Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Malta's History

Malta’s history has enough to keep a person occupied for weeks. Although my reasons for this trip centered on getting some sun and getting the hell out of England for a week, I would love to go back to visit some of the more cultural sites. I couldn’t begin to describe the history of this tiny nation in one article, so instead I’ll quickly gloss over some of the highlights to explain why I need to go back.

For starters, Malta is a Roman Catholic nation, a fact that is typically attributed to St. Paul’s shipwreck on the island in the first century.

All things considered, it's not the worst place to shipwreck

Most statistics list the population as being over 95% Catholic, and churches dominate the landscape. There are 365 churches on the island, with the standing joke being that there’s one for each day of the year.

Another fun fact is that many churches have two clocks on their towers. Only one of the clocks shows the correct time. Superstition holds that two clocks would confuse the devil, and he would never know what time Mass was performed. By all accounts, this was an effective ploy. However, he succeeded in getting divorce legalized last year, so perhaps they should have put the clocks outside Parliament instead.

Churches, like most of the buildings on Malta, are made primarily of limestone. For centuries limestone was the only building material available, but it remains the most popular choice today. It’s durable, cuts easily, and helps maintain comfortable household temperatures all year long. If you’re really excited about limestone, you can even visit the Limestone Heritage Museum in Siggiewi. Although I can’t say I find it all that thrilling, I will say that the contrast of white limestone with dark rocky beaches and cactus lined streets is gorgeous in the sun.

The arrival of the Knights of St. John furthered Catholicism on Malta. The island’s strategic location allowed the Knights to maintain and protect the crusader territory while amassing their wealth. They were led by a Grand Master, who reported to the Pope. When referring to historical events, most tours will reference who the Grand Master was at the time, similar to England mentioning who was King or Queen or the States referencing a presidency. 

Before they excelled in military conquests, the Knights were an order devoted to medical services in Jerusalem. In 1643, Grand Master Jean Paul Lascaris continued this tradition by building the Lazaretto, or quarantine hospital, on Manoel Island to protect the population against plague and cholera.

The Lazaretto

For over 250 years, every visitor passed through this hospital before entering the country. Some famous visitors include Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Cardinal Newman. The Lazaretto was damaged during World War II and fell into disrepair, but is now being restored.

The island of Malta benefitted from the Knights’ protection for over 200 years, until corruption turned the local public against them. Napoleon’s arrival in 1798 signaled the end of the Knights’ Maltese history.

He looks trustworthy...

The French occupation of Malta only lasted two years, until the British arrived to save them. It didn’t take long for Britain to notice the quality of Malta’s harbors, so they decided to “save” them for the next 164 years. The island became a pivotal location for the British naval fleet, and became even more beneficial after the Suez Canal opened in 1869.

Malta gained its independence from Britain and is now part of the European Union. They recently switched to the euro, and the “One Lira Store” now sells everything for two euro. The island continues to be a useful seaport, and just last summer thousands of evacuees fled Libya to find a safe haven on Malta’s shores. Everything from cruise ships to fishing vessels have a place to dock in Malta’s extensive harbor system. It seems that no matter where you stand in Malta, you can see either a boat or a church, usually at the same time. So if lounging on the beach isn’t your style, there’s plenty of history to keep you occupied.

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