Malta - Cultural History

Foreign influences on Maltese culture

Ancient Phoenicians

About 700 BC Malta was inhabited by the Ancient Phoenicians, who were interested in the use of the various natural easilly accessible harbours and ports around the Maltese islands.

500 BC Malta had become a Punic colony and Phoenician traces are still found today in Maltese culture, traditions and language.

Romance influences on Maltese culture

Between 218 BC and 395 CE Malta was under Roman control between 218 BC and 395 CE. Malta had its own currency and allowed control of domestic affairs and were allowed their own currency. The famous shipwreck of St. Paul took place during this period, and it is St. Paul who brought Catholicism to the Maltese and founded the Church of Malta, laying the foundations for religion as part of Maltese culture.

395 CE, Malta was placed under the eastern portion of the old Roman Empire, which was ruled from Constantinople. This change in ruling brought many Greeks to Malta, their influence is still present in Malta today with various traditions, proverbs and superstitions.

Arab invasion

870 CE The Arab invasion of 870 CE. The Arab oppressors had a devastating effect on the population of the Maltese islands. It was believed that many Maltese were killed during and after the invasion and that others were carried off into slavery or fled to Sicily.

1090, the Norman invasion saw an end to Arab rule and Malta’s population is said to have amounted only to no more than 1,200 households, the larger part originating from the wider Arab world. The effects of the Arab invasion are still visible in the names of many Maltese towns and villages (in the case of Mdina, "'medina" means "city") and in the spoken form of the Maltese language.

The Knights of St. John

During the rule of the Knights of St. John (also known as the Knights of Malta), the population of Malta increased significantly, from around 25,000 in 1535 to over 54,000 in 1632. One of the primary reasons was an improvement in health and welfare, but also immigration from Western Europe.

This period, under the rule of the Knights of St. John, is often referred to as the Golden Age for Malta, considering the flourishing of Maltese culture with the architectural and artistic embellishment witnessed during the Knights’ rule. The various advances in overall health, education and wealth of the Maltese are also an important part of this perception of Malta's Golden Age.

The Knights introduced Renaissance and Baroque architecture in Maltese towns and villages, which is still evident in many places of interest, most notably the capital city Valletta and the Valletta Grand Harbour. In education, the Knights laid the foundation of the present-day University of Malta, which as a result is one of the oldest extant universities in Europe.

The Manoel Theatre

The Knights of St. John brought with them development and stability to the Maltese Islands following centuries of unrest and a myriad of conquerors. The newly constructed fortified city of Valletta became the center for entertainment and culture to the variety of nationalities it housed.

The 17th and early 18th centuries, brought operas, pageants, theatrical and dramatic productions to the Maltese people previously this entertainment was reserved solely for the Nobility. Shows were in the open or housed at the Knight’s Auberges around the city.

1731, Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, commissioned and funded the construction of the “Public Theatre”. Ten month later the it was was finished. Modelled on the Palermo Theatre being semi-circular with straight sides projecting to the stags, it was, constructed entirely of wood. Many alterations throughout the years, bringing the auditorium to its present effective oval shape.

January 9, 1732. The First night - ‘Merope’ a classic style grand tragedy, by Scipione Maffei, played by the Knights of St. John. The setting by Francoise Maudion, who was the architect of the Order of St. John.

The 'Royal Theatre', was once the entertainment center and very popular with locals, tourists and foreign dignitaries for many years and undergoing enlargements and alterations. The theatre fell into total disuse. The Manoel, becoming a doss house for beggars. Later converted into a dance hall and eventually a cinema. It was totally destroyed in 1944 during the Second World War during which time it served as a shelter for the homeless.

It was re opened December 1960. The Manoel is officially the countries National Theatre, it has, over the years, hosted countless productions by both local talent and international stars, and has been the catalyst for the growth and appreciation in Malta.

1798, Malta fell under French rule after the Knights surrendered Malta to Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces. At that time, the population of Malta was recorded being at 114,000.

The French rule

1798-1800 the French impact on Maltese culture was significant. Some French customs and expressions were introduced into every day Maltese language: Words such as bonġu (“good day”) and bonswa (“good evening”) are still used today. Malta was given a Constitution within six days by Napoleon, slavery was abolished, a secondary school system established, the university system was revised almost completely and the legal system of Malta was enhanced by a new Civil Code of law.

French rule did not only bring improvements to Malta and its people, however. Maltese churches were ransacked, being robbed of gold, silver and precious art, which sparked an uprising that ended in the execution of a number of Maltese patriots.

The British in Malta

1800 to 1964 The British rule changed Maltese culture, language and politics. The addition of Malta to the British Empire was a voluntary request made by the Maltese people in an attempt to rid the Maltese islands of the French. Its strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean made Malta an excellent station for British forces, whilst the opening of the Suez Canal further improved the importance of Malta as a supply station and naval base.

British influences on Maltese culture are still visible. Maltese versions of English words are often used in more formal language, while the more wealthy families often use English as the primary language used in the household and in some instances children are brought up without being taught Maltese.

Many remnants of British rule remain, for example: the mail collection boxes and phone boxes having been left in their original placements.