About Malta

The history of Malta is a long and colourful one dating back to the dawn of civilisation. The Maltese Islands went through a golden Neolithic period, the remains of which are the mysterious temples dedicated to the goddess of fertility. Later on, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Byzantines, all left their traces on the Islands.

In 60 A.D. St. Paul was shipwrecked on the island while on his way to Rome and brought Christianity to Malta. The Arabs conquered the islands in 870 A.D. and left an important mark on the language of the Maltese. Until 1530 Malta was an extension of Sicily: The Normans, the Aragonese and other conquerors who ruled over Sicily also governed the Maltese Islands. It was Charles V who bequeathed Malta to the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem who ruled over Malta from 1530 to 1798. The Knights took Malta through a new golden age, making it a key player in the cultural scene of 17th and 18th century Europe. The artistic and cultural lives of the Maltese Islands were injected with the presence of artists such as Caravaggio, Mattia Preti and Favray who were commissioned by the Knights to embellish churches, palaces and auberges.

St. John's Co-Cathedral       

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte took over Malta from the Knights on his way to Egypt. The French presence on the islands was short lived, as the English, who were requested by the Maltese to help them against the French, blockaded the islands in 1800. British rule in Malta lasted until 1964 when Malta became independent. The Maltese adapted the British system of administration, education and legislation. Modern Malta became a Republic in 1974 and joined the European Union in May 2004.

Malta is located in the Mediterranean Sea, just south of Sicily; the Maltese archipelago basically consists of three islands: Malta, Għawdex (Gozo) and Kemmuna (Comino). Their total population is almost 400,000. The largest island of the group is Malta, from which the archipelago takes its name. In 2005, it had a population of just over 404,000. Valletta, the capital, is the cultural, administrative and commercial centre of the archipelago. Malta is well served with harbours, chief of which is the Valletta Grand Harbour (Il-Port il-Kbir). Malta's international airport is situated five kilometres from the capital. The distance between Malta and the nearest point in Sicily is 93 km. The distance from the nearest point on the North African mainland (Tunisia) is 288 km. Gibraltar is 1,826 km to the west and Alexandria is 1,510 km to the east. 

Its People

Circa 98% of the population are Maltese, and the remaining 2% consists of foreigners working in Malta and a few foreign residents who retired here. Besides the main islands, there are another two uninhabited ones, Filfla and Kemmunett. There are also the islets of St Paul (Selmunett).

With an area of 315.590 square kilometres, Malta has a population density of 1,257 persons per square kilometre, which is the highest in Europe. Because of its size and density, emigration was necessary, especially during the 1950s and 1960s. There are a good number of Maltese communities abroad, the major ones are found in Australia and Canada. There are other important Maltese communities in UK and in the USA. Earlier migrations can also be traced in Algeria and Tunisia, amongst others.

The Islands are predominately Roman Catholic. The country acknowledges freedom of religion but according to the constitution of Malta, Roman Catholicism is the state religion.

Each town and village has its own parish church which is the focal point, with most localities having multiple churches scattered across the locality. There are over 350 churches on the Maltese islands.

Most of the churches were built in the 17th century and are fine Baroque architecture examples. A large percentage of the Maltese population takes an active part in the local village festa. The festa marks the feast day of the patron saint of the town or village - a joyous event in the yearly calendar of each Maltese village or town.

This Maltese tradition started way back in the 16th century. It is essentially a religious festival that spans across an entire week, with the climax reached during the weekend and particularly on Sunday when a parade with the saint’s statue is held. Every Maltese village or town celebrates one parish patron saint once a year. Some locations have more than one festa!

During festa week, the whole village or town is decorated for the occasion and the area comes alive with various events such as fireworks, religious services, brass band music and more. The parish church façade is decorated with countless bulbs. The interior is adorned with other decorations that commemorate the life of the particular saint.

Over the weekend, the streets are full of stall holders that sell food and qubbajt (Maltese nougat). Qubbajt is a sweet delicacy made from raisin juice, nuts, sesame and honey. Families and friends from outside the village or town are invited for Sunday lunch or for drinks.

   

Its Language

The national language of Malta is Maltese (Malti). Apart from being the native (majority) language, Maltese is also the official language of Malta together with English. Other popular foreign languages practised in Malta besides English are Italian, French, German and Spanish, with Italian being the most popular amongst the three. In fact, in the early 1900s, Italian was the more favoured tongue, especially by the cultured classes and Maltese aristocracy; more than the English language and even the native Maltese tongue.

Fundamentally, Maltese is a Semitic tongue, the same as Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Carthaginian and Ethiopian. However, unlike other Semitic languages, Maltese is written in the Latin alphabet, but with the addition of special characters to accommodate certain Semitic sounds. Nowadays, however, there is much in the Maltese language today that is not Semitic, due to the immeasurable Romantic influence from our succession of (Southern) European rulers through the ages.

Its Music

Traditional Maltese folk music dates back to the 16th century and was always an important part in the everyday life of Maltese people. It can safely be said that folk music in Malta was heavily influenced by its geographical location. In fact, researchers claim that ghana is a combination of the famous Sicilian ballad mixed with Arabic tunes.

This folk singing was widespread on the islands and men and women could be heard singing while doing their daily activities on the farm, in the fields, washing cloths in a nearby spring or around the house. Ghana was in fact the music of peasants, fishermen and working class men and women.

A close look at the lyrics will reveal that each song usually recounts a story about life in the village or some important event in Malta history. Street hawkers used to sing folk songs to attract attention to their products and declare how their products where better than their neighbour's!

Nowadays the ghannej (meaning folk singer) is usually accompanied by three guitarists. However, in the old days there used to be other musicians accompanying the singer. Musical instruments used included the zaqq (a form of bagpipes), the zavzava (a type of drum), the tambur (a tambourine), the argunett (a mouth harp) and the accordion. 

  

Its Food & Drink

Maltese cuisine is the result of a long relationship between the Islanders and the many civilisations who occupied the Maltese Islands over the centuries. This marriage of tastes has given Malta an eclectic mix of Mediterranean cooking. Although the restaurant scene is a mix of speciality restaurants, there are many eateries that offer or specialise in local fare, serving their own versions of specialities.

Traditional Maltese food is rustic and based on the seasons. Look out for Lampuki Pie (fish pie), Rabbit Stew, Braġioli (beef olives), Kapunata, (Maltese version of ratatouille), and widow's soup, which includes a small round of Ġbejniet (sheep or goat's cheese). On most food shop counters, you'll see Bigilla, a thick pate of broad beans with garlic. The snacks that must be tried are ‘ħobż biż-żejt' (round of bread dipped in olive oil, rubbed with ripe tomatoes and filled with a mix of tuna, onion, garlic, tomatoes and capers) and pastizzi (flaky pastry parcel filled with ricotta or mushy peas).

    

A trip to the Marsaxlokk fish market on Sunday morning will show you just how varied the fish catch is in Maltese waters. When fish is in abundance, you'll find Aljotta (fish soup). Depending on the season, you'll see spnotta(bass), dott (stone fish), cerna (grouper),dentici (dentex), sargu (white bream) and trill(red mullet). swordfish and tuna follow later in the season, around early to late autumn, followed by the famed lampuka, or dolphin fish. Octopus and squid are very often used to make some rich stews and pasta sauces.

Favourite dessert delicacies are kannoli(tube of crispy, fried pastry filled with ricotta), Sicilian-style, semi-freddo desserts (mix of sponge, ice-cream, candied fruits and cream) and Ħelwa tat-Tork (sweet sugary mixture of crushed and whole almonds).

    

Malta may not be renowned like its larger Mediterranean neighbours for wine production, but Maltese vintages are more than holding their own at international competitions, winning several accolades in France, Italy and further afield. International grape varieties grown on the Islands include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Carignan, Chenin Blanc and Moscato. The indigenous varieties are Ġellewza and Ghirghentina, which are producing some excellent wines of distinct body and flavour. (Source of Photo above right: Reno Spiteri – Wine Professional-Wines and Restaurants of Malta. Com).

The main wineries organise guided tours and tastings. Depending on the season, tours cover the entire production, from the initial fermentation through to the ageing process. They also include wine history museums and opportunities to taste and buy a variety of vintages. 

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