Malta, from Stefan Jovanovich

February 19, 2010 |

MaltaMalta has been the key to control of the Mediterranean since politicians and kings started marking speeches. The Phoenicians came first. They used the island as a way station for taking on fresh water in their voyages to what became Carthage. (The name "Malta" is probably a corruption of the Phoenician word for refuge — Maleth.) The Romans took Malta as one of their prizes from finally defeating Carthage in the 2nd Punic War. The Vandals came next (395 C.E.), then the Byzantines (535 C.E.), then Muslims (870 C.E.), then the Normans (1090 C.E.), then the Hohenstaufens, after a tussle with the Pope, then Pope Clement — through his nominee Charles of Anjou King of Sicily, then the Aragonese in 1282 (whose takeover by killing the French is the original "Sicilian Vespers"), then the Order of St. John (whom the Ottoman Turks had driven out of Rhodes) in 1522.

Valetta is named for the Grand Master of the Order who led the defense of the island against the Turks in the Great Siege (1565). In 1572 the Turks lost the Battle of Lepanto, and Malta became effectively the Switzerland of the Mediterranean– the place where Turks, Levantines, French, Spaniards, Venetians, Genoese and Neapolitans could all do their deals without needing their countries to make peace with one another. In 1798, on his way to Egypt, Napoleon, on orders from the Directory, stopped to take over the island. After the Battle of the Nile the French position was hopeless; the British took over and remained as occupiers for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars. At the Congress of Vienna (1815) the British were given outright ownership.

This history of the island in WW II is an extraordinary story all by itself; it was bombed for 2½ years. Some historians argue that the ability of the British to hold Malta gave them the "aircraft carrier" whose attacks against Italian supply convoys prevented Rommel from getting the fuel and ammunition he needed to break through to the Suez Canal.


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