The Arabs of Malta

Travel to Malta today, and you’ll encounter a proudly, and profoundly Catholic culture. When I visited, the islanders were preparing for Easter with a series of Last Supper tableaus and with a procession through the heart of their capital Valetta.

Young boys in their finery led the procession...

...while the saints adorning the niches of buildings watched.










Vendors to one side of the festivities supplied the watchers with bread baked to resemble the crown of thorns, while midway through the procession, a group of penitents came bearing the Virgin Mary.

After Mary came a large number of ordinary people, joining the procession as a religious observance. Many went barefoot over the cobbles.

Even when the island is not observing such an important religious festival, Malta’s catholicism is ever present. One of the employees at our hotel, for example, boasted that Malta (an island traversable by car in an hour or so) possessed 365 churches, one for every day of the year. While I’m not sure if this figure is entirely accurate, what I do know is that Christianity has entered every part of life.

There is thus little overt sign of the island’s Islamic past. The religion was carried here by invading Arabs in 870, and the Malta remained under Muslim control until 1090. Listen carefully, however, and this distant history starts to emerge. Maltese, the language of the island, is the one sign of the Arab occupation that all visitors are bound to notice. A semitic language, Maltese is descended from the Arabic dialect spoken in mediaeval Malta and Sicily. Today, however, a large proportion of its vocabulary is derived from Italian and English.

This living testament to the Arabic presence is more pervasive by far than the traces left by archaeology, as only a few material remains have survived. One is a Muslim cemetery discovered on the site of an ancient Roman villa outside the walls of Mdina, Malta’s Silent City.

The jumbled stones of the villa lying below the more recent cemetery.

Although the faith of those buried on the site can be determined through the orientations of the graves (a trick also used to determine the moment when ‘barbarian’ communities in early Europe turned Christian,) there is so little textual evidence of Malta’s Arab period that the context of the site is almost entirely unknown.

On Gozo, the nation’s second, and even smaller island, some stonework remains to commemorate the individuals from this period. One is a long, prism-shaped stone with an inscription in Kufic characters.

The prism stone, from the National Museum on Gozo.

Stylistically, this piece resembles others found in Muslim North Africa (known as the Maghreb) and has been tentatively dated to 1155-1156 CE. This would situate it after the Christian take-over of the island, when the two faiths lived side by side. Its location of discovery may hint at the presence of a Muslim cemetery outside the walls of Victoria, in Gozo, like the one discussed above. Another piece, the Maimuna stone, also appears to be a funerary monument.

The mysterious Maimuna Stone.

Although undoubtedly an Islamic tombstone, the confusion surrounding its location of origin and mode of discovery mean that it is difficult to incorporate into our already shaky understanding of the Arabs of Malta. Against this backdrop of uncertainty, however, there is one event–the capture of the island by a Christian power–that has been preserved in detail by Geoffrey Malaterra in the text The Deeds of Count Roger. 

Roger was a Norman lord who had carved a personal lordship for himself out of the Muslim territories of Sicily. Having become bored of these campaigns, so Geoffrey tells us, he set his sights on plundering Malta. He found the conquest of the island incredibly easy.

Fortress overlooking the harbour of Valetta.

Since most of the fortifications that now defend the island were built in the later mediaeval and early modern periods, the Muslim commander, seeing Roger’s forces, quickly surrendered. Agreeing to pay Robert tribute as his vassal, he also freed the Christian captives being held under his authority, an event of primary importance to Malaterra’s presentation of the campaign.

While Roger’s exploits tell us little about life on this tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean, they do give us a glimpse into the moment in which the Arab period came to an end and Christianity gained the upper hand–a status quo that has persisted to this day.


One thought on “The Arabs of Malta

  1. Pingback: Friday Photo: The Silent City | mediaevalmusings

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