Where on Earth is Malta?
By Frank L. Scicluna
It's not unusual to get a sort of a puzzled expression on many faces when you mention the word Malta. You expect some people to say - "I've heard of Malta or I have met a Maltese but I don't exactly know where or what it is." If you ask them to have a guess, they might place Malta in Africa, or maybe in the Middle East.

GEOGRAPHY

It's such a small place. It is just an archipelago of islands about halfway between the coasts of Sicily and North Africa. Set in the clear blue Mediterranean Sea, the Maltese islands are the most southerly European country. The archipelago consists of five islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino, together with two other uninhabited islands Cominetto and Filfla. The total area is approximately 316 sq kms (Malta 246 sq km, Gozo 67 sq km, Comino 2.7 sq km). The longest distance in Malta from North West to South East is about 27 km, with 14.5 kms width in an East - West direction. The Islands are only 90 km south of Sicily and 290 km from the northern coast of Africa.

HISTORY

The strategic position of Malta, Gozo and Comino has made these Mediterranean islands a crossroad of history and a bone of contention. The powers of Europe's past knew it well as a stepping-stone between Europe and North Africa. Involved in Malta's history are the Stone-Age and Bronze-Age people, Romans and Phoenicians, Arabs, Normans and Carthaginians, Castilians, French and British; from whom Malta became independent in 1964. Napoleon Bonaparte did unutterable damage in an only six-day occupation; and Malta stood firm against Hitler despite massive bombing during World War II, deservedly earning the nation the George Cross medal from King George VI (April 1942) and depicting it on the left hand corner of the flag.

THE KNIGHTS

The Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, a religious and multinational order of soldiers and hospitallers, have had a significant influence in the history of Malta. You might recognise the Maltese Cross, which is the insignia of the Knights of Malta. And you've heard of the Maltese falcon—the Mediterranean peregrine falcon—which was the annual rent required by Roman Emperor Charles V when he donated the Island to the Knights in 1530.

The Knights were not altogether pleased with the gift of these little islands, which were no kind of natural paradise. The Knight found the land is rugged, dry and rocky, though these days barely in evidence in its natural form because Malta is one of the world's most densely populated countries in the world (population - 366 000). It takes no more than approximately an hour to drive between any two points on the main island and that is achieved without ever breaking out into wide-open spaces; the island is virtually solid with jumbles of buildings built of native white limestone.

The Knights of St John of Jerusalem, however, left the most physical mark on Malta, after successfully defended it from the power-hungry Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1565. The Knights were in charge of the island for 270 years, building magnificent churches and lavish monuments to themselves—each nationality had its own palace (AUBERGES) —before losing power to the Napoleon Bonaparte and the French empire in 1889.

MALTESE LANGUAGE

The two official languages are Maltese and English. The English language is a leftover of about 160 years of British colonisation of Malta. Maltese, whose closest languages are Lebanese, Hebrew and classic Arabic, is the only Semitic language which is written in Roman alphabet. Italian, too, is widely spoken among the younger generation, particularly due to the television programs which are transmitted from nearby Italy. It is easy to get a language guide and Maltese is interesting enough to make a little effort very worthwhile a few words taken back with you are a very beautiful 'souvenir' of your visit.

Tourism is the most lucrative industry, and the Maltese people have a friendly and welcoming way about them. At celebrations for the feast of St. Paul on the 10th of February, the locals proudly relate their immortal history to visitors as a procession with the statute of St Paul passes by.

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