Valletta and a bit of Maltese History

Valletta is an amazing city, perched on an elevated prometory surrounded by water on three sides. From its amazing natural harbour that has been used for centuries, to its wonderful old buildings and its alfresco cafe and dining culture it is a must visit destination. I loved it, even if it was seriously hot in July. One aspect that particularly appealed was the superb blend of modern architecture with old. Often, well intentioned architects don’t get the balance or blend right, but here in Malta, particularly around the new city gates the integration of old and new has been superbly executed.  We were glad to learn that Renzo Piano was the Architect who led this design as Heather had spent time working with him in Paris.

We spent a couple of days exploring this great town and weren’t disappointed. There are heaps of great things to do and interactive museums to visit. Ben and I visited the Malta at War museum, we all visited the Malta Experience and on our last night had a great meal out at the Malta Water Polo Club, right on the water. Whats not to like? Valletta is wonderful!

 

A bit of History…

Given their strategic importance Malta, Gozo and Comino they have been fought over continually for that last 4000 thousand years. Consequently they have a unique and fascinating history and have evolved to be culturally diverse set of islands with a great many external influences. If you are visiting Malta you can head along to the “Malta Experience” which gives you a great 45min documentary on the history of Malta…but for those who won’t make it I have put together a brief history of the islands…!

The island of Gozo lays claim to the oldest free-standing monuments in the world built by a civilization that eventually left the island due to drought. These temples are believed to be older than Stone Henge and the Pyramids of Giza and were used as places to worship the civilisations god of fertility. After this Neolithic culture left in around 2,000 B.C. the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs successively conquered the islands each one leaving their mark and influence. The Arabs, for example, brought over the Siculo-Arabic language from Sicily which became the basis for the current-day Maltese language.

Moving swiftly through the middle ages and the Norman occupation from 1100 to 1530 we get to the to The Order of Knights of St John. Also known as the Knights of Malta this 500 strong group of highly trained knights ruled the islands from 1530 until 1798, during which period they built present-day city of Valletta. The Knights improved living conditions across the island, building infrastructure such as hospitals and public places, and strong fortifications including Fort St Elmo on the outer prometory of Valletta.

During their rule, the Knights successfully held out for months throughout the horrific fighting and massive assaults by Ottoman invaders in a battle now known as the Great Siege of 1565. This battle was visiously faught and by the end of the battle Mustafa, the leader of the Turkish invading party had the slain bodies of the knights decapitated and their bodies floated across Grand Harbour towards the Knights on mock crucifixes in a terror campaign. In response, the knights beheaded all his Turkish prisoners, loaded their heads into cannons and fired them into the Turkish camp….

The knights had a 6000 strong rag tag army to face up against the 40,000 battle hardened turks. It was one of the great battles of 16th Centuary Europe and it is said this victory in Malta was the start of the decline of the ottoman empire and certainly its hold over the Mediterranean and its trading routes.

In 1798 Napoleon’s army conquered the island, easily removing the Knights of St John from power, who had not been prepared for the force with which the French fleet arrived. In the six days that followed the conquest, a civil code was laid down for Malta. Slavery was abolished and Napoleon himself created a primary and secondary education system.

The British took over Malta after Napoleon’s demise and ruled the islands for the next 160 years. In an attempt by the Germans and Italians to take over the Malta, which was known as a location of high strategic importance for both trade and conflict in WW2 Malta was bombed more heavily in 1942 than the whole blitz of London. The British and Maltese unified in their long battle for survival and the Germans failed to conquer Malta, or the Maltese.

The determination and strong spirit shown by the population of Malta led King George VI to award Malta the George Cross. His official message, which was engraved in a marble plaque on the façade of the Presidential Palace in Valletta, reads:

“To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta, to bear witness to a heroism and a devotion that will long be famous in history.”

This award is still part of the national flag of Malta and is seen as a symbol of a proud nation.

The Maltese gained their independence from the British in 1964 and the country would continue as a sovereign state and republic. Since May 2003, Malta is a member of the European Union.

For a very small place it has quite a history and there is no better way to understand it than visit the place itself!

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