Wed 28 Apr 2010
The future episodes will talk a lot about history and about religion, and in many cases about both. The minuscule island at the crossroads of the Mediterranean offers on a very limited surface one of the richer collections of historical places from different epochs, as well as a deep religious spirit which carved history and the character of its people.
History in Malta starts with the Neolithic period when the first cultures set ashore the island and and started to build settlements, temples, and other structures whose scope and functions are no longer clear today. Several monuments similar to the Stonehenge megaliths in the South of England haven recovered and wonderfully preserved, among them the ones at Mnajdra, Hagar Qim, and Ggantija on the island of Gozo which we have visited. A special chapter will be dedicated to these places.
Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans successively conquered and ruled over Malta in the Ancient Era. Malta is related to the legends that surround the early Christianity, here is the place where St. Paul was shipwrecked in the year 60AD, and actually the place where we stayed was close to St.Paul’s Bay. Vandals and then Muslims ocupied the island in the Middle Ages, and the Arabic influence is being felt until today in the language which is of Semitic origin sharing more than 60% of the words with Arabic, and in the names of places like Medina, Ramla, or Rabat. Normands and Arabs fought for the domination of the islands for the first three centuries of the second millennium, with the Christian rule prevailing in 1248 and leading to the total expulsion of the Muslims in a prelude of the reconquista. However, part of the population chose to stay and convert to Christianity, one of the results being the Maltese language preserved, spoken and alive until today. What was different from what happened two and a half centuries later in the Iberia peninsula was that Jews were allowed to stay and exercise not only their religion but also their commerce, among other with cotton which has been introduced during the Arab era.
The order of St. John – the Maltese cavaliers were donated the island by king Charles V of Spain and Roman Holy Emperor in 1523, after their expulsion from Rhodes by the Turks. Established in the 12th century in Jerusalem, the St. John order was the most important monastic order of the Catholicism during the Middle Ages and later aside the Templars. Their organization and ideology was very different however, they were focusing on hospitality and commerce and were warriors only when the needs of Christianity demanded. One of the marking moments of their history was the siege of Malta in 1565, which eventually led to the defeat of the Turks and a stop to their expansion in the Mediterranean. Following that moment the St. John cavaliers controlled Malta for more than two centuries, leaving their mark on the history and character of the people, and building as a fortress the principal city of Malta – Valletta. The cavaliers were exiled from the island by Napoleon at the end of the 18th century to … Russia, never to return here, but the deep Catholic faith remained impregnated in the geography and culture of Malta.
Malta is indeed the most fervent Catholic country that I have ever visited. 97% of its inhabitants declare themselves as Catholics. Magnificent churches can be found almost in every place, and they are decorated with fastidious religious art. Sculptures and religious decorations can be found not only in churches, but also on the streets, in Valletta for example almost every street corner is decorated with statues of saints.
It would be mistaken to believe that this deep belief is a thing of the past. Many of the churches are quite recent, and their building was financed only by contributions and work from the local people. I have for example visited a magnificent dome in Xewkija (do not ask me how to read this!) on the island of Gozo – they say it’s the third or fourth in Europe (similar claims I heard about another church in Mosta, what is for sure both are HUGE). Well, the one in Xewkija is claimed to have been build solely with work and donations of the local people of the village of about 4000 inhabitants.
For sure, the history of Malta continued in the 19th and much of the 20th century as a British colony. During World War II Malta suffered a second siege under the German Luftwaffe attacks, but the island resisted heroically and the forces of Rommel never set foot in Malta. Independent since 1964, Malta turned left and became a turning point in the non-aligned nations movement in the first two decades of independence. This trend slowly changed by the end of the 20th century, and in 2004 Malta joined the European Union. Today tourists can visit the House of State which are both a museum and the symbol of governance of the island since the Grand Masters of the St. John’s order until the democratically elected presidents of Republic of Malta of today.
There is one episode of history that happened in Malta but I did not hear it mentioned during my stay there. On December 2 and 3, 1989 president Bush (father) and General Secretary Gorbachev met in Malta for a summit. This event happened less than one month after the fall of the wall of Berlin. Not everything is known yet about the details of that meeting, but it is widely considered the moment in time when the Russian leader conceded the defeat of the Soviets in the cold war and the acceptance of the end the Communist rule in Eastern Europe. It may be very well that the fate of Romania and of the Communist hard-line dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was also settled at that meeting. The circle of history represented by the division of Europe open in Yalta in 1943 was closed in Malta in 1989. It is in that extreme point of Europe that the history of the united old continent began.