Island country, south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea.
It consists of the three inhabited islands Malta (the largest), Gozo,
and Comino and the two uninhabited islets Comminotto and Filfla. Area:
122 sq mi (315 sq km). Population (2007 est.): 409,000. Capital:
Valletta. Malta’s population, nearly all native-born, has a mixture of
Italian, Arab, British, and Phoenician heritage. Languages: Maltese,
English (both official). Religion: Christianity (predominantly Roman
Catholic [official]). Currency: euro. About one-third of its total land
area is arable, and Malta is self-sufficient in most food production.
Tourism is its major industry. It is a republic with one legislative
house; its chief of state is the president, and its head of government
is the prime minister. Evidence indicates that Malta was inhabited as
early as 5000 bc. Although there is limited evidence of a Phoenician
presence, it seems clearer that the Carthaginians had arrived in Malta
by the 6th century bc, and the island came under Roman control in 218
bc. In ad 60 St. Paul the Apostle was shipwrecked on the island and
converted the inhabitants to Christianity. It was under Byzantine rule
until the Arabs seized control in 870. In 1091 the Normans defeated the
Arabs, and Malta was ruled by a succession of feudal lords until the
early 16th century. In 1530 it came under the control of the
Hospitallers; Napoleon seized control in 1798, and the British took it
in 1800. The 1802 Treaty of Amiens returned the islands to the
Hospitallers; however, the Maltese protested and acknowledged British
sovereignty, which was ratified in the 1814 Treaty of Paris. Malta
became self-governing in 1921 but reverted to a colonial regime in 1936.
Malta was heavily bombed by Germany and Italy during World War II, and
in 1942 it received Britain’s George Cross for “heroism and devotion,”
the first time that this medal was not conferred to an individual. In
1964 Malta gained independence within the Commonwealth, and it became a
republic in 1974. When its alliance with Britain ended in 1979, Malta
proclaimed its neutral status. In 2004 it joined the European Union, and
it adopted the euro as its official currency in 2008.
Official name Repubblikka ta’ Malta (Maltese); Republic of Malta
Form of government unitary multiparty republic with one legislative
house (House of Representatives )
Chief of state President
Head of government Prime Minister
Official languages Maltese; English
Official religion Roman Catholicism
Monetary unit euro (ˆ)
Population estimate (2008) 412,000
Total area (sq mi) 122
Total area (sq km) 316
1Current numbers as of March 2008 elections; statutory number equals 65.
island country located in the central Mediterranean Sea. A small but
strategically important group of islands, the archipelago has through
its long and turbulent history played a vital role in the struggles of a
succession of powers for domination of the Mediterranean and in the
interplay between emerging Europe and the older cultures of Africa and
the Middle East. As a result, Maltese society has been molded by
centuries of foreign rule by various powers, including the Phoenicians,
Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Swabians, Aragonese,
Hospitallers, French, and British.
The island of Malta specifically played a vital strategic role in
World War II as a base for the Allied Powers. It was heavily bombarded
by German and Italian aircraft, and by the end of the war Malta was
devastated. In 1942 the island of Malta was presented with the George
Cross, a British award for great gallantry, in recognition of the
wartime bravery of the Maltese people. After the war, the movement for
self-governance became stronger. The country of Malta became independent
from Britain and joined the Commonwealth in 1964 and was declared a
republic on Dec. 13, 1974. It was admitted to the European Union (EU) in
2004. A European atmosphere predominates in Malta as a result of close
association with the Continent, particularly with southern Europe. The
Maltese are renowned for their warmth, hospitality, and generosity to
strangers, a trait that was noted in the Acts of the Apostles, with
respect to the experience of St. Paul, the Apostle, who was said to have
been shipwrecked off Malta in 60 ce.
Roman Catholicism is a major influence on Maltese culture. Various
traditions have evolved around religious celebrations, notably those
honouring the patron saints of towns and villages. The eight-pointed, or
Maltese, cross, adopted by the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem in
1126, is commonly linked with Malta’s identity and is printed on the
country’s euro coin. Valletta is the capital city.
The country comprises five islands—Malta (the largest), Gozo,
Comino, and the uninhabited islets of Kemmunett (Comminotto) and
Filfla—lying some 58 miles (93 km) south of Sicily, 180 miles (290 km)
north of Libya, and about 180 miles (290 km) east of Tunisia, at the
eastern end of the constricted portion of the Mediterranean Sea
separating Italy from the African coast.
The islands of Malta are dominated by limestone formations, and much
of their coastlines consist of steep or vertical limestone cliffs
indented by bays, inlets, and coves. They lie on the submerged
Malta-Hyblean Platform, a wide undersea shelf bridge that connects the
Ragusa Platform of southern Sicily with the Tripolitana Platform of
The main physical characteristic of the island of Malta is a
well-defined escarpment that bisects it along the Victoria Lines Fault
running along the whole breadth of the island from Point ir-Raħeb near
Fomm ir-Riħ Bay to the coast northeast of Għargħur at Madliena Fort. The
highest areas are coralline limestone uplands that constitute a
triangular plateau; Ta’ Żuta, which rises to 830 feet (253 metres) in
the southwest, is the highest point. The uplands are separated from the
surrounding areas by blue clay slopes, while an undercliff area is found
where the coralline plateau has fallen and forms a subordinate surface
between the sea and the original shore. The total shoreline of Malta is
about 136 miles (219 km).
In northern Malta the escarpment is occasionally abrupt and broken by
deep embayments. To the south, however, the plateau gradually descends
from about 600 to 830 feet (180 to 250 metres) into undulating areas of
globigerina (derived from marine protozoa) limestone less than 300 feet
(90 metres) in elevation. The western area is characterized by deeply
incised valleys and undercliff areas, while to the east there are
several valley systems that descend to the central plains.
The west coast of Malta presents a high, bold, and generally
harbourless face. On the east, however, a tongue of high ground known as
Mount Sceberras, on which the capital city, Valletta, is built,
separates Marsamxett Harbour and Grand Harbour. Because of tectonic
activity, Malta has been tilted in a northerly direction, producing
cliffs of up to about 800 feet (250 metres) high on the south and
southwestern coasts, while slopes descend to low cliffs and rocky shores
on the northern and eastern coasts.
The landscape of the island of Gozo is characterized by broken upper
coralline mesas, with the highest point being Ta’ Dbiegi Hill (636 feet
[194 metres]). Gozo has a gentle easterly dip, so the lower coralline
limestone, which forms high cliffs on the west coast, declines to below
sea level but reappears on the east coast at Qala Point. Semicircular
bays have formed on coastal cliffs where sinkholes have been invaded by
the sea. The rounded bays at Xlendi and Dwejra on the west coast of Gozo
originated as underground caverns with roofs that have collapsed.
The island of Malta possesses favourable conditions for the
percolation and underground storage of water. The impermeable blue clays
provide two distinct water tables between the limestone formations—the
perched and the mean sea-level aquifer. The principal source for the
public supply of water has for several centuries been the main sea-level
water table. The absence of permanent streams or lakes and a
considerable runoff into the sea, however, have made water supply a
problem, which has been addressed with an intensive reverse-osmosis
desalination program. About halfof Malta’s daily water needs are
supplied by desalination plants throughout the islands.
Mainly young or immature and thin, Maltese soils generally lack
humus, and a high carbonate content gives them alkaline properties.
Human settlement and construction developments have altered the
distribution and composition of soils. The Fertile Soil (Preservation)
Act of 1973 requires that, when soils are removed from construction
sites, they be taken to agricultural areas, and level stretches in
quarries are often covered with carted soil.
The climate of Malta is typically Mediterranean, with hot, dry
summers, warm and sporadically wet autumns, and short, cool winters with
adequate rainfall. More than three-fourths of the total annual rainfall
of about 22 inches (550 mm) falls between October and March; June, July,
and August are normally quite dry.
The temperature is very stable, with the annual mean in the mid-60s F
(about 19 °C) and monthly averages ranging from the mid-50s F (about 12
°C) to the mid-80s F (about 29 °C). Winds can be strong and frequent;
the most prevalent are the cool northwesterly (the majjistral), the dry
northeasterly (the grigal), and the hot and humid southeasterly (the
xlokk, or sirocco). The relative humidity rarely falls below 40 percent.
Plant and animal life
Malta’s flora and fauna are typical of the low-lying coastal regions
of the Mediterranean. Excessive exploitation of the forests for timber
and the clearance of land for construction and agriculture have
destroyed much of Malta’s woodlands, though a few stands of holm oak
remain. Aleppo pine has been successfully reintroduced. Maquis, a
scrubby underbrush, is found along valleys and below escarpments and
consists of lentisk, carob, olive, bay laurel, and in some places the
sandarac gum tree (Malta’s national tree). Garigue, a low-growing
Mediterranean scrub, is the most common vegetation in Malta and covers
much of the country’s limestone plateau. The steppe in Malta is
dominated by various grasses, thistles, and leguminous and bulbous
plants. Reed beds occur wherever there is abundant freshwater, and club
mosses, sedges and grasses are found in wetlands. Glassworts, rushes,
and seablites are native to the salt marshlands. Sand couch, sea kale,
and sea daffodils are found on Malta’s few remaining coastal dunes,
while golden samphire, rock samphire, and sea lavenders (several of
which are endemic) are characteristic of low-lying rocky coasts. Cliffs
and coastal screes support many of Malta’s native species, which include
monotypic genera such as the Maltese cliff-orache (Cremnophyton
lanfrancoi) and the Maltese rock-centaury (Palaeocyanus crassifolius),
the latter of which is the national plant.
The native mammals in Malta include a subspecies of the Sicilian
shrew and several types of bats. Most of the country’s other mammals,
including the Algerian hedgehog, Mediterranean chameleon, Etruscan
shrew, rabbit, and weasel, have been introduced. Native reptiles include
the Maltese wall lizard, the ocellated skink, the Moorish and the
Turkish gecko, the western whip snake, and the leopard snake. The only
amphibian in Malta is the painted frog, a species endemic to Sicily and
Malta. Invertebrates, including insects, arachnids, and snails, are
Although there are relatively few breeding birds, migrating species
are plentiful. Sea birds include the storm petrel and the Mediterranean
and Cory’s shearwaters. Among the most notable birds are the Spanish
sparrow, which is the most common bird in Malta, and the blue rock
thrush, Malta’s national bird.
Malta’s population is composed almost entirely of ethnic Maltese,
the descendants of ancient Carthaginians and Phoenicians as well as of
Italians and other Mediterranean peoples. Attempts to form a unifying
and homogenizing Maltese ethnicity can be traced back to the late 13th
century; these efforts were consolidated in the nationalistic discourses
of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Aside from the Maltese
population, there are small communities of British nationals, Sindhis,
Palestinians, and Greeks on the islands. Since the 1990s influxes of
more transient but no less significant groups have arrived from North
Africa, the Balkans, and, in the early 2000s, from countries of
Maltese and English are the official languages of Malta as well as
official languages of the EU. Maltese resulted from the fusion of North
African Arabic and a Sicilian dialect of Italian. It is the only Semitic
language officially written in Latin script. English is a medium of
instruction in schools. Italian was the language of church and
government until 1934 and is still understood by a sizable portion of
Roman Catholicism is the official religion of Malta, but there is
full freedom of religious belief. More than nine-tenths of Maltese are
nominally Roman Catholic; however, only about three-fifths of these
practice their faith. The islands are an independent province of the
church, with an archdiocese in Malta and a diocese in Gozo. Very small
numbers of Maltese are adherents of other Christian denominations or of
Islam. There are Roman Catholic cathedrals at Mdina and Valletta, an
Anglican cathedral at Valletta, and a mosque at Corradino Heights.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, under the rule of the Knights of
Malta (Hospitallers), the country evolved as a maritime power, and, by
the late 17th century, Valletta and other towns were thriving maritime
centres. By the mid-19th century the Maltese lived mainly in the
relative seclusion of clustered villages and hamlets; the fragmentation
of farmholdings accentuated the individuality of the farming community.
The zuntier, a parvis forming part of the church square, was the
traditional focus of village life.
During the British occupation of Malta (1800–1964), the growth of the
dockyard complex resulted in the ongoing development of new settlements
around Grand Harbour. In the 20th century the Sliema region, just north
of Marsamextt Harbour, became the most fashionable part of Malta and by
the early 21st century had become a commercial and tourist centre.
Following the country’s independence in 1964, the advent of industrial
estates located near major villages somewhat increased urbanization, but
higher living standards have given rise to residential developments all
over Malta island; its central areas are now densely populated.
Overbuilding has been a cause for serious concern, spawning legislation
meant to protect the environment.
The essentially rural character of Gozo’s many hilltop settlements
has been largely preserved in the new housing that has rapidly increased
there since the 1990s. Victoria, in the south-central part of the
island, is the administrative and commercial centre of Gozo. More rural
still is Comino, which is mostly inhabited by tourists.
Malta has one of the highest population densities in the
world,though the increase in the country’s population has somewhat
leveled off since the mid-20th century, with a considerable decline in
the birth rate. At the same time, the death rate has remained fairly
stable, having fallen only slightly, while the infant mortality rate has
Following World War II, mass emigration was encouraged and even
financed by the government because of high unemployment on the islands.
From 1945 until the mid-1970s about 150,000 people left Malta and Gozo
and settled in other English-speaking countries (the United States, the
United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia). By the 1990s, however,
emigration had tapered off, and many Maltese expatriates began returning
to their homeland.
Until the mid-1960s the Maltese economy depended heavily on the
British military presence in Malta. In the 1950s Britain began to
withdraw its armed forces, which necessitated a drastic diversification
of the economy. A series of development plans after 1959 were supported
by government grants, loans, and other fiscal incentives to encourage
private investment. Import and capital controls, which were extensive
until the second half of the 1980s, were progressively dismantled during
the 1990s, moving Malta toward a more market-driven economy as the
Maltese government pursued a policy of gradual privatization beginning
in 1999. Capital controls were fully lifted only when Malta was acceded
to the European Union (EU) in 2004. The Maltese economy faces major
constraints because of its small domestic market, and it depends on
other countries for many imported goods.
Agriculture and fishing
Agricultural development is hampered by land fragmentation (that is,
plots of land resulting from decollectivization that are too small or
too irregularly configured to be farmed efficiently), shallow soils, and
lack of adequate water supplies. Most farming is carried out on small
terraced strips of land that preclude the introduction of large-scale
mechanization. As a result of the growth of urbanization, the
agricultural labour force has become increasingly older, and more
farming is done on a part-time basis; nevertheless, production has risen
gradually because of improved techniques in the cultivation of some
crops, especially horticultural ones. The major crops are potatoes,
tomatoes, and fruit (especially citrus and drupes). Since the late 1990s
there has been a substantial increase in grapevine and olive production.
Malta is generally self-sufficient in food production, but beef is
mostly imported. Upon the country’s accession into the EU, Malta’s
agricultural sector became competitive.
Fishing is seasonal and, to a large extent, undertaken on an
artisanal basis. The common dolphin and the bluefin tuna, however, are
caught for export. Aquaculture, introduced in Malta in the late 1980s,
has surpassed fishing as a source of income. The European sea bass and
the gilthead sea bream are grown in floating sea cages, and the bluefin
tuna from the sea are fattened on farms for four to six months before
export. After Malta joined the EU, Maltese fishermen benefited from
funding programs, particularly to promote the export of tuna.
Resources and power
Malta is poorly endowed with natural resources, and its only
exploited mineral resource is limestone, which is quarried and used for
construction. Offshore oil exploration has been under way since the
mid-1990s, but no significant oil reserves have been discovered. Fossils
fuels are imported and supply all of Malta’s energy. There are thermal
power stations on both Malta and Gozo.
Industrial development began in earnest in the second half of the
1960s, and by the early 21st century the manufacturing sector was
contributing about one-fifth of gross domestic product (GDP). Since the
1980s the manufacture of computer parts, instruments, and electronics,
as well as of a large variety of consumer products (toys, cosmetics,
detergents, and foodstuffs), has been important. In the early 2000s,
light manufacturing (pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and automotive and
airplane parts, along with software) replaced much of the low-cost
labour-intensive production that had earlier played a more important
role in Maltese manufacturing. Pharmaceutical production in particular
has grown rapidly as a result of the patent law advantages that Malta
gained upon EU membership.
Shipbuilding and repair have been the foundation of Malta’s economy
since the Knights of Malta (Hospitallers) transferred Malta’s
administrative centre from the medieval inland location of Mdina to
present-day Valletta in the Grand Harbour area in 1570. Since the
mid-20th century, however, the shipbuilding industry has consistently
operated at a loss and had been dependent upon government subsidies.
Efforts aimed at engendering financial sustainability during the late
20th century were not successful. Upon EU accession, such subsidies were
no longer permissible, and the Maltese government has taken steps to
reduce and privatize the industry.
The Central Bank of Malta was founded in 1968. Malta’s former
currency, the lira, was adopted in 1972. On Jan. 1, 2008, the euro
became the country’s official currency. The banking system remains
highly concentrated, with half of the local commercial banks accounting
for about nine-tenths of total loans and deposits. The Malta Financial
Services Authority, established in 2002, is an autonomous body and the
single regulator for financial services, taking over supervisory
functions that were formerly carried out by the Central Bank of Malta,
the Malta Stock Exchange, and the Malta Financial Services Centre. The
Maltese government encourages and facilitates direct foreign investment,
which began to increase in the early 2000s. While the private sector
still consists mostly of small enterprises, there are some
internationally owned companies operating in Malta, mostly in the
pharmaceutical, automotive, and electronics sectors.
Malta imports machinery and transport equipment, chemical products,
and mineral fuels. The country’s main export products are
semiconductors, but it also exports other manufactured goods and refined
petroleum. Italy, France, the United Kingdom, the United States,
Germany, and Singapore are Malta’s major trading partners.
Services account for about half of Malta’s GDP and employ about
three-fifths of the labour force. Tourism is a major source of income
and follows a seasonal pattern, with June through October being the peak
season. Some notable tourist sites include the ancient megalithic temple
Ġgantija on Gozo and the temples of Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, and Tarxien on
Malta; this group of temples was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site
in 1980. Also on Malta are spectacular medieval castles and cathedrals,
as well as the ancient inland capital of Mdina. Tourism has had a major
impact on the natural environment of the Maltese islands, and the
government has attempted to promote ecotourism.
Labour and taxation
The majority of Malta’s workforce is employed in the manufacturing
and services sectors. Women make up about one-third of the workforce.
The public sector is to a very large extent unionized. In the private
sector, most large enterprises are unionized. Malta has two chief labour
unions—the General Workers’ Union, Malta’s largest union, and the Union
of United Workers—as well as a confederation of smaller sectoral unions,
each of which came into being around the mid-20th century. Although
unions are independent of political parties, they have tended to occupy
a central role in national issues and at times have operated on the
basis of the party affiliations of their members.
The bulk of government tax revenue comes from a progressive income
tax system. There is a value-added tax on consumer goods and services.
Taxes on real-estate transactions also contribute to government revenue.
Transportation and telecommunications
The island of Malta’s road system connects all towns and villages
and includes a coast road and a panoramic road. Bus services radiating
from Valletta provide inexpensive and frequent internal transportation.
Taxis and rented vehicles are available on the island. Most families own
automobiles, and the number of cars per household is one of the highest
in Europe. There is no railway. Ferry services operate between Malta and
Gozo, and Malta and Sicily are connected by both ferry and high-speed
catamaran. The national airline, Air Malta, connects Malta with most
European capitals as well as with North Africa, the Middle East, and
North America. Since 2007 a number of low-cost airlines have offered
services to and from Malta.
Malta’s telecommunications sector was fully liberalized in 2004,
after Malta joined the EU. The mobile phone penetration rate increased
substantially in the early 21st century; the majority of the inhabitants
now use cellular telephones, while the number of fixed-line phone lines
has remained relatively static. Internet usage increased as well. The
Malta Communications Authority, established in 2001, is the regulatory
body of the telecommunications sector.
Government and society
The 1964 constitution, under which Malta became an independent
monarchy and parliamentary state, was amended in 1974 to make Malta a
republic within the Commonwealth. The Maltese parliament consists of a
unicameral House of Representatives and is fashioned on the British
model. Members of the parliament are elected by proportional
representation for five-year terms. An amendment adopted in 1996
guarantees a majority of seats to a party receiving more than 50 percent
of the total votes cast in the general election. The parliament appoints
the president, who is head of state. The president acts on the advice of
the cabinet, which is headed by the prime minister, who is the head of
Local government was established in Malta in 1993. The country is
divided into 68 localities, 14 of which are in Gozo. Each locality is
administered by a local council elected by the residents of the locality
by proportional representation every three years. The Department for
Local Government oversees the councils.
Maltese law, which was codified mainly during the period from 1854
to 1873, is largely based on the Napoleonic Code and Napoleonic law.
Criminal proceedings and fiscal and maritime legislation follow English
common law, but judicial precedent is not binding. Maltese is the
language of the courts. Civil and criminal jurisdiction is almost
exclusively vested in the Superior Courts and the Court of Magistrates.
The chief justice and other members of the judiciary are appointed by
the president on the advice of the prime minister.
Maltese citizens aged 18 and older are eligible to vote. The island
is deeply polarized in its politics; since independence the two major
parties, the Nationalist Party (Partit Nazzjonalista; PN) and the Malta
Labour Party (Partit Laburista; MLP), have alternated in power. The
Democratic Alternative (Alternattiva Demokratika; AD), also known as the
Maltese Green Party, is Malta’s third party but has not secured a
parliamentary seat since its founding in 1989. Voter turnout in Malta
has traditionally been high, with generally more than nine-tenths of
eligible voters casting ballots.
Between 1964 and 1972, Malta’s main defense dispositions were those
contained in a 1964 agreement with the United Kingdom guaranteeing
mutual assistance. From 1972 to 1987 Malta followed a policy of
nonalignment, and in 1987 a neutrality clause was included in its
constitution. Malta maintains its own regular armed forces. Military
service is voluntary for those of at least age 18.
Health and welfare
The government of Malta has always played a central role in the
provision of health care by offering a comprehensive array of free
health services and preventive care to Maltese citizens. State hospitals
and clinics are complemented by private hospitals, which have
proliferated since the 1990s. Since 1988 the island of Malta has been
home to the United Nations International Institute on Ageing (INIA),
which has made the island a centre of geriatric care and research.
In 1956 social insurance was introduced to cover employees, the
self-employed, and unemployed persons. A comprehensive contributory
insurance scheme was introduced in 1972, integrating a variety of
earlier legislation. In 1979 this program was enhanced to introduce an
earnings-related retirement pension. The 1994 Social Security Act
consolidated earlier legislation and also incorporated noncontributory
schemes. Until 1986 social security in Malta was administered through
three separate laws: the Old Age Pensions Act of 1948, the National
Assistance Act of 1956, and the National Insurance Act of 1956. In
January 1987 these acts were consolidated into the Social Security Act.
From the early 1970s until the mid-1980s, the government radically
altered the education system, which was previously structured on British
models and strongly influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. Compulsory
education was extended to include all children ages 5 to 16. The
streaming of students by age and intellectual ability and through
examinations was at first discarded but later reintroduced. In 2005
Malta’s government reformed the education system again and created
autonomous regional colleges consisting of primary and secondary schools
and junior colleges.
At the tertiary level, a student-worker scheme was introduced in
1978, with students working for six months and studying for six months,
thereby linking admission to higher educational institutions to the
availability of employment. This system was largely revoked by the
Education Act of 1988, and admission to institutions of higher learning
is now based completely on competence.
The University of Malta at Msida and the Malta College of Arts,
Science, and Technology (MCAST) are the country’s principal institutions
of higher education. The former was founded as a Jesuit college in 1592,
established as a state institution in 1769, and refounded in 1988. It
offers courses in most disciplines and has a prestigious medical school.
Its modern campus at Tal-Qroqq also houses the International Maritime
Law Institute and the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies.
MCAST, founded in 2000, mainly offers vocational and technical education
and has institutes on Malta and Gozo.
The culture of Malta is reflected in a mixture of Arab and Italian
traditions. The Maltese are highly literate and have a deep appreciation
of the arts. The Italian painter Caravaggio and the Maltese poet Dun
Karm are considered major contributors to art and literature in Malta.
Malta’s cultural influences stem largely from the country’s history of
foreign domination and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Folk
traditions have evolved mainly around the festa that celebrates the
patron saint of a village, which is marked by processions and fireworks.
Daily life and social customs
As a Roman Catholic country, Malta celebrates Good Friday with
colourful processions in several villages. Mnarja, the Feast of St.
Peter and St. Paul, takes place on the weekend preceding June 29 in
Buskett Gardens in Rabat. It is the country’s principal folk festival
and is highlighted by folksinging (għana) contests and fried-rabbit
picnics. The annual Carnival is celebrated in various villages in Malta,
but the main events take place in Valletta, where vigorous dancing
displays that include the Parata, a sword dance commemorating the
Maltese victory over the Turks in 1565, and Il-Maltija, the Maltese
national dance, are performed. Independence Day is celebrated on
September 21, and Republic Day is commemorated on December 13.
In addition to unique Neolithic ruins, Malta contains important
examples of its flourishing architectural school of the 17th and 18th
centuries, which was essentially Classical with a balanced overlay of
Baroque decorations. The Italian artists Caravaggio and Mattia Preti
spent several years in Malta, the latter’s most important paintings
embellishing many of Malta’s churches.
In the 20th century many Maltese artists and scholars enriched the
country’s cultural heritage in the fields of architecture, music,
painting, sculpture, literature, and theatre. A vernacular architecture
was developed by Richard England and others. The composer Charles
Camilleri introduced folk themes into his works, while Maltese
literature was enriched by the poetry of the national bard, Dun Karm. An
interesting theatrical upsurge led by John Schranz paralleled the
emergence of Francis Ebejer as a brilliant playwright. Alfred Chircop
and Luciano Micallef have gained prominence with their abstract
paintings, Gabriel Caruana has excelled in ceramics, and Anton Agius is
a noted sculptor. Maltese soprano Miriam Gauci and tenor Joseph Calleja
are internationally renowned.
Valletta is the centre of many of Malta’s cultural institutions,
which include the National Museum of Archaeology, the National Museum of
Fine Arts, the War Museum, the Manoel Theatre (one of Europe’s oldest
theatres still in operation), and St. James Cavalier, an old military
building that was transformed into an arts centre in 2000. The National
Library of Malta dates from the late 18th century and houses a large
collection as well as the archives of the Hospitallers. The Maritime
Museum and the Museum of Political History are located at Vittoriosa.
Sports and recreation
As a consequence of its colonial history, Malta developed a sporting
tradition much influenced by its former British rulers, with an emphasis
on polo, rugby, athletics (track and field), and especially football
(soccer). The national stadium at Ta’ Qali is the site of important
local and international football matches. A national basketball league
was formed in 1960, and there are dozens of amateur teams throughout
Malta and Gozo. Swimming, water polo, billiards, and tennis are also
popular sports. Malta made its Olympic debut at the 1928 Summer Games in
Media and publishing
Until the early 1990s, Maltese radio and television stations were
operated exclusively by a state-appointed body, but a change in
legislation opened the way for privately operated broadcasting outlets.
Radio and television in Malta are broadcast in several languages.
Several daily and weekly newspapers in both Maltese and English are
published. Both major political parties operate their own television
channel, radio station, and newspaper, while the Roman Catholic Church
has its own radio station and newspaper.
The earliest archaeological remains in Malta date from about 5000
bce. Neolithic farmers lived in caves such as those at Għar Dalam (near
Birżebbuġa) or villages such as Skorba (near Żebbiegħ) and produced
pottery similar to that of contemporary eastern Sicily. An elaborate
cult of the dead evolved sometime after 4000 bce. Initially centring on
rock-cut collective tombs such as those at Żebbuġ and Xemxija, it
culminated in the unique underground burial chamber (hypogeum) at Ħal
Saflieni (in Paola, known locally as Raħal Ġdid). Hundreds of thousands
of human remains, as well as statues, pots, jewelry, and other
artifacts, have been unearthed at Ħal Saflieni, which was designated a
UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. This culture came to a sudden end
about 2000 bce, when it was replaced by the Tarxien Cemetery culture, a
metal-using civilization that practiced a cremation burial rite. This
culture in turn was supplanted by the Borġ In-Nadur people (1450–800
bce), whose settlements were founded on naturally defensible hilltops.
Between 900 and 800 bce, people settled at Baħrija and were known for
their distinct type of pottery.
Between the 8th and 6th centuries bce, contact was made with a
Semitic culture. Evidence is scanty, however, and a few inscriptions
found on Malta constitute an important indication of a Phoenician
presence. For example, a prehistoric temple at Tas-Silġ (near
Marsaxlokk) was converted into a Phoenician one. There is more
substantial proof of the Carthaginian presence from the 6th century bce;
coins, inscriptions, and several rock tombs of the Punic (i.e.,
Phoenician) type have been found. It is certain that in 218 bce Malta
came under Roman political control, forming part of the praetorship of
Sicily. During the first two centuries of Roman occupation, the islands
were allowed to coin their own money, send delegations to Rome, and
control domestic affairs. Subsequently they were given the status of
Roman municipium. St. Paul, the Apostle, was shipwrecked on Malta in 60
ce, and, as it is believed, converted the inhabitants to Christianity.
Numerous collective underground burial places dating from the 4th to the
8th century ce represent the first archaeological evidence of
Christianity in Malta.
With the division of the Roman Empire in 395 ce, Malta was given to
the eastern portion ruled from Constantinople (now Istanbul). Until the
15th century, it followed the more immediate fortunes of nearby Sicily,
successively under Byzantine rule (535–870 ce) and Arab rule (870–1090);
both groups left a strong mark on the language and customs. The Normans
and their Swabian successors in the Kingdom of Sicily (1091–1266) had
changed Malta’s legal and governmental structures. A short period of
Angevin rule (1266–82) was followed by Spanish rule (1282–1530), when
the islands were governed by a succession of feudal lords. In 1530 the
Holy Roman emperor Charles V ceded Malta to the homeless Order of the
Knights of Rhodes (subsequently the Sovereign and Military Order of the
Knights of Malta; see Hospitallers), a religious and military order of
the Roman Catholic Church. Malta became a fortress and, under the
Knights’ grand master, Jean de Valette, successfully withstood the
Ottoman siege of 1565. The new capital city of Valletta, founded in
1566, became a town of splendid palaces and unparalleled fortifications.
Growing in power and wealth—owing mainly to their maritime adventures
against the Ottomans—the Knights left the island an architectural and
artistic legacy. Although there was little social contact between them
and the Maltese, the Knights managed to imprint their cosmopolitan
character on Malta and its inhabitants.
In 1798 French army officer Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon I)
captured the island, but the French presence was short-lived. By the
middle of 1800 British troops that had been called in to assist the
Maltese had arrived. The French held out for three months before they
surrendered the island to the British. The Treaty of Amiens returned the
island to the Knights in 1802. The Maltese protested and acknowledged
Great Britain’s sovereignty, subject to certain conditions incorporated
in a Declaration of Rights. The constitutional change was ratified by
the Treaties of Paris (1814–15).
Maltese claims for local autonomy were dismissed by Britain, but they
never abated. Malta’s political status under Britain underwent a series
of vicissitudes in which constitutions were successively granted,
suspended, and revoked. British exploitation of Malta’s military
facilities dominated the local economy, and the dockyard became the
colony’s economic mainstay.
The island flourished during the Crimean War (1853–56) and was
favourably affected by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
Self-government was granted in 1921 on a dyarchical basis whereby
Britain retained control of foreign and military affairs, while a newly
created Maltese legislature was responsible for local issues. This
agreement was withdrawn in 1933, mostly as a result of Maltese
resistance to the imposition of English in lieu of Italian as Malta’s
official language. As such, Malta reverted to a strictly colonial regime
in which full power rested in the hands of the governor. During World
War II (1939–45) the island underwent intense and prolonged bombing by
the Axis Powers but did not surrender. The heroism of the Maltese people
was recognized when the island as a whole was awarded the George Cross,
Britain’s highest civilian decoration. Self-government was granted in
1947, revoked in 1959, and then restored in 1962. Malta finally achieved
independence on Sept. 21, 1964, becoming a member of the Commonwealth
and subsequently a member of the Council of Europe. Malta became a
republic on Dec. 13, 1974.
The immediate pre- and post-independence period was marked by a
hardening polarization between Malta’s two major political parties. From
1962 to 1971, Malta was governed by the Nationalist Party (Partit
Nazzjonalista; PN), which pursued a policy of firm alignment with the
West. In 1971, however, the Malta Labour Party (Partit Laburista; MLP)
came to power, embracing a policy of nonalignment and aggressively
asserting Malta’s sovereignty. The MLP formed a special friendship with
China and Libya and negotiated an agreement that led to the total
withdrawal of British forces from Malta by 1979. The closure of the
British base was celebrated by the Maltese government as the arrival of
The PN returned to power in 1987 and sought full membership in the
European Community (now embedded in the European Union [EU]). But when
the MLP took the reins again in 1996, the party froze Malta’s
application for membership in the EU. The MLP’s time in office was
short-lived, however, because Prime Minister Alfred Sant called for new
elections in 1998 (three years ahead of schedule) after having lost
support from his own party. The PN was returned to office in 1998; it
reactivated the application for accession to the EU and ushered in major
social and economic changes in pursuit of that goal. After considerable
political wrangling between the PN and the MLP, Maltese voters in a 2003
referendum chose to join the EU, of which Malta became a member on May
1, 2004. Malta adopted the euro as its currency on Jan. 1, 2008. The PN
was again returned to power in 2008, winning the general elections over
the MLP by a small margin of votes.