Maltese islands twice now, but still feel that we’ve only scratched the surface of this historically rich and intriguing country. It will always be a top choice destination year round for us, being a short flight away from the European continent.