Nestled in the heart of the Mediterranean some 58 miles south of Sicily, the archipelago of Malta is small – it is the 10th smallest country in the world by area, in fact – yet nonetheless it has played an oversized role in history.


A natural harbour, whoever holds Malta has easy access to Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East, something not lost on the powers of world history. Since the first people on the islands arrived around 5,900 BC, Malta has fallen under the control of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, crusaders, French, British and others, before finally becoming an independent nation in 1964.

It has witnessed wars and strife, vanishing cultures, and the possible shipwrecking of a saint. It was traded for a bird of prey, became a pilgrimage hotspot on the sea route to the Holy Land, and witnessed the creation of one of the first planned cities in Europe. It served as a sanctuary for the exiled Mehmed VI after the dissolution of the Ottoman empire and was lauded as the ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’ for its part in treating soldiers injured at Gallipoli during the First World War.

Malta’s past is chequered and complex. Here are seven key moments that have shaped the islands, and the world around them.


The disappearance of the temple builders – 2500 BC

The Hal Tarxien temple ruins in Malta
The Hal Tarxien temple ruins in Malta are older than the trilithons of Stonehenge (Photo by Mark Hertzberg/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News)

Temple culture bloomed in Malta around 3600 BC. More than a millennium before the construction of the great pyramid of Giza or the raising of the trilithons of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, the ‘temple people’ built the first of a string of megalithic marvels that can be counted among the oldest free-standing structures in the world.

Today, six of these complexes spread across Malta and Gozo – Ġgantija, Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Ta' Ħaġrat, Skorba and Tarxien – are counted as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Their purpose remains clouded, though collectively they point to the people of the period having a ritualistic culture, with one tantalising clue being the prevalence of statuettes colloquially described as ‘fat ladies’, which may have served as idols of fertility.

Of more obvious purpose is the seventh UNESCO World Heritage site from this period, the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum – not a temple, but a tomb. Hewn out of the soft limestone rock, this underground necropolis held the remains of an estimated 7,000 people when it was excavated in the 20th century.

But in 2500 BC, the temple builders died out and disappeared, leaving these grand structures as their testament. Historians have struggled to determine why this people suddenly vanished from Malta: drought, famine, epidemic and outside aggression have all been put forward as potential reasons for their abrupt end, with no conclusive evidence pointing towards any.


Rome ousts Carthage – 218 BC

Developing from a Phoenician colony, the city-state and then empire of Carthage ruled over Malta for almost 250 years before losing it to their greatest rival: the Romans.

Malta escaped unscathed during the First Punic War (264-241 BC) – as these clashes between and Rome and Carthage would become known. The islands were raided and occupied during the first months of the Second Punic War (218–201 BC); the Roman historian Livy records that the local garrison surrendered without a fight.

By the time Rome had finally annihilated its hated foe at the end of the Third Punic War (149–146 BC), Malta had been a Roman territory for more than 70 years.

The change in overlordship ushered in a new age of prosperity that lasted until the Roman empire’s fracture into east and west in the fourth century AD. The Romans designated Malta a municipium, or free town, incorporating it within the province of Sicilia but otherwise leaving the islands to their own devices, and in time they became a major producer of olive oil.

Maleth, the old Phoenician colony that pre-dated the Carthaginians, became Melite after a period of rapid expansion (and reinforcement, in the form of thick walls and defensive ditches). It is here you can find the Domvs Romana, or Roman House, and its almost entirely intact mosaics.


The shipwreck of St Paul – AD 60

Saint Paul stand on the shote raising an arm to the sky after being shipwrecked
The apostle Saint Paul is said to have been shipwrecked on Malta while on his way to stand trial in Rome (Photo by Getty)

When Christianity came to Malta in the first century AD, it was no mere missionary who arrived – but an apostle himself. Or at least, that is how this story goes.

The Bible describes how St Paul is shipwrecked en route to standing trial in Rome. Some translations say he washed ashore at an island called Melite. This is oft assumed to be a conflation for Malta, rather than the town of Melite. Other translations of the Bible identify this place as Malta directly. On arriving, Paul is bitten by a viper, miraculously survives its venom, and is received by the Roman governor, Publius – who will later become Malta’s first bishop and, later still, its first saint.

The apostle’s influence, apocryphal or not, can be seen on the landscape and is now a part of the islands’ national mythos. The place where his ship was wrecked is known as St Paul’s Island, where you’ll find a statue to the saint. The island itself sits within St Paul’s Bay. The cave in which Paul is said to have spent three months is known as St Paul’s Grotto, and counts Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis among its visitors.

When, on 11 January 1693, the church in Mdina (as Melite was known by this time) was destroyed in what remains Malta’s worst ever earthquake, the newly reconstructed one was named for St Paul. Fitting, as it is said to stand on the very spot where Publius received the apostle some 1,600 years earlier.


The Arab conquest – from AD 870

Arabic caliphates held power in Malta from the closing of the ninth century until the end of the 11th, wresting control from the Byzantine empire.

The arrival of the Arabs was to leave an indelible mark on the islands, bringing changes to cuisine, music and architecture. They introduced cotton and citrus fruits as crops, and brought irrigation techniques that are still in use today.

But perhaps the most lasting influence was on language. Present-day Maltese is a direct derivative of the Siculo-Arabic that was spoken across Muslim-ruled Sicily at that time, and it remains the only Semitic language written in a Latin alphabet, though it is now peppered with loan words from Italian, English and elsewhere. Likewise many place names (Mdina, Rabat, Marsa and Xagħra, to name a few) are derived from this tongue, as are a number of common family names.

The endurance of this linguistic legacy may have its roots in the Norman conquest of Malta under Count Roger I of Sicily that began in 1091. Approximately 150 years later, in 1249, Arab historian Ibn Hadlun records that all Muslims were expelled from Malta – yet somehow their language survived. It has been suggested that many renounced their religion rather than leave, embracing Christianity, and in doing so kept their language alive.


The Great Siege of Malta – 1565

As the dead, injured and destitute lie at his feet, a Knight of the Order of St John hails the victory over the Ottoman forces at the Great Siege of Malta. Monks tend the dead and wounded
As the dead, injured and destitute lie at his feet, a Knight of the Order of St John hails the victory over the Ottoman forces at the Great Siege of Malta (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1530, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V gifted Malta to Knights Hospitaller, formally the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, a brotherhood of military monks formed to care for sick pilgrims in the Holy Land. All he asked for was a token annual tribute of a Maltese falcon – a real bird of prey, not the priceless and entirely fictitious MacGuffin made famous by the 1941 film of the same name.

The Hospitallers had come to Charles asking for a new home, after being forced out of their stronghold of Rhodes by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s expanding Ottoman empire. Having established themselves on Malta, the Hospitallers carried on largely as they had before: interfering with Suleiman’s shipping. It was little wonder that his army came knocking.

An armada of around 200 ships carrying 40,000 Ottoman soldiers descended on Malta on 18 May 1565, the beginning of almost four months of offensives and counteroffensives that can be counted among the hardest-fought of the era. At one point, in a bid to encourage the local people to surrender, the Ottomans fixed the decapitated bodies of the dead to crucifixes and sent them floating across the harbour. The Hospitallers retorted by firing cannons loaded with decapitated Turkish heads back at them.

What broke the deadlock was the arrival of Spanish reinforcements from Sicily on 7 September. In a dreadful oversight, Sulieman ordered his men to face the new arrivals in open battle. Met by experienced and fresh troops, the Ottomans buckled, with thousands cut down as they retreated to their ships.

In was a turning point for the Hospitallers, now hailed as the saviours of Europe, a bulwark against the Ottoman menace. Fearing a future invasion, they began to build a new stronghold named after their grandmaster, Jean Parisot de Valette. It would become Valletta, the current Maltese capital.


The French Occupation – 1798-1800

Napoleon disembarks a large sailing ship in a small boat
Napoleon came Malta in 1798 to secure his supply lines en route to Egypt (Photo by Getty)

Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Malta in June 1798 as a pit-stop on his way to Egypt, the French taking control of the islands within a day and after little resistance. Many Hospitallers at this time were of French heritage themselves and were simply unwilling to fight their countrymen.

The French occupation would last for two years, but Napoleon himself would only spend six days on Malta, leaving behind a garrison of 4,000 men. He marked the end of Hospitaller rule with a set of radical political and administrative reforms – including the dismantling of feudal structures and the abolition of slavery – but his mistake was to allow his men to loot churches and help themselves to Maltese treasures.

Public anger reached its tipping point at an auction of church property in September 1798. Within days, a 10,000-strong Maltese militia was at the gates of Valletta, trapping the French inside. With no way to breach the walls, they entreated Britain to come to their aid, and so Malta was blockaded once more, with the British finally gaining control of the islands in 1800.

This was the beginning of a long period of British rule in Malta. Though the 1802 Treaty of Amiens required the islands to be returned to the Hospitallers, Britain quietly ignored this stipulation – Malta’s strategic location was too valuable to lose in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. The Knights of St John would never regain it: Malta would formally be confirmed as a British crown colony with the 1814 Treaty of Paris.

As for the church treasure, a great desal was taken by Napoleon himself, stashed on his flagship L’Orient – and was subsequently sunk by Admiral Horatio Nelson at the battle of the Nile.


Fortress Malta – 1940–1942

A man walks through the rubble of a ruined street in Senglea, Malta
A man walks through the rubble of a ruined street in Senglea, Malta, after Axis air raids in 1942 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1942, King George VI awarded the George Cross – the highest British honour awarded for non-military gallantry – to Malta in its entirety, for withstanding a two-year siege during the Second World War.

Though it was neglected in the run up to the conflict, Malta’s eventual importance to Britain cannot be overstated. The ancestral home to the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was, in Winston Churchill’s words, as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” ideally placed to frustrate Axis ambitions in northern Africa and chip away at shipping convoys carrying vital supplies to Libya.

Germany and Italy recognised this too. Between June 1940 and November 1942, the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica bombarded the archipelago relentlessly, with one sustained attack that lasted 154 days and nights seeing 6,700 tonnes of bombs land on the islands. By the summer of 1942, the situation was desperate: people were having to turn to curtains for clothes and tyres to resole their shoes, disease was spreading, and the risk of starvation was imminent. With fuel reserves dwindling, offensive operations had ground to a halt.

The British response was Operation Pedestal, a supply run of epic proportions. Fourteen merchant vessels ran the gauntlet of sniping submarines and aerial assaults, accompanied by three aircraft carriers, two battleships, seven light cruisers and 32 destroyers, among others.

Only five of the merchant ships made it to harbour, but the presence of the tanker SS Ohio among them – limping into port lashed between two destroyers – turned this into a strategic victory, its vital cargo allowing Malta to be used as launch point for attacks on Axis shipping once more.

Malta would go on to serve as the launch point of Operation Husky, the July 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. In a reversal of its role in 1565, it was no longer a bastion to protect Rome, but one from which to subdue it.



Kev LochunDeputy Digital Editor, HistoryExtra

Kev Lochun is Deputy Digital Editor of and previously Deputy Editor of BBC History Revealed. As well as commissioning content from expert historians, he can also be found interviewing them on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.