Malta Island: History, Facts & Location

Instructor: Richard Weil

Richard teaches an online world geography class, he holds a doctorate in the field.

Malta is a republic of islands in the Mediterranean south of Sicily. Almost half a million people live there. It was conquered by several countries and has castles and forts that knights built. Today tourists visit them and enjoy the beaches.

Where Is Malta?

Malta is a small country in the Mediterranean Sea. It is a group of islands between Sicily and Tunisia. The total land area is about 122 square miles (316 square kilometers). The climate is warm and dry, and gets a little cooler in the winter. They are rocky islands with thin soil, but the farmers grow fruits and olives.

Map of Malta
Map of Malta

Who Lives There?

Over 416,000 people live in this country, as of July 2017. Most of the population is on the main island, also called Malta. A short ferry ride away is Gozo, a much more rural island with a reported population of over 31,000 people as of 2013. Between the two is tiny Comino, with fine beaches and only one hotel. There are two other islands in the archipelago (or four, depending if you count the tiniest ones), but they are so small that nobody lives on them.

Valletta, the Capital of Malta
Valletta Skyline

The native language is Maltese, a Semitic tongue related to Arabic but written in our Roman alphabet. Most of the people also speak English. Catholicism is the official religion. The islanders are proud that St. Paul stopped here on the way to Rome.

Crossroads of the Mediterranean

For thousands of years, people have been passing through the islands, going east or west, north or south. At the end of the Stone Age, about 6000 years ago, early settlers built huge stone temples that visitors can still walk through. Later, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, and the Romans all used the islands as a naval base.

The Ancient Mnajdra Temples
The Ancient Mnajdra Temples

Malta's location has always made it valuable for maritime powers. After Rome fell, the Byzantine Empire controlled the islands, which were taken in 870 by the Aghlabid dynasty, Arabs who ruled parts of North Africa. In 1291, Norman knights conquered them, after which dynasties from Sicily, France, and Spain all took turns ruling the people. Finally, in 1530, Malta was given to the Knights of St. John, a crusading order dedicated to hospital work that had lost its lands in Jerusalem and Rhodes.

Duke of Gloucester, Grand Prior of the Order of St. John, Wearing Maltese Crosses
Duke of Gloucester

The Knights built huge fortresses and castles, which held off the Turks when they tried to capture the islands in 1565. But they couldn't stop Napoleon in 1798 and lost Malta to France. The Knights still exist, but in their ancient role as an ambulance and hospital service. You can see their headquarters in Rome, with 8-pointed Maltese crosses displayed.

In 1800, England took Malta. It soon became part of the British Empire. Given its strategic location, it was built up into a big naval base to protect the shipping lines to the Suez Canal. In World War II, the Germans and Italians bombed the country for two years, but the people would not surrender. Independence came in 1964. Malta is now a republic and a member of the European Union.

Malta Today

There is a lot to see on the islands. Malta's place in the middle of the Mediterranean world meant that it either fought off or was taken by one invader after another. And each left their mark, from the ancient stone megaliths through Roman ruins, Crusader castles, and the bomb shelters of World War II.

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