Prehistory History Brief
c.5200 - 4000 B.C.
The Maltese Islands are rich in archaeological sites and artefacts from the some of the earliest traces of human settlement in the world. Yet so little is known for certain about the beliefs and organisation of these prehistoric societies.
Malta and Gozo's temples and the underground chamber of the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum are designated World Heritage Sites. They hold equal fascination for tourists and archaeologists.
Man was present on the Islands for around 1500 years before the megalithic phenomenon began. The earliest signs of human activity in Malta date back to the Neolithic Period of about 5000 BC. Evidence of New Stone Age Man was found at Ghar Dalam, a cave near Birzebbuga in the south of Malta. The cave also revealed fossilised bones of numerous animals such as dwarf elephants. This indicates that Malta was at one time a land bridge between the European and African continents.
When man arrived on the Islands, he would have found a landscape very different to the rocky arid
one today; one more wooded and with more animal life.
However, these early farmers would have had to bring with them almost everything they needed to survive, from domestic animals to grain.
It is a feat in itself that these people managed to cross from Sicily. They would have made many voyages, on craft probably little more than rafts. The journey could have been made only at a few times in the year, weather permitting. In addition to being competent farmers, these early dwellers would have needed a good knowledge of seafaring and the elements.
A major prehistoric site was discovered at Skorba, in the north of Malta. Here, we learn more of how they lived: pottery fragments have been discovered similar to those found in Sicily. These cave dwelling farmers seem to have retained contact with Sicily - traces of obsidian, a volcanic rock, and flint, continued to be imported into Malta for use in tools. Though we have no evidence that there was any cultural transfer between the two islands.
These Neolithic farming communities appear to have had spiritual beliefs. In the so-called 'Skorba Shrine' fragments of the earliest representation of human form were found: unmistakable female figurines, perhaps indicating belief in a 'mother goddess' or a fertility symbol.
What happened to these farmers is unclear. But by around 3500 a new people, probably also from Sicily, arrived to replace Malta's Neolithic man. We know them as the people whose beliefs inspired the building of Malta and Gozo's megalithic monuments.
The Temple Builders
c.3600 - 2500 B.C.
witnessed a unique, megalithic, building phenomenon.
The lives and beliefs of these early Maltese Islanders are shrouded in mystery. But they left us an indication of their lifestyle and their level of sophistication through an impressive number of elaborate structures which are still standing today.
The temples in Ggantija, Gozo, are considered the oldest, surviving, free-standing monuments in the world. They predate the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt and Stonehenge in southern Britain by around 1000 years. The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Paola is an outstanding feat of prehistoric engineering, is a labyrinth of passageways and chambers dug out of the rock. It is the only underground temple and burial place of its kind in the world.
Other temples, those of Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Tarxien, as well as a dozen other sites seem to confirm the theory that Malta was a "Sacred Island" - a kind of centre of worship and mystic practices for prehistoric communities in the region.
This new people to inhabit the Islands after Neolithic man probably also came from south-eastern Sicily. We find their early rock-cut tombs at Zebbug and Xemxija, Malta; and at Xaghra, Gozo. The tombs were already in the three-lobed or trefoil shape developed later and more fully at the major temple sites. These catacombs were perhaps the forerunner of enormous underground complexes, such as that of the Hypogeum. Though this site and the smaller chambers at Xaghra remain the only significant ones discovered to date.
By the time of the construction of Ggantija, these farmers had developed a new cultural system, in total isolation and without any foreign influence. Although these people kept in contact with their ancestoral home Sicily and voyaged as far as other Italian islands, Pantelleria and Lipari, for trade, there is no evidence of any cultural exchange. Their temples and beliefs remain unique to the Maltese Islands.
The temple culture came to a mysterious end by around 2500 B.C. No one knows whether these people died out, were subjugated by invaders or simply left the Islands. They were replaced by peoples from various parts of the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age.
The Roman period is of great importance in the Islands' history. It saw the introduction of Christianity to the Islands and wedded Malta's future to fortunes of the European continent.
Before the Romans took Malta, they had to subdue their enemy, the Carthaginians (a western Mediterranean branch of the Phoenicians). The Carthaginians were a threat to the emerging, and later supreme, Roman empire. During a series of wars, known as the Punic Wars, between 264 - 146 B.C, the Romans took control of Malta. The Islands became a free municipium, or free town.
Malta seems to have prospered under the Romans. The Islands begin to be mentioned in written records. The Roman senator and orator Cicero commented on the importance of the Temple of Juno on Melita, and on the extravagant behaviour of the Roman governor, based in Sicily. St Paul's shipwreck here in A.D. 60 is described in the Bible. Although the villas, temples and baths found here indicate a life of relative stability and well being, the Islands remained in effect an outpost of Sicily.
In the late 19th century, a 1st century B.C. Roman house, known today as the 'Roman Villa Museum', was found just outside Mdina and Rabat. It contains some fine floor mosaics and was furnished with marble statues, some depicting the reigning imperial family.
Rabat is home to two sets of catacombs which were in use throughout the Roman period on Malta: St Agatha's, with its frescoes; and St Paul's catacombs, where the Apostle is said to have stayed. The Romans here appear to have tolerated religious diversity. St Paul's Catacombs, which date to the 4th and 5th centuries, have several Jewish menorah symbols carved in the stone.
Another key Roman site was found near Birzebbuga, in south-east Malta. Here an enormous cistern some ten cubic metres in volume was discovered. As at other Roman settlements, finds also included an olive-crusher. The frequent occurrence of such implements shows that oil production on Malta was considerable during Roman times.
Some oil lamps exhibited at the Roman Villa bear Christian symbols such as the initial letters of Christ in Greek.
After the division of the Roman empire at the end of the 4th century, the Maltese Islands were left almost in obscurity during the Bzyantine Period, the jurisdiction of the Roman Empire of the East, based in Constantinople. The Byzantine period lasted for another 375 years until North African Berbers, spearheading the expansion of Islam, took over the islands in 870 AD.
St Paul in Malta
Christianity has almost 2000 years of history in Malta. According to legend, it was brought to the Islands by none other than the Apostle Paul himself in around A.D. 60.
Paul was being taken to Rome to be tried as a political rebel, but the ship carrying him and some 274 others was caught in a violent storm only to be wrecked two weeks later on the Maltese coast. All aboard swam safely to land. The site of the wreck is traditionally known as St Paul's Island, and is marked by a statue commemorating the event.
The welcome given the survivors is described in the Acts of the Apostles (XXVII) by St Luke: ". and when they escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.
And the barbarous people showed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire and received us everyone ".The reference to 'barbarous' indicates that the people spoke neither Latin nor Greek. Ancient Maltese derived from Phoenician.
As the fire was lit, Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but he suffered no ill effects. The Islanders took this as a sign that he was a special man. This scene is depicted in many religious works of art on the Islands.
According to tradition, the Apostle took refuge in a cave, now known as St
Paul's Catacombs in Rabat, Malta.
During his winter stay, he was invited to the house of Publius, the Romans' chief man on the Islands. It was here, according to tradition, that Paul cured Publius' father of a serious fever. Publius is then said to have converted to Christianity and was made the first Bishop of Malta. The Cathedral of Mdina is said to stand on the site of Publius' house.
Whatever the legend, archaeological evidence shows Malta was certainly one of the first Roman colonies to convert.
The British in Malta
1800 - 1964
The British Period is a very significant era in Maltese history. World Wars and Maltese Independence are the most historic dates of the period. The British legacy lives on in many aspects of daily life: English is an official language of the Islands; there are strong mutual trade and tourism links to Britain; and you can still see old-fashioned British letter and phone boxes on the streets.
After assisting the Maltese to expel the French, the British found themselves sovereign of the Islands, but were at first uncertain as to whether they should retain the territory. The Treaty of Amiens in 1802 established that Malta would be passed back to the Order of St. John, but some locals were not keen to return to their former rulers and requested to remain under British protection.
As it happened, the Peace of Amiens was short lived and the Napoleonic wars resumed. The British were thus committed to defend Malta and would eventually gain full sovereignty of the Maltese Islands by the provisions of the Treaty of Paris in 1814. From then on, Malta became an important part of the British Empire, a strategic stronghold in the region and a stepping stone for Britain's expansion to the East.
Through cycles of war and peace, Malta's fortunes were inextricably linked to those of Britain. This was never more evident than during World War II when the islands played a pivotal role in the Mediterranean theatre of war.
The role of the Maltese Islands during the First World War as a supply station and as a base for the recovery of the injured earned the Islands the title,
'Nurse of the Mediterranean'.
The bravery of the Maltese people during the World War II was acknowledged by King George V who awarded the whole population of Malta his George Cross for valour.
After the war, the movement for self-determination grew stronger and finally Malta was granted Independence on September 21st, 1964. British forces retained a presence in Malta until March 31st 1979 when their military bases on the island were closed. The Islands became part of the British Commonwealth.