This was our first visit to Malta, a country we knew little about, especially given how much there is to know! This post contains much more text that normal, as we found the rich history of Malta so fascinating.

The nation of Malta is an archipelago in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast, specifically Tunisia and Libya.

Malta’s location in the middle of the Mediterranean has historically given it great strategic importance as a naval base, and a succession of powers, including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Knights of St. John, French, and British have ruled the islands.

Malta gained its political Independence from Britain on September 21, 1964 as an independent constitutional monarchy, with Elizabeth II as Queen of Malta and Head of State. Elizabeth II remained the head of state of Malta until the amendment of the Constitution of Malta on December 13, 1974, which abolished the monarchy and established the Republic of Malta and the office of President of Malta. Interestingly, the President of Malta must hold or have held the office of Chief Justice or other Judge of the Superior Courts.

The country has some of the world’s most ancient standing buildings (the Neolithic temples), dating to 3600 B.C. It was also a very strategic base for the Allies during World War II.

Malta has 3 inhabited islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino. On this map, Malta is depicted by Xlendi, the port village on Gozo where we stopped first, and Valletta, the capital of Malta on the island of Malta. Next time you’re in a marina, you may now notice boats registered in Valletta, as it is a tax haven for yacht and ship ownership.

One of our first views of Malta, which lies 50 mi south of Italy and approximately 200 mi north of Libya. The country covers just over 122 sq mi with a population of just under 450,000, making it one of the world’s smallest and most densely populated countries. Valletta, which occupies 1/4 square mile, is the smallest national capital in the European Union by area. Malta has one national language, which is Maltese, and English as an official language.

Malta became what it became because of the Knights of St. John, otherwise known as the Knights of Hospitaller, the Knights of Malta or the Order of St. John, who arrived to what is now Malta in the 1500s. We found the story fascinating; well worth a read here, or at least, watching this 3-minute video. The short version is this:

The Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem were formed long before their reign on Malta. The Order was originally established in 1085 as a community of monks responsible for looking after the sick at the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem. They later became a military order, defending crusader territory in the Holy Lands and safeguarding the perilous routes taken by medieval pilgrims. The Knights were drawn exclusively from noble families and the Order acquired vast wealth from those it recruited.

The Knights came to Malta in 1530, having been ejected from their earlier home on Rhodes by the Turks in 1522. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, gave them the choice of Malta or Tripoli as a new base. Neither was to their liking, but nothing, they thought, could be worse than Tripoli.

Having chosen Malta, the Knights stayed for 268 years, transforming what they called ‘merely a rock of soft sandstone’ into a flourishing island with mighty defences and a capital city coveted by the great powers of Europe.

Malta’s capital, Valletta. This beautiful baroque fortified city was essentially built on a rock by the Knights after the Great Siege of 1565, again a fascinating story. 

This aerial photograph of Valletta illustrates the topography.

This map view of Valletta illustrates its natural harbors and the peninsulas upon which fortifications were built by the Knights in the 1500s.

Being away from their country of origin, many Knights of the Order of St. John would probably have felt homesick without their hostels in Malta, the auberges. Each of the eight European territories that were present in the Order – the so-called langues – built its own auberge, which served as accommodation for its members but also for pilgrims and visitors from its home country. Moreover, the hostels were used for meetings, dining and other social activities. Here, the baroque facade of Auberge de Castille which is the grandest non-religious building in Malta.

St John’s Co-Cathedral (Maltese: Kon-Katidral ta’ San Ġwann) is a Roman Catholic co-cathedral dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. It was built by the Order of St. John between 1572 and 1577. A co-cathedral is a cathedral church which shares the function of being a bishop’s seat, or cathedra, with another cathedral, often in another city.

A glimpse at the interior of St. John’s Cathedral. Overall, the exterior is rather austere and it is reminiscent of a fortress, but the interior of the church is considered to be one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe. Unbelievable…. We won’t disagree with Sir Walter Scott, who in 1831, called the cathedral a “magnificent church, the most striking interior [he had] ever seen.”

The entire marble floor is a series of tombs, housing about 400 Knights and officers of the Order.

The carvings (in limestone, not wood) on the columns were painted with gold leaf. Noteworthy is the fact that the carving was all undertaken in-place rather than being carved independently and then attached to the walls (stucco). The Maltese limestone from which the Cathedral is built lends itself particularly well to such intricate carving.

The carved pictures of the tombs were very ornate and often included skulls and cross bones.

The Maltese Cross, formally adopted by the Knights Hospitallers of St. John in 1126, stylistically owes its origins to the crosses used in the crusades, when it was identified as the symbol of the “Christian warrior”: Its eight points denote the eight obligations or aspirations of the knights, namely “to live in truth, have faith, repent one’s sins, give proof of humility, love justice, be merciful, be sincere and whole­hearted, and to endure persecution”.  With time, the eight points also came to represent the eight “langues” (literally “tongues”, but in effect national groupings) of the noblemen who were admitted to the famed order, namely those of Auvergne, Provence, France, Aragon, Castille and Portugal, Italy, Baviere (Germany), and England (with Scotland and Ireland).

Warehouses were built along the Valletta wharf when Malta was under British rule. The new Upper Barrakka lift (elevator) opened in December 2012, linking the Grand Harbour to the Upper Barrakka Gardens and Valletta city center. It is located on the original site where its predecessor, which was dismantled in 1983, operated between 1905 and 1973. And it’s free!

Some modern apartments across one of Valletta’s harbors.

With the exception of the greater Valletta business district, most all of the buildings on Malta are no more than three or four stories tall, except for the cathedrals, which makes them seem “oversized” relative to the surrounding areas.

A significant prehistoric Neolithic culture marked by Megalithic structures, which date back to 3600 BC, existed on the islands, as evidenced by the temples of Mnajdra, Ggantija and others.

While not as impressive as the Pyramids of Egypt, these temples reflect some of the oldest man-made structures that we have seen. They are 1000 years older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids.

Ramla Bay, or Red Sandy Beach, one of the few sand beaches on Gozo.

The cave of the mythical lair of Calypso, where Odysseus supposedly stayed when he landed in Malta during his 10-year (Homer’s) Odyssey.

Also known as ‘salt pans’, these squares have been hewn out of the rock at a number of places on the island.  Wave comes in, water gets trapped and evaporates and you’ve got yourself a pile of sea salt. This practice goes back to the Romans 2,000 years ago, and is still in operation today in various spots around the world (including Malta). 

The underground Lascaris War Rooms, from which much of the defense of Malta, and the planning of the Invasion of Sicily, was conducted during World War II. A network of underground tunnels and chambers located 150 feet under Valletta, the Lascaris War Rooms represent one of Malta’s best kept secrets from World War II and the Cold War: In 1967 it was taken over by Nato to be used as a strategic Communication Centre for the interception of Soviet submarines in the Med. It remained in that role for the next ten years when it was finally closed down.  The War Rooms played an active part in the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis in 1956 and went into full alert for a number of days during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when a Soviet missile strike against Malta was expected.

Malta was subject to some of the most severe bombardments of the entire war. The Maltese people may have ended the war with the distinction of being the only entire population to be awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian honor for bravery. But they also ended the war devastated: Malta holds the record for the heaviest, sustained bombing attack: some 154 consecutive days and nights and 6,700 tons of bombs. Malta experienced more than 3,300 air raids during World War II. This picture depicts radar ranges around Malta.

And this picture shows that actual board that tracked Italian and German bombers bound for Malta from Sicily.

This room served as one of the primary rooms that the Allies used to launch Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily and ultimately their eventual attack on mainland Italy.

…and this is a German map captured from a German prisoner of war showing the strategic bombing targets on Malta.

The Royal Opera House (Maltese: It-Teatru Rjal), was an opera house and performing arts venue in Valletta. It was one of the most beautiful and iconic buildings in Valletta, but it received a direct hit from aerial bombing in 1942 during World War II.

After several abandoned plans to rebuild the theatre, the ruins were redesigned by the Italian architect Renzo Piano and in 2013 it once again started functioning as a performance venue (now outdoors), called Pjazza Teatru Rja.

Buildings in Malta have been remodeled numerous times as evidenced by this arch built in the gothic style, rebuilt in the Venetian style, etc.

Many of the Venetian Balconies in Malta had slits just under the glass from which Arab women could view the street without being seen.

Posing on one of the entries to Kings Landings from the Game of Thrones.

The Blue Grotto is a number of sea caverns on the south coast of Malta. Due to the location of the caves combined with the sunlight, every day from sunrise until about 1 pm shades of blue reflect in the caverns. Several caverns mirror the brilliant phosphorescent colors of the underwater flora; other caverns show a deep dark shade of blue.

Multi-shades of blue….

…and green.

And one last bit of history… the Maltese falcon. In 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, as King of Sicily, ceded to the Order the island of Malta. At first, the Order’s Maltese dominion, which also included the nearby islands of Gozo and Comino was considered a fief of the Kingdom of Sicily, its Grand Master a vassal. It was for this reason that an annual feudal tax was paid, though it was largely symbolic. It included, annually, a “Maltese falcon.” Thus did the Order become known as the “Order of Malta.”

Why a Maltese falcon? Maltese falcons were already very famous, in part due to the treatise on falconry written in 1241 in Latin by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor (1196-1250), among which titles is King of Sicily, at a time when Malta was a fief of the Kingdom of Sicily. So, Maltese falcons had long been very desirable, and given the popularity of falconry among the royals of Europe at the time, to be gifted a Maltese falcon is a sign of honor.

Technically, the grant was given by Charles V not as King of Spain — “Spain” didn’t exist yet — but as co-King of Aragon, of which Sicily was a fiefdom, of which Malta was part of. At the time of the grant, Charles V was jointly ruling Aragon with his mother Joanna, even if she was not an active ruler. So the falcon was paid not to the King of Spain, but to the Viceroy of Sicily.

Further, Charles V didn’t “give” Malta to the Knights, he rented it to them, under feudal contract. This is why the text of the grant specified what should happen in case of succession of the grand master, who should assign the bishop of Malta (the viceroy of Sicily, not the knights), how Malta should not engage in activities against Sicily, etc.

Even today you can order a copy of the book, “The Art of Falconry”…. luckily translated in case your Latin is rusty.

I was able to snap a pic of a famous trainer of Maltese falcons.

The sunsets on the limestone buildings were gorgeous.

….and with a beautiful setting sun, we said goodbye to Malta, a jewel of an island nation that we were delighted to discover.