History Summarized: Malta


The history of the Mediterranean is both very long and very crowded. So it’s hard to get a big picture when we’re busy investigating individual civilizations like Egypt, Rome, or the Ottomans. However, a great way to see the whole of Mediterranean history is actually to zoom right in on the middle, to the island of Malta. It’s quite an unlikely story, but this easily overlooked rock off the coast of Sicily has experience with all the big Mediterranean players and the resulting cocktail of Maltese history is uniquely fascinating. To see how Malta Forrest Gump-ed its way through the greatest hits of the Mediterranean, let’s do some history. This video is brought to you by NordVPN. More on that later. From the start, Malta’s legacy manifests in two main ways: Language and Architecture. A thousand years before even the Pyramids of Giza, Stone Age builders on Malta had constructed the first ever freestanding man-made structure: The Great Temple of- Oh … Boy… What? It’s just Gigantea, then why is it spelled like that? We’ll double back to the linguistics later. But in the meantime, Malta was colonized by the seafaring Phoenicians and named as Maleth and soon enough they’re a part of the growing Carthaginian Empire. But after Carthage got into a tussle with Rome over the island of Sicily, aka the First Punic tussle. Rome annexed Maleth. Renamed it Melite and took it on a ride through the up and down of the Roman Empire. In the 1st century AD, the island had one very famous visitor in the form of Saint Paul himself. Supposedly shipwrecked on Melite while on his way to Rome for trial and we’ll see later that the Maltese love them some good St. Paul. Melite became part of the Byzantine Empire after the fall of Western Rome and remained Greek until 870. When the island was conquered by Muslims, sacked and left nearly barren for two centuries. This is why the ancient settlements are basically gone now and why we have no Maltese primary sources at all. In 1048, Malta was repopulated by Arabic colonists who resettled on the site of the ancient city Melite, the highest part of the island and renamed it Medina and the modern city name of Medina is nearly identical. (Mdina) In fact, this second wave of Arab settlement really dug their linguistic claws into Malta, as place names and a vast majority of the modern Maltese language derive from Arabic. But, like the carousel of empires we’ve seen up until this point, the Muslim dominion over Malta came to an end as the island was seized as a vassal state in 1091. by who else but the Normans. I tell ya, nobody loves history more than those Normans. They’re everywhere in the 11th century and they’re always making friends. Extroverts. Things carried on as they were for a few more decades. But after an anti-Norman revolt from the Muslim population in 1127, King Raja the Second properly conquered the island and assumes direct rule. And since the Normans also own southern Italy and Sicily, Norman Malta got real close with their Italian buddies. So the local Arabic went through big shifts to accommodate all of this new Italiano and Maltese began to evolve into what is now the world’s only Semitic language written in a Roman script. This language is bonkers front to back and I loved it. In the 11th and 12th hundreds, Norman Malta became a hot spot on the pilgrimage circuit from Rome to the Holy Land and it shared in a good deal of the wealth from they’re extremely powerful next-door neighbors Sicily. Malta changed hands a few times in the 13th century and the majority population of Maltese Muslims slowly dwindled under the very indirect rule of the Holy Roman Empire and then dwindled rapidly when the island passed to the dominionship in England in 1266. It eventually stayed put under the rule of Aragon in 1282 which became the Spanish Empire one Reconquista later. As Malta is just chillin for the next 200 years. Our story actually takes us to the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and back two centuries to the Crusades. After the Christian armies retook the Holy Land in 1099, pilgrims from all over Europe were looking to visit Jerusalem. But travel that far is really complicated because the boats are slow, there are pirates everywhere, diseases rampant, and there’s not even on ship Wi-Fi. The barbarity. So what do you do? Well you get a whole bunch of knights and you put them right through medical school. Just establish a sovereign military order of warrior monks dedicated to the protection and care of pilgrims and problemo solved. What’s the fuss? For two whole centuries the Knights of St. John, also known as the Hospitallers cared for the sick and operated hospitals across the Holy Land. If the Templars are like Mario, these guys are like the Dr. Mario’s of monastic knighthoods. They operated all across the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and after the city fell at the start of the Third Crusade, they refortified Acre until 1291 when the Knights got kicked out of the Holy Land for good. From there they did what any good Crusader would do in the 1200s and beat the crap out of poor defenseless Constantinople. I mean if everybody’s doing it, you don’t want to be left out, you know. So they conquered the island of Rhodes in 1310 and built up a gorgeous fortress on the island. They withstood the growing Ottoman menace and in fact were a gigantic thorn in their side for two centuries. Disrupting trade and constantly shouting insults across the bay like they were the gatekeeper in Monty Python. When Suleiman the Magnificent became Sultan in 1520, his first order of business was booting the Knights from Rhodes. But the Knights weren’t out in the wind for long because the king of Spain offered them the island of Malta as a base in 1530. Man, I wish kings invited me to govern strategic islands in the middle of the Mediterranean. That’s the best gig ever. So our stories collide as the Knights Hospitaller make landfall on Malta and set about doing their Knightly thing. Well Mdina had been the capital for centuries, the Knights were firmly naval power. So they instead set up shop at Birgu and around the main bay and left the old nobles to elegantly sulk inland. For the next 35 years, the Knights made it their mission to endlessly harassed Ottoman ships in the western Mediterranean. So, effectively piracy. But it’s in service to a king, so it’s technically privateering. Suleiman presumably furious that these Knights were still giving him hell resolved to wipe Malta off the face of the earth. So he assembled the largest army seen in a millennium and threw it at Malta. In 1565, nearly 50,000 Ottomans laid siege to an island defended by only 5,000 soldiers and a few thousand civilians. This was horrifying to Europe because the Ottomans had been effortlessly conquering the Mediterranean and reached nearly from the Danube to Gibraltar. So the worry was that an Ottoman base in Malta meant that Sicily was next and the domino after would be Rome. So Malta asked Spain for reinforcements and buckled down for the worst. They withstood the full force of the Ottoman army for four months. Losing forts and showering in cannonballs before Spain arrived and forced the Ottomans to retreat. Malta lost a third of its population in the fight, but the Ottomans lost nearly half their army. This miraculous victory against the guys who took Constantinople no less seems to have single-handedly saved all of Christendom. So grateful Europeans lavished Malta in tributes and gifts as thanks. A few years later, the Ottomans were beaten again at the Battle of Lepanto by a much larger European army. But little itty-bitty Malta was the first to save the day in what’s now called the Great Siege. With their island safe the Knights began construction on a grand new city in honor of their Grandmaster, Jean Parisot de Valette and Valletta became the capital of Malta. And man, oh man, Valletta is stunning. For one the entire city is built from the local Maltese limestone from the ramparts to the houses to the cathedrals. And since the city was built basically from scratch with ship loads of money in the 1570s. It’s got all the trappings of a great Renaissance city and all the good urban planning of a purpose-built one. A century later, a bad earthquake rocked Sicily and destroyed much of the old city of Mdina. So it was rebuilt in spectacular baroque with a church dedicated to St. Paul and one of the coolest city gates ever. With the Great Siege still in everybody’s memory, the Knights of Malta fortified the heck out of Valletta. But the Ottomans were terrified of this tiny island like an elephant with a mouse, so they never attacked again. With functionally, no outside threats Malta flourished for two centuries and that’s most visible in the ludicrously ornate churches around the island. You know, it’s good when they built an even shinier recreation of the Roman pantheon just for funsies. Okay, guys, come on. You can’t purpose craft a 3,000 year national history specifically to cater to my interests. That’s just irresponsible and speaking of irresponsible the turn of the 19th century brought the Venice crasher himself, our boy Napoleon. In 1798, he conquered Malta largely without a fight because lots of the Knights were ethnically French and thus pretty chill with Napoleon’s whole deal. During his short stay, Napoleon laid down reforms on everything from education and government to the abolition of slavery. These were all really good things because the Knights had a notoriously repressive attitude towards other religions. But when France made the mistake of seizing Maltese treasures and looting their churches. The island went up in arms and asked Napoleon’s archrival, Britain for relief. After a two-year uprising and a little bit of a blockade, Malta became a protectorate of the British Empire through the 1800s and 1900s. During the first World War, Malta earned the nickname the Nurse of the Mediterranean because they cared for so many wounded British soldiers and I think the OG Hospitallers would have been really proud. But the last major event in Maltese history came at the receiving end of the Roman Empire’s idiot grandchildren: fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The very day after Italy declared war on Britain, the bombs started falling on Malta and the island remain blockaded by sea and under a blitz for two and a half years. It took the monumental effort of Operation Pedestal to resupply the island and force the Axis to give up the siege. Just like they did 400 years earlier, Malta endured and in an ironic reversal of fate from the Ottomans siege. Malta later served as a springboard for the Allied invasion of Sicily and the final capture of Rome. Britain awarded the entirety of Malta with a King George Cross in recognition of their legendary resilience and that honor endures as a crest on the corner of the Maltese national flag which they adopted in 1964 upon gaining independence from Britain. One decade later Malta became a republic and in 2004 they joined the EU and if you ask me that is one wild ride of a national history. To me Malta is doubly exceptional. For one, the history is just so vivid and tangible from the cities themselves to the rich artistic tradition and the unique Maltese language. And two, Malta is a perfect microcosm of Mediterranean history. It’s got a little bit of everything and everyone from Carthage to Crusaders and a whole lot in between. Okay. I lied. Three things. The Maltese Cross is rad as hell. Four things. The dogs are perfect. It’s a very good boy. 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So trust your laptop and your smartphone to the highest rated VPN around. Again head over to NordVPN.com/overlysarcastic and use code OVERLYSARCASTIC to get 75% off three years of secure internet and one bonus month free. Thanks so much for watching. This history was really surprising to me for multiple reasons. First among them being that I kind of barely even heard of Malta until just a couple years ago. So there was all kinds of new stuff for me in this and I really enjoyed digging into it. I hope you did too. Now I just gotta wait for Rick Steves to do a dedicated episode on Malta, then I think I’m set for life. I’ll see you next time.

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