The Republic of Malta's Incredible Structural History

10/14/2011 12:46:00 PM ·

Malta has enjoyed a long and varied history that has positioned the islands that make up the republic, as everything from military strongholds, to sites of religious significance, to popular tourist destinations. The home of three of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, an Apostolic See, and one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, Malta is an ideal vacation spot for anyone with an interest in military history, religion, and where the two intersect. Located in the Mediterranean, south of Sicily, east of Tunisia, and west of Alexandria, the republic gained its independence from Britain in 1964, became a republic 10 years later, and became part of the European Union in 2004.

The history of the islands dates back to 5200 BC, when travellers from Sicily settled there. Primarily farmers, the settlers grew various cereals, raised livestock, wiped out the island population of dwarf hippos and elephants, and worshipped a goddess of fertility. In 2500 BC this population disappeared, either due to famine or illness. Bronze Age immigrants arrived several decades later, and erected dolmens.

Around 700 BC the Ancient Greeks arrived in Malta. Their arrival began a period in which the islands changed hands almost every century for the next 1000 years, usually through war. Malta fell under the rule of the Phoenicians, then the Romans, then the Greeks, then back again, multiple times. From roughly 400 AD to 870 AD, Malta was controlled by the Byzantine Empire, but after the Byzantine-Arab War, it fell under Arab rule. A largely Christian nation, the people of Malta were allowed to continue to practice Christianity, but they paid a religious tax in order to do so. 200 years later, the Normans conquered the islands, and Christianity was reinstated as the Maltese religion. The islands then fell under German rule for a century, and then were ruled by a succession of Sicilian powers once more. The purpose of the islands fluctuated from important trading posts to military garrisons, to religious seats, and back again. The islands were then passed from Spain, to France, and finally to the British Empire as part of the Treaty of Paris in the 1800s. The island is bilingual, with inhabitants speaking Maltese (a combination of Italian and Arabic) and English.

The result of all of this constant changing of rulers and religions is that the Republic of Malta is rife with historical structures that represent the many peoples and traditions that have inhabited the island, at one point or another, throughout history. By viewing the temples, cities, and other structures that are representative of the rich history of the island, a visitor is able to take a visceral journey through the republic’s history.

Historically, the invasion of one country by another meant the almost total annihilation of anything having to do with the former inhabitants. In the case of Malta’s various rulers, structures were built in, around, and on top of each other. The result is a fascinating mix of architectural and religious styles all contained in a very small area. Below is a list of just a few of the structures that make Malta such a fascinating place to visit for a historical travel adventure. Cruises between the various islands that make up the republic are readily available, so plan to spend a few days soaking up the history as you travel from place to place.

The City of Valletta

Valletta, Malta’s capital, has 320 separate monuments; a direct representation of the city’s multiple rulers. The military seat of the island, the city was the home of Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab, Byzantine, and Spanish rulers at one point or another. Grand Master's Palace in Valletta, Malta was also the home of the Order of the Knights of St. John, one of the most powerful military forces in the ancient world. Even more astonishing is that these monuments are contained in a space equal to 0.55 kilometers.

Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

Discovered in 1902, the archaeological site of Hal Saflieni Hypogeum appears to have been both a burial space and a sanctuary for inhabitants of the island from 3600 to 2400 BC. With gorgeous stonework, such as “The Sleeping Lady”, and multiple altars with a spiral design that has inspired multiple contemporary artworks, the Hypogeum has been a popular historical site since it was opened to the public in the 60s. It was closed briefly when it began to deteriorate, and in 2001, was reopened with specially climate controlled glass structures built around many of the caverns. The glass has not diminished the mind-boggling scope and beauty of the caverns at all, and a trip to the Hypogeum is a must if you visit the Republic.

The Seven Temples of Malta and Gozo

On the islands of Malta and Gozo, seven temples, built over the course of thousands of years, are a testament to early architecture. The rock cut Ggantija Temples, were built almost 1000 years before the Egyptian pyramids at Giza, and are thought to be the world’s oldest freestanding structures. Five temples on Malta, built between 3600 and 2500 BC, are notable because of the limited resources for building such structures that were available on the island. Tarxien has the most intricate design, while Mnajdra sports the most interesting overall design, and Hagar Qim seems to be part military stronghold, part temple. Ta Hagrat is the most well-preserved of the temples on Malta, though it is also the smallest, and Skorba lies in the middle of a field, far away from the other religious structures on the island.

This is just a small sample of the number of monuments, temples, churches, and structures available on the islands that make up the Republic of Malta. The dizzying array of architectural and historical sites cannot be visited in one day, so do yourself a favor and schedule a week to visit everything. The visitors’ centers at the various sites are highly informative, and there are a number of lectures and historical activities offered on the islands throughout the year. For anyone interested in military or religious history, a pilgrimage to Malta is a must.

This post was contributed by Dee Gold.

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