HISTORY OF MALTA / PLACES OF INTEREST IN MALTA AND GOZO
(Places to visit in Malta & Gozo, Malta’s historical sites, archaeology, wartime Malta, museums)
Malta’s history can be traced back over 7000 years to 5200 BC when the first settlers arrived here from Sicily. The temples at Tarxien, Ggantija and the Hypogeum as well as others across the islands can be dated back as far as 3600 BC, preceding even Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt. Many important relics from these sites are to be found at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta. Around 700 BC a Greek colony was founded followed by Phoenician colonization between 800 BC – 480 BC. From that time, Malta fell under Carthage control and in 218 BC became part of the Roman Republic.The next event ‘of note’ was the arrival of St Paul in 60 AD when he became shipwrecked on Malta. In 395 AD, the islands fell under Byzantine rule as a division of the Roman Empire. Then, in 870 AD, the Arabs conquered until 1091 AD when Count Roger I of Sicily established Norman rule which was consolidated later by Roger II. Between 1194 – 1266, Malta was ruled by the Swabians (of Germany) and from 1266 by the Angevins (of France). From 1283 the Maltese Islands were ruled by the Spanish Crown of Aragon (Kingdom of Sicily) and it was King Charles V who, in 1530, fearing a Turkish invasion of Rome, handed Malta to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. It was the Knights together with the people of Malta who in the Great Siege of 1565 held out against the odds to defend attempted invasion by the Ottoman Empire (Turks). Many weapons from the time of the Great Siege are on display at the Palace Armoury in Valletta. Shortly after, the Knights went to work founding a new Capital City, Valletta, and securing its walled fortifications so as to make Malta less vulnerable. (As you look round Valletta and its ‘Baroque’ architectural style & grandeur, you can appreciate exactly how the Knights influenced Malta’s history.)
In 1798, Napoleon & the French forces arrived and took over, setting up headquarters in Valletta at the Auberge de Castille building. Their occupation was short lived however and the Maltese people ‘rose up’ against them and, with the help of the British, took back power in 1800. The British stayed in Malta and in 1814, the islands officially became a British Colony. During the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) Malta was used as a ‘hospital base’ for the wounded and again during World War 2 earning the nickname ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean.’ In the Second World War, Malta was one of the most bombed countries in Europe and the story of its heroism and subsequent award to its people of the “George Cross” for ‘gallantry’ in 1942 is graphically told by the National War Museum in Valletta. In 1964, the islands were granted independence but retained the Queen as ‘Head of State.’ In 1974, Malta became a republic and in 1979 their military agreement as a British base expired. In recent times, Malta joined the EU in 2004 and subsequently adopted the Euro as its currency from January 2008.
Whatever part of Malta’s chequered history captures your interest, you will find plenty of proof of it as you visit various parts of the islands. For example, the Anglican Cathedral of St Paul & Mdina Cathedral both bear witness to the arrival of St Paul in 60 AD whereas at St John’s Co Cathedral in Valletta the Knights depict the life of St John. If it’s the ‘life and times’ of Malta during World War 2 that intrigues you, why not also visit Mosta Dome & learn of the famous incident involving the bomb that failed to explode. Malta’s many fortifications, including Fort Rinella, you will notice as you travel around the island, particularly those of the old capital Mdina, the ‘silent city.’ Also, don’t forget to take in the fantastic view across Grand Harbour from the Upper Barraca Gardens when you are in Valletta. Why not also take the short ferry trip across from Malta to Gozo & Comino. The picturesque Xlendi Bay, Marsalforn and the Azure Window are just 3 of the many highlights of Gozo for which organized half day & full day tours are available.
As for Comino, no one should miss the opportunity to swim in the crystal clear water of Blue Lagoon, definitely one of the best sights of the Maltese Islands together with the many beautiful caves around its coastline. If you love sunbathing on the beach and swimming in the sea, you will want to visit Golden Sands & Mellieha, two of the nicest beaches.
The Places of Interest we have chosen are but a few of the many across the Maltese Islands and we will be adding to the following list in time.
Whatever you decide to do on your visit, enjoy your holiday in Malta, Gozo & Comino and be sure to return.The Cathedral is the focal point of the old city of Mdina. It dominates the city when viewed from anywhere in Malta and its grandeur is no less when it appears in front of you as you emerge from Mdina’s narrow streets. Built in the late 17th century, the Cathedral stands on the site of a previous Norman church destroyed by the large earthquake of 1693. It was built by the Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafa & stands in a large piazza. The inside of the Cathedral is no less impressive and contains various works of art including the famous depiction of “The Conversion of St Paul” which survived the destruction of the Norman church. A visit to the ‘silent city’of Mdina (see Malta Towns Map) is a must.
Standing close to one another, these two churches form the most remarkable aspects of the Valletta skyline. The Anglican Cathedral boasts the tall spire of over 60m while The Carmelite Church is represented by the large silver dome. It was Queen Adelaide who, while convalescing in Malta, commissioned the first protestant church by paying for it and laying the first stone of The Anglican Cathedral in 1839. It was finally completed in 1844, but not before the original British architect committed suicide when problems developed with the structure.The church was dedicated to St Paul as a reminder of the first Christian missionary to Malta shipwrecked here in 60 AD. The Carmelite Church was Valletta’s first functional church, opening in 1570. It has undergone several transformations over the years and was particularly badly damaged during World War 2. These 2 churches can be found near Independence Square in Valletta.The Mosta Dome (or Rotunda) is one of the exceptional attractions in Malta. Its huge dome, at 37 metres in diameter, is one of the largest in the world. Built in 1860 by George Grognet de Vasse, construction took 27 years & was carried out by around 1500 of the local residents. Disaster almost struck during the Second World War when in 1942 a large bomb crashed through the dome into the crowded church but failed to explode. A replica of the bomb is on display. Mosta Dome features prominently in the annual celebrations of ‘The Feast of St Mary’ (Assumption of Our Lady). Located in the centre of Mosta itself, (see Malta Towns Map) be sure to check opening times & dress code before your visit.This fascinating look into Malta’s ‘prehistory’ is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Discovered accidentally in 1902 by a stone mason preparing foundations, the Hypogeum consists of a group of underground halls & passages carved from solid rock. The site is over 500 sq metres & is divided into 3 levels. The upper level dates back, believe it or not, to 3600 – 3300 BC. The middle level to 3300 –3000 BC & the lower level to 3150 – 2500 BC. All the rooms differ in size, shape and quality of workmanship involved. Excavations provided many artefacts including pottery, small carved animals, figurines, beads and amulets as well as human bones. The deepest of the rooms is over 10m below ground level. The Hypogeum is located in Paola (see Malta Towns Map) and is well worth a visit. Opening times vary so check before you go.
BACK TO TOP OF PAGEThe Tarxien temples are the most complex of sites in Malta. Also discovered accidentally in 1914 by local farmers who struck stone blocks whilst ploughing a field. The job of excavating the site was given to Sir Temistocles Zammit, Malta’s first Director of Museums who carried out the work between 1915 – 1917. The temples consist of 4 megalithic structures with separate entrances connected by a square court & date back between 3600 – 2500 BC. They were a tremendous ‘find’ & gave a much better understanding of prehistoric Malta. Particularly of note were the large spherical stones found at the site which provided a clue as to how the huge megaliths used in the temples were rolled into position. The site was probably used for rituals and animal sacrifice as bones & flint blades were found in a carved altar. A chamber was also found between the thickness of 2 walls separating 2 of the temples. The site also offers detailed carvings, altars and decorated screens. Located in Tarxien itself (see Malta Towns Map) make sure you check opening hours before visiting.Widely held as one of the most important archaeological sites in Malta, these temples date back to between 3600 – 3200 BC making them among the world’s oldest man-made religious structures. First excavated in 1827 by John Otto Mayer, the site contains 2 megalithic temples surrounded by a huge boundary wall. Interestingly, the wall was built using a method called ‘alternating header & stretcher’ which gave it extra stability. Some of the stones in the wall are over 5 metres high and weigh over 50 tons! The temples are round in shape & contained statues of “full-figured” goddesses. Legend has it that the temple walls were built in 1 day by giants, hence the name ‘Ggantija’ which means giant in the Maltese language. The temples were probably dedicated to the “Great Earth Mother” who was a goddess of fertility. Evidence also suggests the presence of an oracle at the temples. When you visit Gozo, you can find the Ggantija temples in Xaghra.(see Malta Towns Map). Be sure to have a look around.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ARCHAEOLOGY – Valletta, Malta
The museum contains artefacts dating back as far as the arrival of man, i.e. 5200 BC. All the items here are pieces found in Malta itself & include pottery, sculptures, stone tools & implements and even human figures and representations of animal life, all chronologically displayed. Many important ‘finds’ from the archaeological sites of the Hypogeum, Hagar Qim & Tarxien temples are included here. The museum represents a fascinating glimpse of Malta’s prehistory. The museum itself is housed in the “Auberge de Provence”, one of the “Inns of Residence” dating back to the times of the Knights of St John in Malta. The building was one of the first to be erected inValletta following the Great Siege of 1565. You’ll find the National Museum of Archaeology in Republic St, Valletta.
PALACE ARMOURY – Valletta, Malta
Forming part of the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta, the Palace Armoury represents one of the most valued historic sites of European culture. The arsenal of weapons was originally moved to the Palace in 1604 by Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt and at that time contained around 25000 items. Many of the items date around the period of the Great siege of 1565, although the collection is not as extensive as it once was as many pieces were lost around the time of the Napoleonic occupation. (1798 – 1800) At one time, the British wanted to move the weapons to London, but this never happened and in 1860 the collection was opened as Malta’s first public museum. In excess of 5000 pieces still remain, ranging from bows & arrows, swords and guns to suits of armour & much more. In 1975, the Palace Armoury was relocated to the ground floor to make way for Malta’s House of Representatives. Another valuable part of Malta’s history awaits you in Valletta.
NATIONAL WAR MUSEUM – Fort St Elmo, Valletta, Malta
The National War Museum is housed within Fort St. Elmo. The Fort, at the tip of Valletta, is itself famous for the part it played in the defence of Malta in The Siege of 1565 and again during World War 2. The War Museum is testament to the vitally important role Malta played during wartime post 1800 under British rule. Most of the exhibits are from World War 2 & include an Italian E-boat, an anti-aircraft gun and the jeep used by General Eisenhower when in Malta (“Husky”). Of particularly special interest are the ‘George Cross’, awarded to Malta for “gallantry” during the Second World War and the ‘Gloster Gladiator’ christened “Faith,” a bi-plane fighter which fought in and survived the bitter conflict. The Museum pays tribute to the resolve of the Maltese civilians with photographic panels depicting the harsh conditions they endured as well as the extensive damage Malta suffered from air raids between 1940 – 1943. There are a host of awards on display given to servicemen & civilians alike as well as the illuminated scroll presented by Franklin D. Roosevelt to the “People & Defenders of Malta” It’s no wonder Malta earned the reputation as the “Fortress Island.” Be sure to have a look around. Check opening times as renovations to Fort Elmo & The Museum have been undertaken.
Built between 1573 –1578 by Giralmo Cassar, The Cathedral represents a truly splendid example of the ‘Baroque’ style of architecture epitomised by many of the buildings for which the Knights of St John were responsible. The talents of Cassar are highlighted by the ornate interior and much of the artwork inside was the work of Preti, himself a Knight. The ceiling & side altars depict scenes from the life of St John & the Cathedral also hosts one of Europe’s most impressive works of art, namely Carvaggio’s “Beheading of St. John the Baptist.” The Cathedral with its side chapels (one for each of the ‘langues’) was a shrine to the Knights with many ‘sons of nobility’ buried here from the 16th century onward including the founder of Valletta, Grand Master Jean Parisot de Vallette whose tomb is in the crypt. St John’s Co Cathedral stands majestically just off Republic St in Valletta. Have a look around.The Fort stands just east of the entrance to Grand Harbour and was built between 1878 – 1886 by British engineers. Its purpose was to house the Armstrong ‘100 ton gun,’ the largest cannon in the world, (which is still here) with its barrel of nearly 10 metres long and the capability of firing a 1 ton shell up to 8 miles. It could pierce 21 inch steel armour at a distance of 3 miles. It was installed at Fort Rinella in response to the Italian army who equipped themselves with battleships boasting very strong armour and similar cannons onboard. The British also hoped to safeguard the route to India through the Mediterranean and Suez by equipping both Gibraltar & Malta with the ‘100 ton guns.’ During World War 2, the Fort was used as a lookout point and to store supplies. The museum inside shows in detail the lives of the garrison soldiers based there & explains how the huge gun was fired using a steam powered hydraulic system. During the tour, volunteer guides wear period uniforms and use original equipment as well as perform renactments including the firing of an old Victorian cannon, all to make the history of Fort Rinella come to life for the visitor. In fact, once every year in May, the huge ‘100 ton’ gun is fired to keep it active and rightly attracts a large audience. Fort Rinella is located in Kalkara, just along the coast from Valletta’s Grand Harbour, and is open daily. Check times for the renactments etc so as not to miss out.
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