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Malta's odd position - near major Mediterranean shipping routes yet out of the way - has resulted in long stretches of isolation punctuated with often violent episodes of foreign intrusion. The island's oldest legacy is the megalithic temples that date from as far back as 3800 BC. The Phoenicians colonised the islands around 800 BC and stayed for about 600 years. The Romans made Malta part of their empire in 208 BC.

Apart from Ulysses' stay on Gozo (known as Calypso's Isle), the most famous visitor to the island was the apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 AD. Tradition has it that he converted the islanders to Christianity, although Biblical and scientific scholars now suggest he may have been wrecked on Kefallinía in Greece. Several hundred years of peaceful isolation followed, until Arabs from North Africa arrived in 870. The Arabs exerted a powerful influence on the Maltese, introducing citrus fruits and cotton and warping the language. Norman invaders from Sicily displaced the Arabs in 1090, and for the next 400 years Malta remained under Sicilian sway.

In 1530 the Emperor of Spain gave the islands to the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, in exchange for a rent of two Maltese falcons a year. The Knights, formed during the Crusades, were a dumping ground for those younger members of the European aristocracy who didn't stand to inherit property. They fortified the islands - just in time for an invasion of 30,000 Turks in 1565. The Turks laid siege to Malta for three months, but 700 knights and 8000 Maltese managed to hold them off. The knights were hailed as the saviours of Europe. For their pains they were awarded a newly designed and fortified city, Valletta.

With fame and power came corruption, and the knights turned to piracy. By the time Napoleon arrived in 1798, they were too enfeebled to put up a fight. It was the British who aided the Maltese in their fight against the French, and by 1814 Malta was a British colony. Britain turned Malta into a major naval base, making it an inviting target for the Axis during WWII. After a long blockade and five months of non-stop bombing raids, Malta was devastated.

Soon after the war, Malta began moving away from Britain and toward independence, achieving complete autonomy in 1964. By 1979, however, the government was signing agreements with Libya, the Soviet Union and North Korea, much to the chagrin of Britain and its allies. This flirtation with Communism ended with the victory of the Nationalist Party in 1987, which began leading Malta toward membership of the European Union (EU). The 1996 general election saw the Labour Party, led by Dr Alfred Sant, regain power on the promise that the country's application for EU membership would be withdrawn. In 1998, with the application suspended, Eddie Fenech Adami's Nationalist Party was returned to power. In recent decades, the Maltese have achieved considerable prosperity, thanks largely to tourism, but increasingly because of trade and light industries.


Mediterranean culture is dominant in Malta, but nearly 150 years of British rule have left their mark. English is an official language (along with Maltese), and bangers and mash aren't too hard to find. The Catholic Church is the custodian of national traditions, and its churches are the biggest landmarks in most towns and villages. The Maltese spend half the year celebrating their local patron saints, filling the streets with confetti and destroying their teeth with nougat and candy-floss. Although its influence is waning, Catholicism is a real force in most people's daily lives. Divorce and abortion are illegal, although younger generations have been trying to liberalise laws against these.

Many linguists trace the origin of Maltese to the Phoenician occupation of the islands. Maltese, a Semitic language, has survived the influence of Romance languages for hundreds of years, though it bears traces of Sicilian, Italian, Spanish, French and English. Among the country's best-known writers are Francis Ebejer and Joseph Attard. Ironically, Malta is probably best known to the world through a book that isn't about Malta, Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, the title of which refers to a statuette of mysterious origin.

Malta is noted for its fine crafts - particularly its handmade lace, handwoven fabrics, blown glass and silver filigree. Folk traditions in music are very strong, and Malta holds a folksong competition every year.

The strongest influence on Maltese cuisine is Sicilian, though the popularity of grilled chops and roast and three veg reveals a strong partiality to all things British. Local specialties include pastizzi (savoury cheese pastries), timpana (a macaroni, cheese and egg pie), and fenek (rabbit), which is usually fried or baked in a casserole or pie.

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