If you consider yourself a history aficionado, Malta is the place to go. From biblical sagas and ancient origins to medieval legends and modern-day warfare, Malta traces a distinct arc on the chronicles of humankind.
The unique nature of Maltese history relates to the fact that very few countries have been so present on the world stage at every juncture. Today, the country is an accessible storybook of times past, when art and culture thrived, religion endured and war was waged. Here are our recommendations on where to experience the fascinating history of Malta.
The Bible recounts St Paul’s shipwreck on Malta with a group of missionaries in 60CE. For three months, he preached the word of God from a grotto in Rabat, now considered to be the Cradle of Christianity in Malta. On this spot in the 17th century, St Paul’s Church was built to commemorate his impact on the island. The divine importance of the site has led generations of pilgrims here, including Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. A place where biblical tradition meets empirical history at a real-life location, the grotto is a must-see for any history buff.
A Unesco World Heritage site, the Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum, in Paola, is a cultural complex that’s a crowning example of the underground networks in Malta. Dating back to c4000BCE, this megalithic structure has a unique microclimate, which has contributed to its preservation over the years. Further supported by national conservation, the necropolis – in which archaeologists have estimated more than 6,000 people have been laid to rest – has maintained its integrity. A mysterious must-see, the Hypogeum offers a peculiar insight into past times and has solidified ancient culture as an exciting foundation of Malta’s national identity.
If it wasn’t clear yet, let us confirm that Malta has played a part in some of the most significant moments of world history. Another example of Malta’s subterranean secrets, the Lascaris War Rooms were instrumental during World War II for almost every arm of the Allied war machine; it is also the location from which Field Marshal Montgomery and General Eisenhower planned the invasion of Sicily in 1943. The rooms were also used by Nato during tense Cold War disputes. Now open for visits, the rooms have been meticulously modelled on the WWII period and feature original and replica artefacts portraying their long history.
Following the Great Siege of 1565, the Western Christian powers recognised the strategic importance of Malta and poured incredible wealth into the island. For the next 200 years, it enjoyed a Golden Age characterised by a thriving society, an emerging art scene and impressive architecture. A knight by the name of Antoine de Paule had a country villa built during this period, which was expanded into a palace upon his succession as Grand Master of the Order. The gardens around this palace, namely Il-Palazz ta’ Sant’Anton (San Anton Palace) are a remarkable remnant of this historical wealth.
Malta has experienced not one, but two tremendous sieges. The second took place during World War II when Malta felt the full might of the Italian and German air forces. From 1940 to 1942, the country suffered more than 3,000 bombing raids, after which King George VI, of the United Kingdom, awarded the entire country the George Cross in recognition of its people’s heroism. With the Maltese people so caught up in the Mediterranean theatre of war, there is no better place to take in the full weight and historical context of their plight than the air-raid shelters in Mellieha.
Fortified in prehistoric times, the citadel has endured as the centrepiece of Gozo throughout the ages. Today, it houses a rich collection of cultural intrigues that are bound to captivate anyone looking to connect with Maltese history. The imposing architecture is a striking sight. The citadel has been used for different purposes throughout its long history; today you can visit it as a museum of prehistoric, Roman and medieval prominence in the Mediterranean.
The ornate St John’s Co-Cathedral, one of the most compelling structures in Valletta, is home to both exquisite baroque interiors and Caravaggio’s painting Beheading of St John the Baptist. At a fascinating point in history, the Knights of St John in Malta provided Caravaggio with amnesty after he fled Rome following his participation in a murder in 1606. Here he painted this masterpiece, where it can be seen as a glorious example of Malta’s prominence in culture during the 17th century.
If you were standing in Fort St Elmo, above the Grand Harbour, on a warm spring evening in 1565, the horizon would be alight with the scene of dizzying threat. So commences the Great Siege of Malta by the Ottoman Empire, with a terrific force of 40,000 soldiers in around 180 ships. Arguably one of the most disputed pieces of land on earth, Malta was at the very edge of crusading Christendom. The Knights of St John held fast in the five-month siege, aided by the brave Maltese. The Grand Harbour is an astonishing sight to enjoy in peacetime, and an enthralling place to imagine the desperate movements of war in the 16th century.
There’s More to Explore in Malta. Start planning your next trip now at visitmalta.com