Malta was an important cultic center for earth-mother worship in the 4th millennium B.C. Archeological work shows a developed religious center there, including the world's oldest free-standing architecture, predating that of Sumer and Egypt. Malta's written history began well before the Christian era. The Phoenicians, and later the Carthaginians, established ports and trading settlements on the island. During the second Punic War (218 B.C.), Malta became part of the Roman Empire. During Roman rule, in A.D. 60, Saint Paul was shipwrecked on Malta.
In 533 A.D. Malta became part of the Byzantine Empire and in 870 came under Arab control. Arab occupation and rule left a strong imprint on Maltese life, customs, and language. The Arabs were driven out in 1090 by a band of Norman adventurers under Count Roger of Normandy, who had established a kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily. Malta thus became an appendage of Sicily for 440 years. During this period, Malta was sold and resold to various feudal lords and barons and was dominated successively by the rulers of Swabia (now part of Germany), Aquitaine (now part of France), Aragon (now part of Spain), Castile (now part of Spain), and Spain.
In 1522, Suleiman II drove the Knights of St. John out of Rhodes, where they had established themselves after being driven out of Jerusalem. They dispersed to their commanderies in Europe, and in 1530 Charles V granted them sovereignty over the Maltese islands. For the next 275 years, these famous "Knights of Malta" made the island their domain. They built towns, palaces, churches, gardens, and fortifications and embellished the island with numerous works of art. In 1565, Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Malta. After several months, the Knights and the Maltese population prevailed and the Turks withdrew. Over the years, the power of the Knights declined, and their rule of Malta ended with their peaceful surrender to Napoleon in 1798.
The people of Malta rose against French rule, which lasted 2 years, and with the help of the British evicted them in 1800. In 1814, Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire. Under the United Kingdom, the island became a military and naval fortress, the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet. During World War II, Malta survived relentless raids from German and Italian military forces (1940-43). In recognition, King George VI in 1942 awarded the George Cross "to the island fortress of Malta--its people and defenders."
A crucial moment in Maltese history was August 15, 1942, when five out of the 14 vessels that formed part of "Operation Pedestal," including the American tanker SS Ohio, broke through the Nazi blockade of Malta to deliver fuel and food to the starving population. The arrival of the vessels was the turning point in the Maltese islands' fate during World War II, and became known locally as the Santa Marija Convoy, in honor of the August 15 Feast of the Assumption, referred to locally as "Santa Marija." President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period, called Malta "one tiny bright flame in the darkness--a beacon of hope for the clearer days which have come." In September 1943, the Italian fleet's surrender was signed in Malta by U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower and Italian Marshal Pietro Badoglio.
Victory Day, celebrated on September 8, commemorates victory in the 1565 Great Siege, and the end of the World War II attacks in Malta. Malta obtained independence on September 21, 1964, became a Republic on December 13, 1974. The last British forces left in March 1979. Malta joined the European Union (EU) on May 1, 2004.
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