Last month I wrote about Sri Lanka, its importance on the trade routes and strategic value in wars. I had just returned from that majestically beautiful island. I haven’t visited Malta, another island that has an equally long, fascinating and complex history due to its location in the Mediterranean Sea.
3500 years-ago the Megalithic society on the islands of Malta was one of the most advanced civilisations on the planet. Its people were some of the earliest farmers. The temples of Ggantija on Gozo are believed to be some of the earliest free-standing monuments in the world, predating Stonehenge by a thousand years. Some of the stones are 5 metres long and weigh over 50 tons. It is aligned with the sun on the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes.
Throughout history the islands have proved to be strategic stepping-stones between Europe and North Africa. Around 750 BC, the Phoenicians settled there and used it as a haven on trade routes across the Mediterranean. 300 years later, the Carthaginians took control advancing agriculture and the production of textiles. In the Punic Wars between 264 – 146 BC, these small islands played their part and were subdued within the Roman Empire.
In the Bible at Apostles XXVIII, Luke recalls the hospitality given to St Paul after he was shipwrecked in AD 60. The governor was one of the first to be converted to Christianity in a time of religious tolerance. Today, there are plentiful remains of catacombs, villas and cisterns as evidence of the Roman occupation. Through the Byzantine era, the islands fell into obscurity until the North African Berbers took control in AD 870 as they advanced Islam around the whole of the inland sea. The Arab influence can still be seen, heard and tasted in the names of towns, language and cuisine. Irrigation engineering led to the introduction of new crops and the characteristic terraced fields of the Maltese landscape.
It took the Normans 30 years to subdue nearby Sicily where they held Military power and then retained much of the Arab systems of irrigation, agriculture, medicine and other learning. Once they had mastered Sicily, the Normans captured Malta in 1090, but the balance of power between Islam and Christianity remained in flux all around the Mediterranean. In 1126, The Knights of the Order of St John began 250 years of rule that have left the most indelible architectural legacy; building fortifications, aqueducts, churches and cathedrals. After the Great Siege of 1565 by the Ottomans, Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette commissioned the construction of Valletta where the ‘Sacra Infermeria’ became the most advanced hospital of its day in Europe.
Caravaggio arrived in Malta in 1607 having fled Rome on a charge of murder. He was briefly welcomed by the Knights and admitted to the Order of St John. Through their patronage, he was commissioned to paint “The Beheading of St John the Baptist” and “St Jerome”. These profound and original paintings of spiritual intensity can both be seen in Valletta today. Caravaggio was subsequently imprisoned in the Fort St Angelo, escaped, but died on the run before reaching his fortieth year. Less known, Mattia Preti painted and decorated the vaulted ceiling and baroque interior of St John’s.
Napoleon, in his quest to be Emperor of the World, saw the strategic value of Malta as a staging post to Egypt and the East and occupied the islands in 1798. Defection and dispute amongst the Knights precipitated revolt by the populace and an invitation to intervene was sent to Britain. The British Fleet sailed into Grand Harbour in 1800, dislodging Napoleon’s ambitions and thus began Malta’s 150 years as a colony of the British Empire.
During WWI, Malta was fortunate to be distant from the Western and Eastern Fronts. Except that over 130,000 casualties from the Gallipoli and Salonika campaigns were treated there. In WWII it was much less fortunate. It was caught between its proximity to Sicily with Mussolini’s visions of a New Roman Empire and yet again, its pivotal position close to North Africa. It was even more vulnerable because of war in the air as well as on the water. The island, no bigger than the Isle of Wight, became a target under siege. From 1940 to 1942 it fell victim to a plethora of high-altitude bomber raids and lower level Stuka attacks. Supply convoys were sunk by German U boats. Even when supplies reached the deep-water harbour of Valletta, they were bombed on 27th March 1942 after unloading was foolishly delayed by 3 days. Malta suffered more bombs in two years than even the Blitz in London; with the tragic accolade of being the most bombed place in the war.
Lack of food, medicines and water led to starvation, outbreaks of Polio, malaria and Typhus. The populace had been ordered not to wash hands because of the shortage of water. People hid in caves and dug tunnels to shelter from the raids. Through January to April 1942, some 30,000 buildings were destroyed, which included the classical opera house. George VI wrote to the Governor of the island on 15th April 1942 awarding the George Cross to the Maltese, “to bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people”. It is one of only 2 collective awards of the medal.
The 7th March 1942 brought the arrival of the first squadron of 15 Spitfires and the first scramble on the 9th brought down a German 109. More were to arrive through the autumn of the same year. Their supremacy of speed and height in the air turned the tide and would impact on the success of the 8th Army at El Alamein. By June, Malta was desperately low on supplies and in danger of collapse. A huge relief convoy was planned, including a loaned American oil tanker, the Ohio. Nicknamed ‘Operation Pedestal’, the convoy set sail from around Britain and headed for Gibraltar. As it crossed the Mediterranean, the Axis forces threw everything at the fleet, the HMS Eagle, an aircraft carrier, was the first to be sunk, 4 more navy warships and 9 merchantmen were also sunk or scuppered. On 15th August, after terrifying attacks throughout its journey, the remnants of the convoy arrived in Valletta with 55,000 tonnes of supplies and the damaged Ohio straddled and led by 3 navy warships. The food and fuel were jubilantly welcomed and were crucial to the war around the Mediterranean.
Malta has rebuilt itself and is now vibrant again; buzzing with life and activity. Narrowly avoiding destruction by war time bombs, St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral is now at risk. Its spire and stone fabric are suffering corrosion and decay. The restoration appeal committees in Malta and the UK have the challenge of raising over €8 million euros to save the Cathedral and with it, the Valletta Skyline”. [www.savethecathedral.com].
Islands with history make great places to visit. People who have gone through centuries of upheaval and survived conflict emerge with character. I just put Malta on my bucket list.
By Paul Davis