and the "inland sea" at Dwejra, reached through a narrow passage (though the famous "Azure Window" there has now collapsed into the sea).
During the last Ice Age there was a land bridge northwards to Sicily and Italy, and as the increasing cold drove subtropical animals southwards, they reached Malta, from where they could advance no further; so when the ice melted and sea levels rose, they were cut off. The poor vegetation and lack of many natural predators meant that evolutionary natural selection produced and extraordinary range of creatures, all now extinct, such as dwarf elephants and hippos alongside giant dormice. The bones of many of these strange beasts, all now extinct, can be seen at the archaeological musem at Ghar Dalam in the south-east of Malta, near Marsaxlokk.
In the Neolithic period, some time before 3000 B.C., much earlier than the Pyramids, an unknown people built temples of enormous stones at Ggigantija, Hagar Qim and several other sites. The absence of large trees on the islands meant the stones were apparently rolled into place on pieces of limstone roughly carved into balls.
Then, approximately 500 years later, these people disappeared; the temples were abandoned and only rediscovered recently.
In recorded history the islands were occupied by a succession of neighbouring powers: the Carthaginians, the Romans and then the Byzantines. In A.D. 60 Saint Paul was shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the east coast on his way to Rome, and according to tradition converted the Roman governor Publius to Cristianity. There are masses of early Christian catacombs below Rabat in the centre of Malta.
In 870 came Moslems from North Africa, who bequeathed Arabic place-names which are still in use, such as Mdina and Rabat, and also introduced dry-farming techniques, terracing the hillsides with drystone walls to create tiny fields. The result of all this was a Maltese language that is like no other: of Punic and Arabic roots but with borrowings from French, Italian and English. Until recently it had no written form; then it was rendered into the Latin alphabet, with often confusing results.
Roger, the Norman King of Sicily took the islands in 1090, and for the next 500 years they were ruled by whoever controlled southern Italy: Normans, Germans, French and Spaniards. But in 1530 there came a major and decisive change.
The Knights of the Hospital of St. John, commonly known as the Hospitallers, were an order of fighting monks, originally established soon after the First Crusade. After the final expulsion of crusaders from the Holy Land, they took to the sea, basing themselves first at Cyprus and then at Rhodes, harrying the Turks with their swift war galleys. In 1523 they were driven from Rhodes after a protracted and bitter Turkish siege,and in 1530 the Emperor Charles V granted them Malta as a base. The island was in many ways inferior to Rhodes, but enjoyed the great benefit of a deep and easily defended harbour. This is the view across the Grand Harbour, from where the city of Valletta now stands. The Knights established themselves on the twin promentaries of Birgu and Senglea (The guns in the foreground are British, dating from the 19th century)
The Knights had little contact with the native peoples of Malta, who were for the most part illiterate peasants; but the Maltese probably appreciated that the Knights at least protected them against pirates and slave-raiders from north Africa.
They had only a few years in which to fortify their new home before the Sultan Suleymain the Magnificent despatched an enormous expedition to destroy them once and for all. From May to September 1565 the Knights survived the siege, though barely. The old capital of Mdina in the centre of the island also held out, and eventually the Turks withdrew, having suffered huge losses. (I shall be describing the great siege in more detail in a later Blog post).
The fortifications around the Grand Harbour are very impressive
but it should be remembered that all these massive defences were erected after the siege, in case the Turks ever attacked again. The same applies to the equally impressive fortifications at Mdina
and the citadel of the town now called Victoria, on Gozo
After the siege the city of Valletta was built; named in honour of the Grand Master who had successfully repelled the Turks, Jean Parisot de la Vallette, who died in 1568. It is very much a planned city, with a gridiron street plan, magnificent Baroque buildings
and the "Co-Catherdral" of St John the Baptist, which is supremely and stupendously over-the-top. It is home to two Caravaggio paintings,one of them enormous!
In fact,the Turks never did attempt another invasion, and the next time Malta was attacked was by Napoleon in 1798, on his way to Egypt. The Knights promptly surrendered without firing a shot. A few years later the French occupying force surrendered to the British navy, and Malta became part of the British Empire
After a long period of peace, the coming of the North African campaign in the Second World War found Malta perilously positioned right on the crossroads of the supply routes of British and Axis forces; and with only a handful of outdated aircraft for its defence. The country was heavily bombed by the Germans and Italians, with the dockworks in the Grand Harbour being the main target; and submarines placed the islands under a tight blockade. Spitfires and Hurricanes were dispatched in summer 1942; but even so that August the country was within a fortnight of being forced to surrender by sheer starvation before the battered remains of a convoy of food and fuel were towed into the Grand Harbour, and Malta survived. Malta was granted the George Cross for its heroism: a unique award.
There is a fine exhibition of Malta in the war at Fort Elmo in Valletta. Every day there are ceremonial firing of British cannon from Valletta in celebration of Malta's survival.
In 1964 Malta became and independent state within the Commonwealth, and voted to become a republic ten years later.