Malta has been ruled by a variety of different groups throughout its history, which have left their marks on the landscape and culture. An artistic, family oriented people, the Maltese enjoy food, drink, music, and art. The Catholic church has had a large influence on the development of national traditions although Malta has retained its own language and developed unique artistic forms such as għana folk music.
Evidence suggests that humans have lived on Malta since at least 5200 BC, when migrants, probably from Sicily, began hunting and farming on the island. Some time around 3,500 BC, Maltese inhabitants began building temples and monuments, such as the ruins still visible today at Mnajdra. These first settlers disappeared from Malta around 2500 BC, possibly due to famine, disease or natural disaster.
The Ancient Greeks arrived around 700 BC, and the areas around Valetta and Mdina became trading ports home to the Phoenicians. Maltese residents sided with Rome during the Punic Wars and remained a thriving part of the Roman Empire until the 4th century, when it was conquered by the Byzantines.
During the Middle Ages, Malta was invaded by the Arabs around 870 AD who razed most of the island, which remained uninhabited until the Moors began moving there around 1030 AD. The Normans invaded in 1091 and expelled the others, leaving only native Christian Maltese who became subjects of the Kingdom of Sicily. During the Norman period, many buildings were constructed, particularly in the capital of Mdina. The Catholic Church became the state religion and the Count of Malta was installed to help with the militarization of the strategically important island.
Between 1194 and 1266, Malta belonged to the House of Hohenstaufen, during which time it was treated as a garrison and trade declined to almost nothing. Muslims were expelled, replaced by deported Christians from Celano, Abruzzo. Malta moved to the hands of the Kings of Aragon from 1282 until 1530 when Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire gave the island to the religious military order of the Knights of Malta.
Napoleon conquered the country in 1798 and removed the Knights of Malta. He created a government, established 12 municipalities, introduced public education and dismantled the feudal system. The Anti-Catholic French militia Napoleon installed to rule was unpopular with the Maltese, who rebelled with the aid of Great Britain, Naples and Sicily. The French surrendered after the arrival of the British navy in 1800 and Malta became part of the British Empire in 1814, establishing great importance as a port on the trade route to India.
WWII saw Malta endure constant attacks due to its location near the Axis shipping lanes. King George VI awarded the entire nation the George Cross in 1942 in response to their bravery during this time. After the war, Malta entered a reconstruction period. In 1964, negotiations with Great Britain resulted in becoming an independent republic, eventually joining the European Union in 2004.
The Maltese are a Mediterranean people whose nation has variously been ruled by the Romans, Moors, Germans, Sicilians, French, and British. Each invading faction brought new ideas, words, foods, art and architecture to enrich the island culture. Most of the people speak both English and Maltese, which evolved from an ancient Semitic language and incorporates elements of French and Italian.
The population is predominantly Catholic, so religion naturally has a large influence on traditions, festivals and aesthetics. One of Malta’s more unique elements is the folk music known as għana, which is a form of spirited debate improvised to a background of guitar.