A Crash Course in Maltese History

Luther’s Malta and the Mediterranean Program, currently in its 26th year, offers students the opportunity to spend a semester exploring Malta's rich history and traveling to other countries in the Mediterranean region. Coursework includes Paideia II: Ethical Issues in the Mediterranean, a Service Learning class, where program participants teach English to recent immigrants to Malta, Maltese History and Culture and additional classes taken at the University of Malta.

To learn more about the program, visit the Malta Semester website.

After spending a little more than a month on Malta, I have learned so much about the historical significance of this country. From our twice-weekly history lecture to exploring monuments around the island, I'm satisfying the history nerd within me more each day. This morning I found myself in Valletta (again) and ended up near Fort St. Elmo. When I made my "Malta Bucket List" last week I put "National War Museum" at the top of the list. After paying the 5 euro student fee, I entered through the gates of the Fort.

Compared to my adventure in Marsaloxkk yesterday, the Fort was barren. It was actually a little eerie to be wandering this 15th-century structure alone. Prior to visiting the National War Museum and Fort St. Elmo, I was somewhat familiar with Malta's war history. I knew that the Order of St. John had built up much of Valletta and reinforced multiple miltary forts in the region. What I wasn't aware of was the role of Maltese people through the major historical battles taking place on the island.

The National War Museum is located within Fort St. Elmo and is divided into different years. First I walked through the section on prehistoric Malta. Within the first hall, protected glass display cases held objects dating back to the early Bronze Age (2500 B.C.). I'm still struggling to grasp the age of the well-preserved artifacts. I then worked my way through the other halls and glanced at various timelines posted on the wall. It was during this time that I truly understood the extensive history of civilization in Malta. Coming from the United States, I had only experienced visiting sights from the American Revolution and a few Native American monuments. I stared at the timeline for a while working through the realization that Maltese civilization dates countless years before American history.

Fast forward from 2500 B.C. to 1565 A.D., where Malta experienced an ultimate battle for the Mediterranean between Christian and Islamic Ottoman forces. For a little over three months the Ottoman's attacked the Fort only to be eventually defeated by the Knights of St. John. The Great Siege sparked motivation to enhance military bases on Malta in order to prevent any further attacks from the Ottoman Empire.

From the time of the Order of St. John to modern day, Malta had a vast range of rulers (Arabs, Byzantines, Swabians, Angevians, Catalans and the Spanish — just to name a few). The British period began in the early 1800s after Malta was briefly occupied by the French beginning in 1798 (a revolution began just 3 months after Napoleon's forces landed on the island). British rule became particularly important during both World Wars.

During World War I, Malta was used as a medical facility. With hundreds of medical staff, thousands of beds, and a handful of hospitals, Malta treated countless injured soldiers. The healing patients were then relocated from the hospitals to other parts of the country for rest and rehabilitation.

The part of Maltese history that shocks me the most happened during World War II. When I attended the study abroad fair during the fall semester of my first year at Luther I hadn't even heard of Malta. For a long time I honestly thought it was part of Italy since the island is located so close to Sicily. Since Malta was a British colony during World War II, the country became home to a crucial military base for Allied forces. The British knew the importance of Malta's location and defended it to the end of the war. Malta was bombed day and night during the War, forcing civilians to inhabit underground tunnels and even ancient catacombs. If it weren't for the SS Ohio, the only convoy to successful reach Malta during an extremely desperate time, the entire island would have starved to death. The ship was actually sinking when it landed in Valletta's Grand Harbor!

During the height of the war, King George awarded Malta the "George Cross" for heroism and courage during the intense bombings. Knowing the significance of this award, seeing it in person was truly breathtaking. The people of Malta and Allied forces stationed at Fort St. Elmo endured years of destruction while surviving on slim rations. Malta held on by a thread but prevailed through the worst of the War. When the War concluded, Malta was granted funds by Great Britian to rebuild the obliterated island. By 1974 Malta was deemed a Republic and admitted into the European Union in 2004.

Walking around Ft. Saint Elmo and immersing myself in Malta's rich history was overwhelming. I stood where numerous leaders have commanded their troops. I stood where countless individuals have fought for their land against ruthless invaders. I stood on ground that has withstood an endless stream of bombs and the test of time.

After taking a trip to the past and experiencing Malta in the present, I know that I will look at Malta differently in the future. This island is so much more than a coastal haven in the Mediterranean. It's a mixing pot of culture, accomplishments, experiences, and much more.

I cannot imagine another place that I'd rather call home for four months.

A sculpture of Knights near the museum entrance
View of the Grand Harbor area from Fort St. Elmo
A refurbished section of the Fort
Fort St. Elmo and the Sea