[p.13] POST MUSLIM MALTA - A CASE STUDY IN

ARTISTIC AND ARCHITECTURAL CROSS-CURRENTS

Mario Buhagiar

History has turned the Maltese Islands into a melting pot of several distinct and sometimes seemingly irreconcilable cultures. The strategically superb situation of the archipelago at the crossroads of the eastern and western basins of the Inland Sea, some 80 kilometres south of Sicily and 380 kilometres away from the nearest landfall in Tunisia has, until the attainment of Independence in 1964, fettered the destiny of Malta and Gozo to successive colonial powers with Mediterranean interests. The culture of the two islands was, in the process, enriched and diversified. The vulnerability of Maltese culture to the various foreign influences and its consequent dynamism are reflected in art and architecture.

This paper is primarily concerned with the Late Middle Ages. This was a time of particular cultural significance when a Latin Christian veneer was being systematically applied on an essentially Islamic substratum. After the Muslim conquest of 870 A.D., Christianity, for reasons that need not concern us here, seems to have entirely died out and the Norman marauding raid of 1091 and definitive conquest of 1127 at first did little to mitigate the Islamic ethos of the archipelago.[1] The links with the Latin civilization of the West remained inconsequential until the thirteenth century when a Christian European style of government and society started to emerge. According to Ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the fourteenth century, the Muslims were expelled from Malta [p.14] in 1249.[2] Christian evangelization, which was presumably undertaken of Sicily, might have been carried out, in part at least, by Greek-rite Basilian monks for whom there is apparent evidence in several rock-cut churches.[3] It was, none the less, the Latin-rite clergy, who ministered to the foreign governors and their garrison, that was ultimately responsible for the setting up and running of a diocese which by about 1270 was well organized as a suffragan of Palermo.[4] The activities of the Latin clergy were reflected in the westernizing styles of art and architecture that countered, and finally supplanted, the Byzantinesque culture of the Basilian monks.[5] Their most enduring monument was presumably Mdina Cathedral which is first recorded in 1299.[6] Probably built on the site of the main mosque of Mdina, it stood a proud as a reminder of the victory of the cross over the crescent. The grafting and sustaining of Christianity on the formerly largely Muslim islands must have been difficult. Its success was, nonetheless complete. The Muslim past became an embarrassment and history was distorted by false traditions which determined the course of Maltese historiography till the second half of the twentieth century.[7]

The Islamic period was undoubtedly one of the most important shaping forces of the Maltese cultural identity, its most lasting bequest being the Maltese language. It is therefore strange that the archaeological documentation for it is negligible, being limited only to burial sites, the most important of which was built directly on top of the ruins of a Roman town-house at Rabat (pl. 1b).[8] The presumed remains of a mosque discovered by the Missione [p.15] Archeologica Italiana at Tas-Silġ,[9] are extremely doubtful and should there-fore be disregarded. The same applies for most of the other presumed Muslim remains from the same site and from San Pawl Milqi.[10] The unexpected dearth of visible remains might perhaps be explained, at least partially, in terms of a programme of wilful destruction of evidence for a Muslim past, undertaken by Christian zealots in the course of the Late Middle Ages.

The only notable work of art to survive is the tombstone of una who died on Thursday, 21 March 1174. The circumstances of its discovery are unknown.[11] Carved on a piece of re-used Roman marble, the stone is a masterpiece of Kufic calligraphic art. The tombstones from the Rabat cemetery, several of which carry Koranic texts, do not reach a similar level of artistic accomplishment. The high quality of the una stone points, none the less, to a tradition of artistic refinement and aristocratic sophistication, which is seemingly supported by the report about a master craftsman who built a marvellous mechanical clock by which one could tell the time by counting the balls thrown by an effigy of a girl into a bronze basin. The clock which was, apparently, made in the mid-eleventh century for Kaid Yahya of Malta was celebrated in the lyrics of two Maltese poets Abu-al-Qasim-ibn-Ramadan al-Maliti and Abdallah ibn al-Samanti al-Maliti.[12] Another Maltese poet, Utman ibn Abd-ar-Rahman, called Ibn-as-Susi, settled in Palermo where he [p.16] was held in high esteem.[13] Anthony Luttrell has suggested that "a small class of educated Maltese evidently moved in a cosmopolitan world".[14] On Malta, the walled city of Mdina might have been, on a small scale, a centre of gracious living and it is a great pity that none of its Moorish buildings have survived.[15] In spite of its name there is no evidence that the citadel was a Muslim construction. It is more probable that the fortifications of the inner and more strategically significant core of the Roman city of Melite, from which Mdina developed, was undertaken by the Byzantines to protect themselves from Muslim raids. Similarly Fort St Angelo probably stemmed from a Byzantine rather than a Muslim coastal tower.[16]

The sawn stone slabs that covered the built tombs at Rabat (pl. 1a) were new to Malta;[17] but it is not known if they were also used in the construction of town-houses. Though these have not survived, it is possible, to an extent, to reconstruct their appearance. Their plan, and probably also their method of construction might have conditioned Maltese domestic architecture for several centuries. It is none the less wrong to generalize. The architectural features and decorative elements mentioned in this paper recur all over the Mediterranean and it would be rash to claim that they are a direct legacy of the Muslim period. The intention of this paper is rather to suggest a string of possibilities for the consideration of the art and architectural historian.

The compact settlement pattern of introverted buildings with bleak exterior walls, informally arranged in a system of narrow curving streets, that characterize the urban set-up of the traditional Maltese town, and which is a feature shared in common with other countries of the central Mediterranean littoral (fig. 1a-b), has often been pointed out as a Muslim legacy, but such a statement needs to be qualified. It must be emphasized that there is no tangible evidence throughout most of the Late Middle Ages, for major settlements outside Mdina and the Gozo Castello with their respective suburb or Rabat. The casali, or villages, only started to develop into important urban conglomerations in the course of the sixteenth century. Most of the villages and hamlets [p.17]

Fig. 1a-b: Two streetscapes in the old Medina of Tripoli, Libya. Similar compact settlement patterns of introverted buildings, informally arranged in a network of narrow, curving streets characterize the urban set-up of the traditional Maltese town and are a feature shared in common with other countries of the Central Mediterranean littoral.

in the impressively long list compiled by my colleague Professor Godfrey Wettinger[18] consisted of a few scattered households with a church, or cluster of small churches, as the focal point of reference (pl. 2).[19] The churches were often among the few properly constructed and properly roofed buildings in the settlements. The people lived either in caves or in rude, dry stone huts similar, though presumably larger, to the girna or corbelled shelter that occurs [p.18] all over the Mediterranean world, especially in those places where stone is easily available and wood a scarce commodity (pl. 3; fig. 2).[20] The notarial archives contain only a few scattered references to the building of ashlar village-houses and the poverty of the architecture is emphasized by the mention of roofs of thatch or reeds.[21] Even at Birgu, outside the walls of the Castello a Mare on the Grand Harbour, where the Knights of St John established their headquarters in 1530, there were fields in between buildings[22] whose wretchedness appalled Jean Quintin who wrote in 1536.[23]

The fact that, according to Quintin, the settlement of Birgu was dug rather than built into the hillock might suggest that some of the houses were hewn out of the rock. The practice of cave-dwelling might have been consolidated by the Arabs. This is known to have happened in Sicily where the greater availability of documentary material and better archaeological research has helped establish the existence of several troglodytic communities with whom the Normans came into contact at the very start of their Sicilian adventure. Malaterra (ii, 16) describes, for example, how Norman soldiers were entertained by the troglodytes who inhabited the grottoes in the region of S. Felice.[24] It is, however, the Saracenic, flat-roofed house, that must have existed at Mdina, that interests the art historian most. Whether these houses were entirely ashlar constructions or, as seems more probable, a combination of ashlar and rubble, is not known. Several late medieval buildings at Mdina, reserved ashlar for walls that were visible from the street and for the arches that supported the ceiling slabs, the rest being a rubble infill.[25] It is possible that such buildings reflect a long standing tradition rooted in Arab times; and Godfrey Wettinger has, in fact, recovered from fifteenth-century documents [p.19]

Fig. 2: a. A girna or corbelled hut and b. A flat roofed farmshed.
Such rudimentary dry stone constructions occur all over the Mediterranean world especially in places where stone is easily available and wood a scarce commodity. Together with the natural cave, similar rubble buildings might have been the only known dwellings in the Maltese countryside throughout most of the late Middle Ages.

[p.20] descriptions of town houses that seem to fit a Muslim rather than a Christian European context.[26]

One gets the impression of well ventilated houses planned round a court-yard reached through a modestly proportioned lobby called sikifa. The most important room was the miġlis, or oriental-style reception room, where guests reclined on stone benches called dukkien. Such benches were also found in other parts of the house and could be used as beds as well as seats.[27] Privacy, climate and security probably favoured bleak and austere street facades with the minimum of openings. The fact that in Sicily, the entrance lobby was also called sikifa may suggest that the two islands shared a common architectural vocabulary that owed a Tunisia where the term sikifa is still in use.[28] One significant difference between the Maltese and Sicilian late medieval house might have been the flat roof that gave Malta a particularly North African flavour.

One other probable North African element that continued to feature in Maltese domestic architecture until fairly recent times was the muxrabija, or peep-box, that permitted the inmates of the house to keep an eye on the outside world without, however, being seen from the street below (pls. 4-5). These peep-boxes, which were generally stone-made served the need for security and privacy. Sometimes, as in a particularly fine example in Ebona Street, Żebbuġ, the muxrabija was decorated with roundel carvings.[29]

In Maltese late medieval and early modern architecture, carved roundels of geometric patterns, or of plant and floral motifs, were often used to soften the monotony of the plain exterior walls of domestic buildings, especially in the villages (pl. 6 a-b-c). Similar roundels are a favoured element of decoration in Islamic architecture and they can be observed all over Muslim North Africa particularly in Tunisia, where they also occur on monumental buildings such as the Great Mosque of Kairouan, and in the Old Medina of Tripoli, in Libya.[30] It is not improbable, therefore, that they may be a legacy from the Arab past even though, so far, the only evidence for them is on a few tombstones from [p.21] the Rabat cemetery. Of some interest to Malta is their occurrence in Sicily and Catalunya which also experienced a profound Muslim cultural imprint. An example from Sicily that is worth mentioning is the probably twelfth-century fragment of an architrave in the Museo Pepoli at Trapani, which is stylistically related to the later carved stone blocks from the church of St Agatha, at Rabat (fig. 3b).[31] In Spain, the portal of the presumably twelfth-century church of S. Pablo del Campo at Barcellona, is more significant because the megalithic lintel with roundel carvings is further decorated with triple roll mouldings reminiscent of the "fat" mouldings of Maltese buildings of the sixteenth- and early seventeenth-centuries (fig. 3a).[32] It has been assumed that such mouldings were imported from Rhodes but the portal of S. Pablo del Campo provides new food for thought. It has, in fact, been suggested that they might have a saracenic origin,[33] but the question still awaits a proper study. In Malta the combination of roundels with triple roll mouldings appears in an early seventeenth-century context in a house in St. Mary Street, Tarxien (pl. 7a).[34]

Roundel carvings have been reported from most parts of Malta but they seem to have been especially popular in the south of the island and particularly in the Żurrieq-Qrendi-Mqabba area.[35] The examples that survive do not seem to be older than the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries though they are impossible to date securely and it is not improbable that some might have been re-utilized from earlier buildings. Most show excellent craftsmanship and the intricate design, which is either lightly incised with a sharp pointed tool or chiselled in low relief, is often of considerable sophistication. Roundels sometimes decorated the interior of buildings. The carved stone blocks from St Agatha, which included at least nineteen roundels, apparently formed a frieze inside the church.[36] Some of the stones from St Agatha were decorated with Christian emblems. The tombstones from the so-called French Cemetery, [p.22]

Fig. 3: a. Church of S. Pablo del Campo, Barcellona. Megalithic lintel with roundel carvings and triple roll mouldings reminiscent of the Maltese 'fat' mouldings. Circa twelfth-century.

b. Church of St Agatha, Rabat, Malta. Roundel carvings. Early sixteenth-century.

[p.23] on Gozo, were ornamented with crosses, cross-monograms, stylized chalices and other church-furnishings, and apparent heraldic devices. The history of these stones is unknown. The story that they mark the tombs of prelates who accompanied Louis IX of France on the ill-starred crusade that he led to the East in 1248[37] has no historical foundation, while stylistic and other considerations lead one to suspect a late fifteenth- or even early sixteenth-century date. Some have considerable decorative charm and are not devoid of artistic interest (fig. 4a-b).

In late medieval Malta, Islamic and westernizing influences blended to produce an essentially Mediterranean art that is above all reflected in archi­tecture. Life at Mdina appears to have retained an element of cultural refinement. The saracenic poets mentioned by Amari[38] were followed, in the early thirteenth century, by the Languedoc troubadour Peire Vidal who extolled the exploits of his lord Henry Count of Malta, nicknamed Pescatore, "master and of the seas, bringer of peace and custodian of the straits",[39] and, in the fifteenth century, Pietro Caxaro composed a Cantilena, or lament, in vernacular Maltese.[40] The Confederation of the Aragonese Crown into whose sphere of influence Malta and Gozo passed in 1282, opened the door to new Western Mediterranean influences that, in spite of the apparently serious distress caused by economic problems and social insecurity, brought about a remarkable flowering of culture that testifies to a new found Latin Christian identity (pl. 7b). This cultural process gathered momentum as the Muslim past receded into the background. The Islamic imprint, none the less, might have continued to manifest itself in architecture for a long time afterwards.

[p.24]

Fig. 4a-b. Tombstones with ecclesiastical motifs and apparent heraldic
devices from a late medieval burial-ground iii Rabat, Gozo.

[p.25]

PLATE 1

a: The remains of a built tomb covered with sawn-stone slabs
at the Saracenic cemetery outside Mdina fortifications.

PLATE 2

Cave-dwellings and scattered farm buildings at Mtaħleb, limits of Rabat, Malta, in the early twentieth century. The small church is the only ashlar construction and it dominates the landscape. The Maltese late medieval village was probably quite similar.

[p.26]

PLATE 2

Cave-dwellings and scattered farm buildings at Mtaħleb, limits of Rabat, Malta, in the early twentieth century. The small church is the only ashlar construction and it dominates the landscape. The Maltese late medieval village was probably quite similar.

[p.27]

PLATE 3

a: A cluster of giren or corbelled huts at Baħrija, limits of Rabat, Malta.

b: Rudimentary nibble buildings and cave-dwellings at Mtaħleb, limits of Rabat, Malta.

[p.28]

PLATE 4

Seventeenth-century house in Qajjiet Lane, Siġġiewi (Malta)
with a stone
muxrabija, or peep-box, at first floor level.

[p.29]

PLATE 5

A modern wooden box with louvres serving the purpose of a muxrabija
on the first floor of a house in Qajjiet Lane, Siġġiewi (Malta).

[p.30]

PLATE 6

Roundel carvings on farmhouses in the Hal Millieri area,
limits of the rural towns of Qrendi and Zurrieq (Malta).

[p.31]

PLATE 7

a: Seventeenth-century house in St Mary Street, Tarxien (Malta).
Detail showing two first floor windows with triple roll-mouldings and roundel carvings.

b: Two-light window in North-West Street, Birgu. Similar windows and other pseudo-Gothic elements on late medieval Maltese town buildings, reflect the westernizing influences that reached the Maltese Islands as a result of their long association with the Confederation of the Aragonese Crown starting in 1282. The date of the Birgu house is apparently early sixteenth century but the ornate window might be a re-utilized element. Such windows were often prefabricated in specialized workshops.

The Mediterranean started to assume its fundamental role of a unifying agent between peoples, cultures and between the different lands that surround it - between east and west, between north and south - during the seventh millennium B.C., that is, when the earliest signs of trade appeared which were stimulated by the availability of surplus food brought about by the discovery and adoption of agriculture in the Near East.[1] Trade and agriculture inter-acted in such a way as to spread the new (or Neolithic) way of life, in all its facets, to the rest of the Mediterranean. Trade helped to spread the idea of agriculture to all the shores of the Mediterranean and beyond, and through trade the Neolithic farmers discovered increasingly more land to harness for agricultural purposes in order to feed the growing population. [2] It is probably as a result of the same stimuli of trade and land-hunger that the Maltese islands came to be inhabited for the first time, around 5000 B.C., by farmers originating from the southern districts of nearby Sicily.[3] As Malta [p.2] was then already an island - it had been so for about five millennia - the crossing of the hundred odd kilometres of sea that separated it from the larger island required sea-faring abilities that are not testified to before the great agricultural discovery.[4] For this age and for a long time afterwards there could be no claim for any strategic significance for the Maltese archipelago; there were as yet no greedy ambitions of political expansion of one state, or power, at the expense of other, militarily less endowed, lands. Such aspirations would only emerge with the great empires of the Near East, one along the Nile and a succession of others in the land between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris around 3000 B.C. For the next two-and-a-half millennia after the first colonization[5] of Malta the islands responded only to a more basic requirement of man the farmer: more land for cultivation. No prized raw materials were available on the islands that could attract open-sea trade navigation either from Sicily or from further afield. To the early Neolithic farmer on Malta the sea served more as an isolating factor, although a certain degree of contact was maintained between the Maltese farmers and their Sicilian counterparts, mostly for the importation of regular supplies of hard-stone raw materials and some ideas of pottery fabrication.[6] The Maltese farmers felt so safe from any possible threat from outside that they did not bother themselves with fortifying their villages in any way, contrary to what their Sicilian cousins were constrained to do.[7] The scenario in the central Mediterranean, as well as in Malta, did not change much until about 2500 B.C. Only, new cultures were introduced that are normally attributed to new waves of migrations of farmers basically differentiated from their predecessors by their new ceramic repertoire. In easternSicily the Diana culture is replaced by the San Cono - Piano Notaro one and similarly the Red Skorba culture in Malta is replaced by the ·ebbu·one around 4000 B.C. In the second period of Maltese prehistory there are two features that seem to distinguish the cultural development in the two islands. While [p.3] Sicily is inhabited by a population which appears to be in possession of the earliest metallurgical technology - for which reason we call this period in Sicily the Copper Age[8] - the population of Malta appears so far to be unaffected by this new technology. It had set itself, however, on a path of cultural, religious, and artistic development unparalleled elsewhere and resulting in that extraordinary cultural phenomenon centred on the wonderful megalithic structures that have characterized the Maltese landscape ever since.

However, what is even more striking in the insularity and isolation of this splendid cultural flowering is the fact that contacts with nearby islands, in particular imports of lithic raw materials from Sicily, Lipari and Pantelleria, were never interrupted.[9] What one would expect in these circumstances is, of course, not evidence of an influence from the more advanced Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean, as the diffusionists used to maintain[10] - that view has been discarded once for all by the radiocarbon and dendrochronology datings[11] - but some sort of reflection, even minimal, of the Maltese Temple culture in neighbouring lands. But we note nothing, not before the following age, the Bronze Age, in Sicily.[12]

The only faint reflections of Maltese megalithic architecture have been identified in another of the larger Mediterranean islands, much farther away, and this virtually at the end of the Maltese Temple period, namely in the Ozieri - San Michele culture of Sardinia around 2500 B.C.[13] This similarity is not [p.4] restricted to architecture but is further corroborated by the shapes and decorative features in the pottery of the same culture that appear to be almost identical with their counterparts of the Tarxien phase.[14] This connection with Sardinia has prompted me to suggest the hypothesis that the Sardinian manifestations could be the product of a remnant of the population of the Maltese Temple culture which, according to the same view, would have abandoned the islands somewhat abruptly in face of extreme adverse economic and, possibly, environmental conditions.[15] It should be noted, however, that the chronology for the Ozieri culture has now been pushed back to c. 4000-3500 B.C. by radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology calibration.[16] Consequently, the relationship between the Maltese Temple culture and the Sardinian Ozieri one has to be rethought.[17]

The population that re-inhabited Malta after the middle of the third millennium carried a much more advanced tool and weapon technology - they practised bronze metallurgy - but an impressively inferior artistic and artisanal culture.[18] Unfortunately, of the Tarxien Cemetery people we do not have any standing structures except for the dolmens which seem to be contemporary. The Tarxien Cemetery people may have come from Sicily or South Italy, as is suggested by the close affinities with the pottery production of Capo Graziano in Lipari and with other pottery from Sicilian sites like Serraferlicchio, Manfria-Zichilino and Barriera, as well as the similarities in the 'dolmen' structures.[19] Ultimately, however, they and their Sicilian and South Italian cousins belong to a movement of people and trade traffic originating in the Aegean. By the third millennium B.C. the prospecting for metal, namely [p.5] copper, in the lands washed by the Mediterranean (Cyprus in the east, Spain and north-west Italy in the west) had brought about an intensive seafaring activity linking the western basin of the Mediterranean with the eastern one. The major consumers of this raw material were the more advanced Bronze Age civilisations of the Near East, Egypt and Mesopotamia, but the Cretans, followed by the Mycenaeans, soon assumed the role of middlemen in this prolific trade and eventually created their own civilisations at the inspiration from these earlier ones.

Malta does not seem to have remained, this time, completely extraneous to this intensive movement of people and goods. A dark-stone cylindrical bead found at Tarxien is inlaid with gold symbols that are identical to Minoan Linear Scripl characters.[20] The 'disk idols' from the Tarxien Cemetery layer are also very close to the ones found in Mycenaean centres.[21] The 'Cyclopean' construction technique of the Bor· in-Nadur fortification recalls the similar structures in the Mycenaean world.[22] All this suggests cultural currents reaching Malta from the Aegean in the third millennium. A sherd of a Mycenaean IIIB cup found at Bor· in-Nadur constitutes a physical import from the same area providing proof, albeit isolated, of commerce with the Mycenaean world. [23] Further proof of this interest of the Mycenaeans in the Maltese islands comes from the literary sources: namely the identification of Malta (or, rather, Gozo) with Homer's Oygia, the island of Calypso on which Odysseus spent six years of his nostos,[24] and the reference in Lycophron to a settlement in Malta of a group of Greek warriors on their way back home from the Trojan [p.6] war.[25] These, as I have suggested elsewhere, could be interpreted as vague recollections of historical situations of the Greek Heroic Age.[26] But this age, as illustrated both by Homer's epics and by the contemporary archaeological record, is not a quiet, peaceful age. The greed for greater riches, for more control over commercial routes and the crave for power had sown the seeds of expansionistic and empire-building ambitions. These were concentrated mainly in the lands of the great civilizations of the Near East but they soon sent rippling waves which affected the central and western Mediterranean. The Bronze Age settlements of the Maltese islands, planted on high, easily defendable, flat hills and their fortifications seem to reflect these waves of insecurity and a marked change in the international climate of the central Mediterranean, as do the fortified settlements of the Thagos and Castelluccio cultures in Sicily[27] and the Nuraghi villages of Sardinia.[28] Given the total absence of mineral resources, especially metal ores, in the Maltese geological formation it is hard to guess why the Aegean traders could have been at all interested in these islands, lying as they did far out in the open sea, away from their major trading routes along the coast of Sicily and southern Italy.[29] The only physical link is provided for us by what appears to be a Maltese colony planted by the Tarxien Cemetery people, and later sustained by the Bor· in-Nadur people, on the island of Ognina, south of Syracuse in Sicily.[30] It comes naturally to postulate that the Mycenaean cup mentioned above could have reached the Borg in-Nadur village indirectly through the agency of their cousins in eastern Sicily where the archaeological evidence of Mycenaean commerce abounds.[31] The twelfth century in the eastern Mediterranean is marked by a series of [p.7] political upheavals that result in the collapse of empires (the Hittites), the end of a civilization (the Mycenaean) and the beginning of the Dark Age in Greece, the destruction of important and thriving cities (Ugarit) and the emergence of new political and ethnic entities on the Syro-Palestinian coast (the Phoenicians in the north and the Philistines in the south). These rapid changes are normally attributed to the activity of the Peoples of the Sea in that area.[32] So far, however, no evidence has been forthcoming from the central or the western Mediterranean that could suggest reverberations from the Sea Peoples' activity in the east. It is only four centuries later that another wave of peoples will start moving in this direction with the colonization of the western Mediterranean by the Phoenicians[33] and Greeks.[34]

The reasons why the Greeks did not try to establish a colony in Malta escape us.[35] One possibility is that Malta did not offer sufficient cultivatable fertile land as the typical settlements of Sicily and South Italy did. The most logical reason, however, seems to be quite simply that they were preceded there by the Phoenicians since these had started earlier their expansion in the West. Thucydides himself says so with regards to Sicily and appears to include Malta among "the small islands adjacent" to Sicily which had been settled on by the Phoenicians before the Greeks arrived there.[36] Whatever the reason, with the colonization of the greater part of Sicily by the Greeks in the second half of the eighth century and the seventh century B.C. Malta assumed for the first time a strategic importance in the contest between these two commercial, as well as military, power blocs - eventually the Etruscans were to constitute a third component - for the control of the sea trade routes and of the trade itself with the native inhabitants of the lands bordering the Mediterranean. Dion agrees that the Phoenicians had already taken control of the most direct route from the east (via Crete) to the west (to Carthage and beyond) through Malta, leaving the Greeks with no other choice but to take a more northerly one, [p.8] namely through the straits of Messina.[37] This view is further corroborated by the statement of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (V, 12) that the Phoenicians selected Malta as a place to settle on precisely because "as they extended their trade to the western ocean, they found in it a place of safe retreat, since it was well supplied with harbours and lay out in the open sea". From now on, as a matter of fact, it is the last two factors, its excellent harbours and its pelagic position, that enhanced the island's strategic value.

Rivalries between the two commercial and military blocs, an alliance between Etruscans and the western Phoenicians on one hand, and the various alliances between Greek independent city states on the other, came to a head in the mid-sixth century, mainly over Sicily, and in >Sicily. Till then all western Phoenician colonies maintained strong political, religious and cultural ties with Phoenicia, the motherland. But with the loss of the political autonomy of the latter, Carthage, the most prosperous and powerful of the western colonies assumed the role of their champion and leader. It is at this stage that the Greeks, having colonies in Cyrenaica, Sicily, southern Italy, southern France and as far west as southwestern Spain, made an attempt to break up the Carthaginian control of the southern route by planting a colony on the river Cinypus in the Syrtic gulf. But the abortive expedition of Dorieus failed to achieve its aim.[38]

At this stage, and maybe as a follow-up to this event, it sums that the Carthaginians decided to consolidate their presence in Malta. From a port of call, the island is turned into a full-scale colony.[39] The sanctuary at Tas-Sil· undergoes an ambitious building programme.[40] Although we are not well informed about developments in the major settlement areas, tombs with typical Carthaginian furniture become more frequent, especially around the Rabat/Mdina promontory.[41]

Meanwhile, the balance of power in the central Mediterranean was broken when the Etruscans and Carthaginians decided to go each their own way, with [p.9] disastrous results. The Etruscans suffered a serious naval defeat by a joint force of Syracusans and Cumaeans at Cumae in 474 B.C., while Carthage entered in a long-drawn war starting with a defeat at the hands of the Syracusans in 480 at Himera. Hostilities between the Greeks and the Carthaginians were suspended only towards the very end of the fourth century probably, at least partly, in consequence of the political developments in Greece itself, namely its invasion by Alexander the Great and its incorporation within the Hellenistic empire. Carthage relinquished its isolation and opened its doors wide to Hellenistic influence, an influence which is paralleled also in Malta from the beginning of the third century onwards. We now notice much stronger trading ties with Magna Graecia.[42] Malta, in fact, assumes a role of an important trading link on the commercial route between southern Italy and Tripolitania. Not only buildings of a type particularly favoured in Hellenized Egypt - such as the ·urrieq tower - are erected at this time; not only is Greek influence seen in the changing fashions of the typical local Punic pottery style; but even the Greek language finds itself in company with the Punic one on the bilingual candelabra.[43] The break of the balance of power between Greeks and Carthaginians at the outset of the fifth century paved the way for the gradual emergence and eventual rise of another power in the central Mediterranean, one that was indigenous to the Italian soil and one that was destined to dominate not only the peninsula itself but the whole Mediterranean and beyond. By 264 Rome, by a series of forced alliances, had extended its control over the whole of the Italian peninsula; the outbreak of the First Punic War in that year was clearly geared towards the domination of Sicily. During that war the Romans had to fight several sea-battles and by the end of it they had become a sea power as well as a land power. In 255 B.C. Malta, being enemy territory, was raided and its countryside devastated.[44] As yet, however, Rome did not estimate the position of this group of small islands highly enough to try to secure them; their main and only concern throughout that war (264-241 B.C.) was Sicily, though the two other large islands of the west (Sardinia and Corsica) were annexed very soon after (238 B.C.). The Carthaginians, on the other hand, in view of these heavy losses, [p.10] took some measures to avoid a second invasion and, possibly, an occupation of the Maltese islands: in 218 B.C. Malta was guarded by a Carthaginian garrison of 2000 men under the command of Hamilcar, son of Gisco. But this proved to be inadequate, certainly not enough to ward off a naval expedition by one of the Roman consuls who won over the archipelago, apparently without even having to fight for it.[45] In 218 B.C., therefore, Malta was incorporated within the Roman common-wealth, thus preventing it from being used as a possible base for naval military action on the southern flank. Most naturally it was included in the newly-formed province of Sicily. Though most of the Second Punic War was fought on Italian soil and, towards the end, on African soil, close to Carthage itself, one feels that the Romans must have taken some pains to prevent any of the islands from being recovered by the enemy. With the loss of all of Carthage's territorial claims outside North Africa at the end of the Second Punic War, even more so with the complete annihilation of the city itself in 146 B.C., and the ensuing creation of provincia Africa, which was paralleled by that of provincia Achaia in the east in the same year, Malta lost its last shreds of strategic significance and, as Cary observes, it hardly figured in ancient history.[46] Nevertheless, if threats from outside the empire were eliminated, those from the inside were still lurking. We do not know what role Malta played in the civil wars that brought about the collapse of the Republican constitution in Rome. Most probably it was away from it all since Cicero was considering, at one stage, going into voluntary banishment on the island,[47] but E. Coleiro suggests that coin evidence seems to imply support given to Sextus Pompeius and his fleet in his resistance against Octavian.[48] On the other hand, we have a clear statement from the same Cicero that Malta was in those times (end of [p.12] second to beginning of first century B.C.) regularly used as a winter base for pirates.[49] Piracy infested the Mediterranean and jeopardized commercial seafaring on all seas surrounding Italy until Pompey put a definitive stop to it in 67 B.C. Cicero again, followed by Diodorus Siculus, with reference to Malta, gives us a picture of quiet prosperity, which is reflected in the archaeological record - in particular that of the villas scattered over the Maltese countryside - and some degree of sophistication both in the industrial production of refined textiles and in the artistically ambitious constructions of which the Roman domus of Rabat is a concrete and prominent example.[50] Culturally, Malta presents itself at this point in time as the melting pot of three diverse cultures and languages. The Roman administration imposed its own language (at least for official transactions), its own official religion and, inevitably, its own artistic fashions on the Punic ones which, however, appear to have survived till the first century A.D., if not for a long time afterwards. Together with these two currents another one is mingled, the Greek Hellenistic one, which had started to filter in the whole Punic world in the third century B.C., but which grew stronger as a result of the more intensive intercourse between Sicily and the Maltese islands.[51] This situation appears to have endured with little change till the beginning of the sixth century A.D. when Malta was absorbed, together with Sicily and its islands within the Eastern Empire.[52] This impression, I hasten to add, is determined by the total absence of literary evidence to the contrary and is liable to change with the discovery of new archaeological evidence, especially epigraphic. The available epigraphic evidence, in fact, already provides us with hazy glimpses of the involvement of the islands, more precisely of Gozo, in the political intrigues and hostilities in the imperial court: the struggle for power [p.12] between the two sons of Septimius Severus in one inscription,[53] and that between the two tetrarchs, Constantius and Galerius, in two others.[54]

On this and on other questions relating to ancient Maltese history we await impatiently the data the Maltese archaeological soil still preserves and that which the prevalent economic and administrative powers will allow it to reveal.



[1] The first forms of trade can, indeed, be traced between early Neolithic cultures inhabiting the Mediterranean coast and others established further inland, such as sea shells from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea found on inland sites and obsidian from central Anatolia found in the earliest levels at Jericho.
[2] For the questions of the origin of agriculture and its diffusion to the rest of the Mediterranean see D.H. Trump, The Prehistory of the Mediterranean (Harmondsworth, 1980), 22-57; S. Tusa, La Sicilia nella Preistoria (Palermo, 1983), 125-129.
[3] J.D. Evans, Malta (London, 1959), 41-47; id, The Prehistoric Antiquities of the Maltese Islands: a Survey (London, 1971), 208-209; D.H. Trump, Skorba - Excavations Carried out on Behalf of the National Museum of Malta, 1962-4 (London, 1966) 21-24; id, Prehistory of the Mediterranean, 86. New connections have more recently been identified with sites further west in southern Sicily. See R. Maggi, "Gli scavi nelle stufe di San Calogero sul Monte Kronio (Sciacca) e i rapporti fra la Sicilia e Malta durante il Neolitico", Kokalos 22-23 (1976-77), 510-518: on the basis of this evidence the author suggests that the earliest colonists of Malta might have departed from the Agrigento/Sciacca region of Sicily.
[4] For a probable Mesolithic exception in the Aegean (the cave of Franchthi in the Peloponnese) see Trump, Prehistory of the Mediterranean, 21.
[5] "Colonization" is here taken in its strictly etymological sense, namely, "settlement by fanners (coloni)".
[6] On the relationship between Red Skorba and Diana cultures see Trump, Skorba, 45-46; Evans, Prehistoric Antiquities, 211.
[7] The purpose of the Ghar Dalam wall at Skorba, datable to this period, is not clear: Trump, Skorba, 10. A typical example of a Sicilian Neolithic village with a defensive moat is Stentinello: Tusa, Sicilia,130-131, fig.2.
[8] The term used mostly by Italian archaeologists is "Eneolitico". Even for Sicily the copper artifacts for this period are very few, less than a handful: Tusa, Sicilia, 188-204.
[9] For the sources of these imports see Trump, Skorba, 49-50; A. Bonanno, "A socio-economic approach to Maltese prehistory: the Temple Builders", in Malta: Studies of its Heritage and History (Malta, 1986), 37-40.
[10] J.D. Evans, "The prehistoric culture-sequence in the Maltese archipelago", Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 19 (1953), 41-94; id, Malta, 162-167. A very independent stand, but equally diffusionistic, was taken in the 1930s by L.M. Ugolini, Malta, Origini della Civiltá Mediterranea (Rome, 1934). He favoured the view of an irradiation of Mediterranean civilisation from the centre (i.e., Malta) rather than from the east: "Ex Medio Lux" (pp.275-278). See also id, "Malta fu culla della civiltà mediterranea?", in A.A. Bernardini et al, Civiltá Maltese (Rome, 1940), 19-33.
[11] C. Renfrew, "New configurations in Old World archaeology", World Archaeology 2 (1970) 199-211; id., Before Civilization. The Radiocarbon Revolution and Prehistoric Europe (London, 1973), 48-108.
[12] See, however, E. Procelli, "II complesso tombale di Contrada Paolina e il problema dei rapporti tra Sicilia e Malta nella prima età del bronzo", Bollettino d'Arte 9 (Jan.-Mar. 1981), 83-110. The author derives the shape and construction technique of the Sicilian Bronze Age tombs from the megalithic temples of Malta (p.104).
[13] G. Lilliu, "Rapporti architettonici sardo-maltesi e balearico-maltesi nel quadro dello ipogeismo e del megalitismo", Atti del XV Congresso di Storia dell'Architettura. Malta 11-16 Settembre 1967 (Rome, 1970), 99-172; G. Tanda, Arte Preistorica in Sardegna (Sassari, 1977), 7, 27, figs. 5-20.
[14] W.M. Bray, "The Ozieri Culture in Sardinia", Rivista di Scienze Preistoriche 18 (1963), 173-174; Trump, Skorba, 46; Evans, Prehistoric Antiquities, 222; E. Atzeni, La Dea Madre nelle Culture Prenuragiche (Sassari, 1978), pls.Il, IV, VI. Atzeni (pp.49, 63) sees also close similarities in the idols of the two cultures. Cfr. D. Trump, "The collapse of the Maltese temples", in G. de G. Sieveking, et al(ed.), Problems in Economic and Social Archaeology (Duckworth, 1977), 608: "Suggestions of Maltese influence in the Ozieri culture of Sardinia are receiving little corroboration from further work".
[15] Bonanno, Socio-economic approach, 20, 40-41.
[16] E. Castaldi, "L'architettura di Biriai (Oliena-Nuoro)", Rivista di Scienze Preistoriche 39 (1984), 119-153.
[17] I am grateful to Dr. Bert d'Aragon for calling my attention to these developments.
[18] Evans, Malta, 168-188; id, Prehistoric Antiquities, 224-228; Trump, Skorba, 43-44; L. Bernabó-Brea, "Eolie, Sicilia, e Malta nell'età del Bronzo", Kokalos 22-23 (1976-77), 33-111.
[19] J.D. Evans, "The `Dolmens' of Malta and the origins of the Tarxien Cemetery Culture", Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 22 (1956), 85-101; id, Prehistoric Antiquities, 224; Tusa, Sicilia, 360-373.
[20] Evans, Malta, 164, p1.84; id, Prehistoric Antiquities, 145, p1.51, 10; Bonanno, Socio-economic approach, 39.
[21] Evans, Malta, 175-176; id, Prehistoric Antiquities, 161, pls. 56-57; W. Taylour, The Mycenaeans (London, 1964), 70.
[22] Evans, Malta, 185; id, Prehistoric Antiquities, 14-16, pl.I, 2-3; Taylour, The Mycenaeans, 110-112.
[23] Taylour, The Mycenaeans, 106; id, Mycenaean Pottery in Italy and Adjacent Areas (Cambridge, 1958), 79-80, p1.8, 5; Evans, Prehistoric Antiquities, 17, 227, fig. 42, pl. 32,6. Another Mycenaean fragment was reported in the excavations at Tas-Sil·: F. Mallia, in Missione Archaeologica Italiana a Malta, Rapporto Preliminare della Campagna 1965 (Rome, 1966), 50, pl. 35, 20.
[24] R. Pfeiffer (ed.), Callimachus (Oxford, 1949) (reprinted 1965), 355-356, frag. 470.
[25] Lycophron, Alexandra, 1027-1033; A. Bonanno, "Lycophron and Malta", in Miscellanea in Onore di Eugenio Manni (Rome, 1979), 273-276.
[26] A. Bonanno, "The tradition of an ancient Greek colony in Malta", Hyphen, iv, 1 (1983) 1-17.
[27] Bernabò-Brea, Eolie, Sicilia, e Malta, 33-99; G. Lena, B. Basile, and G. Di Stefano, "Approdi, porti, insediamenti costieri e linee di costa nella Sicilia sud-orientale dalla preistoria alla tarda-antichità", Archivio Storico Siracusano iii, 2 (1988), 29-38.
[28] G. Lilliu, I Nuraghi, Torri Preistoriche di Sardegna (Cagliari, 1962); id., La Civiltà Nuragica (Sassari, 1982).
[29] Malta is not one of the numerous places in the central and western Mediterranean with their name ending in - oussa, such as Lopadoussa (Lampedusa) and Algoussa (Linosa), on which archaeological finds have been made testifying to the penetration of Mycenaean commerce. See S. Marinatos, "Les Egéens et les Iles Gymnésiennes", BCH 95 (1971), 8.
[30] Bernabò-Brea, Eolie, Sicilia, e Malta, 67-99; S. Tusa, "Sicilia e relazioni tirreniche nell'antica età del Bronzo", Libera Università Trapani iii, 8 (Nov. 1984), 100.
[31] S. Tine and L. Vagnetti, I Micenei in Italia (Fasano, 1967); Procelli, Complessi tombali, 83-110; Tusa, Sicilia, 367-373, 400-425.
[32] N.K. Sandars, The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean, 1250-1150 B.C. (London, 1985).
[33] The ancient historical tradition places the beginning of Phoenician colonization in the west as early as the late twelfth century B.C. but the archaeological record does not date it beyond the eighth century: S. Moscati, I Fenici (Milan, 1988), 46-53.
[34] J. Bérard, La Colonisation Grecque de l'Italie Méridionale et de la Sicile dans l'Antiquité (Paris, 1957).
[35] Whether they tried to do so is not possible to tell. The sources, however, do not in any way suggest that they did. On the presumed theory-of such a Greek settlement, see Bonanno, Tradition, 1-17.
[36] Thucydides vi, 2, 6.
[37] R. Dion, Aspects Politiques de la Géographie Antique (Paris, 1977), 65-66. See also G. Vallet, "Rhegion et Zancle", BEFAR 189 (1958), 3; A. Bonanno, " Malta's role in the Phoenician, Greek and Etruscan seaborne trade in the western Mediterranean", MH (in the press).
[38] F.P. Rizzo, "Malta e la Sicilia in età romana: aspetti di storia politica e costituzionale", Kokalos 22-23 (1976-77),176-177.
[39] It is likely that actual colonists were sent out from Carthage, as one can detect a more direct influence of Carthaginian styles in Maltese pottery.
[40] Mission 1963-1970 (Rome, 1964-1970): sections on Tas-Sil·.
[41] Museum Annual Reports 1905- ( Malta, 1906-).
[42] A. Ciasca, "Nota sulla distribuzione di alcune ceramiche puniche maltesi", Bulletin Archeologique 19 (1983) fasc. B, 23-24, n. 30.
[43] CIG, iii, 5753; IG, xiv, 600.
[44] Rizzo, Malta e la Sicilia, 183-188.
[45] Livy, xxi, 51. Although archaeological investigations are far from exhaustive and building activity must have deprived us of a high percentage of the vestiges of antiquity, it should be noted that no evidence has been identified of an effort by the Carthaginians to fortify the main inhabited centres of the islands - except, perhaps, the few round towers scattered in the east and south of the island of Malta - unless the ditch and the vestiges of fortifications observed by Abela in 1647, which we normally associate with the Roman city of Melite, go back to this earlier period, which is unlikely.
[46] M. Cary, The Geographic Background of Greek and Roman History (Oxford, 1967), 148, n.3.
[47] J. Busuttil, "Cicero and Malta", Journal of the Faculty of Arts, iv, 3 (1971), 193-196.
[48] E. Coleiro, "Ricerche Numismatiche", Missione a Malta, 1964, 117-127; id, "Rapporti di Malta con la Sicilia nell'età repubblicana: testimonianze numismatiche e Ietterarie", Kokalos 22-23 (1976-77), 381-4.
[49] J. Busuttil, "Pirates in Malta", MHv, 4 (1971), 308-310.
[50] A. Bonanno, "Distribution of villas and some aspects of the Maltese economy in the Roman period", Journal of the Faculty of Arts vi, 4 (1977), 73-81; id., "L'habitat maltese in età romana", Kokalos, 22-23 (1976-77), 385-395; T. Gouder, The Mosaic Pavements in the Museum of Roman Antiquities at Rabat, Malta (Malta, 1983).
[51] A. Bonanno, "Malta in the third century", in A. King and M. Henig (eds.), The Roman West in the Third Century (Oxford, 1981), 505-513; id , 'The Maltese artistic heritage of the Roman period", Proceedings of History Week 1984 (Malta, 1986), 1-12.
[52] T.S. Brown, "Byzantine Malta: a discussion of the sources", MM, 71-86; Bonanno, Third century, 505-513; id, "Contiguità e continuità culturale e linguistica fra Sicilia e Malta in età pre-araba", Hyphen v, 5 (1988), 250-252.
[53] GIL, x, 7503; J. Busuttil, "The Geta inscription", Journal of the Faculty of Arts vi, 3 (1976), 273-277; Bonanno, Third century, 506.
[54] GIL, x, 7507-7508.