Tiny Malta harbors legacies of ancient invaders

VALLETTA, Malta -- Location, location, location isn't always a blessing, especially when referring to a small country strategically situated in the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa.

Over the centuries, Malta, consisting of several islands with a total land mass of only 196 square miles, has known multiple occupiers.

The upside is that the nation probably claims more history per square mile than any place on Earth and can offer today's travelers a wealth of sites and influences to enrich their visits.

While a few human teeth are all that remain from Neanderthal times, some 40 neolithic sites dot the main islands of Malta and Gozo, and temples dating to the fourth millennium B.C. still stand.

Predating the Pyramids and Stonehenge, Ggantija is the world's oldest known free-standing stone building. Located on Gozo, its two temples cover a quarter of an acre.

Church tower in Rabat looms large over Malta countryside.Easily accessible from Valletta, the capital, Hagar Qim is built of enormous stone blocks, many incised with pitted, honeycomb designs; swirls, or images of fish and other animals. Sacrificial altars and openings for libations and oracles are evident.

Hypogeum, an underground place of ritual and burial, remains closed but is expected to reopen in the near future for limited tourism. A statue, known as the Sleeping Lady, was found here and is on exhibit at the archaeological museum in Valletta.

Phoenician influence is apparent in pottery and other artifacts from several sites as well as in the eye of Isis adorning the colorful fishing boats in villages such as Marsxlokk. This symbol was thought to ensure protection in rough seas.

Not surprisingly, the Romans had their day in the islands. Perhaps the best place to experience this period is the Museum of Roman Antiquities, situated in Rabat, about a half-hour's drive from the capital.

High on a ridge adjacent to Rabat, present-day Mdina has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. The Phoenicians surrounded the city with a defensive wall, and centuries later, the Roman governor made the city his seat of power.

In 870, the walls were extended by yet other rulers, the Saracens.

On Gozo, hilltop villages, where houses huddle close to one another for protection, evoke the days when Barbary pirates raided the coast, carrying off thousands into slavery.

The tiny island of Comino (two square miles; population, five) was once a pirate hideaway.

Along with Maltese cross and Maltese falcon, the term Knights of Malta has a familiar ring.

Of all the people who occupied Malta before the 16th century, none left an influence equal to the fortifications, churches, culture, art and architecture bequeathed by the Knights of the Order of St. John, who held sway for 268 years.

After successfully defending the islands against the Ottoman Turks in what the Maltese call the Great Siege of 1565, the knights, sons of European aristocracy, spared no expense in creating surroundings befitting their grand view.

They built a fortress city, naming it Valletta after their Grand Master, or leader.

Laid out in a grid, this carefully planned city was a model of architectural design, sanitation and, always necessary in Malta, fortifications.

In fact, Malta is said to be the most heavily fortified nation in the world, relative to its size.

Even the swimming pool at Le Meridien Phoenicia Hotel nestles against a section of Valletta's ancient wall.

Seriously damaged in World War II, Valletta has been restored to its prior grandeur.

The city gates; the Grand Master's palace; the library; Manoel Theater; the Co-Cathedral of St. John, housing tombs of various Grand Masters, and the five remaining auberges (originally eight, one for each langue, or language group, of the knights) combine to offer visitors an appreciation of the life enjoyed by the Knights of Malta.

Colorful enclosed balconies, called gallerijas, jut from many of the honey-hued limestone buildings.

The fortified city of Mdina also benefited from the affluence of the times.

Under the knights, its bastions were enhanced and a triumphal arch was erected at the main gate.

After a 1693 earthquake, its grand homes were rebuilt, both by the knights and the Maltese nobility, who always had called Mdina home.

The Magisterial Palace was reconstructed in baroque style and became a summer residence of the Grand Master.

Following the siege, the knights encircled Gozo's citadel with battlements.

Within these walls, a cathedral boasts an interior "dome" which, on closer inspection, proves to be a bit of trompe l'oeil trickery.

Another lasting legacy of the knights is a largely Roman Catholic population. In addition to historical churches and street-corner niches holding statues of saints, this means that a festa, or saint's day celebration, is likely to occur during one's visit.

"Every village has a saint and every saint has a festa," is how one tourism spokesman put it.

On this day, banners line the streets to the church, which is illuminated by thousands of tiny, colored lights. Bands play and garishly decorated nougat cakes are hawked.

As confetti falls from balconies and rooftops, robed volunteers parade a life-sized saint's statue about the streets.

With the Turkish defeat, the knights abandoned their disciplined ways.

When Napoleon's army, en route to an Egyptian campaign, landed at Valletta's Grand Harbor, it met little resistance.

It wasn't long, however, before the Maltese and the British combined forces to drive out the French.

From then until independence in 1964, Malta was under the protection of the British crown.

This left English an official language, along with Maltese, a convenient legacy for agency clients.

During World War II, the islands' airfields and dockyards played an important role, as the nation was situated to block supply lines from Germany to its troops in North Africa. Malta also served as a staging area for the invasion of Sicily.

The small country paid a large price for its strategic position, suffering more than 2,000 air raids.

At war's end, the governments of England and the U.S. paid tribute to Malta's heroism.

After centuries of uninvited "guests" seeking to impose their ways and will, the Maltese hardly could be faulted for rolling up the welcome mat. However, visitors find a courteous and friendly people, eager to share the history and culture in which they take such pride.

Malta Tourist Office
Phone: (973) 884-0899 or (877) GO MALTA
Web: www.visitmalta.com

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