Malta - Background information


Timeline
Natural history
People and culture

Timeline

Abridged from the History section in Malta & Gozo: the Bradt Travel Guide

5000–4500BC

Għar Dalam phase

4500–4100BC

Pre-temple Neolithic

4100–2500BC

Temple culture

2500–8BC

Bronze Age

8–6BC

Phoenician

6–218BC

Carthaginian/Punic

218BC–AD535

Romans

AD535–870

Late Roman/Byzantine

870–1090

Arab

1090–1194

Norman

1194–1268

Hohenstaufen

1268–1284

Angevin

1284–1412

Aragonese

1412–1530

Castillian

1530–1798

Knights of St John

1798–1800

Napoleonic

1800–1964

British

1964–present

Independent Malta

1974–present

Republican Malta

Natural history

Limestone rock Malta by Jean Louis Wertz www.viewingmalta.comLimestone rock is common throughout Malta © Jean Louis Wertz, www.viewingmalta.com

Nature and wildlife are under tremendous pressure on the main island of Malta, where human habitation has taken over most of the land. Despite this, there are some beautiful areas of countryside here and plenty more on Gozo. There is quite a range of plant life, with wildflowers plentiful in spring. Animals are more limited, with birdlife in particular not helped by the (albeit slowly declining) enthusiasm for hunting amongst some Maltese men.

Flora

Hard though it is to believe, experts say that before people arrived on Malta it had extensive tree cover. This has not been the case now for thousands of years and trees are a rarity, with most species introduced from other countries, including Aleppo pines, acacia, carob and fig trees, olive trees and a few palms. Tamarisk and oleander bushes add colour. Wild fennel, with its typical aniseed smell and tiny yellow flowers, is all over the place. Caper bushes are common and in spring you may see people harvesting the little green buds used in salads and cooking.

Malta’s most typical habitat is the Mediterranean garigue, limestone rock with low shrubby vegetation. The tops of the Dingli and Ta’ Ċenċ cliffs and Comino have good examples of coastal garigue with significant endemic flora (unique to the Maltese islands). Wild Mediterranean thyme is often the dominant species, and Malta’s national plant, rock centaury, is usually to be seen. Golden samphire is common along with other hardy plants with fleshy fluid-retaining leaves. Others species include Maltese salt tree, sea chamomile and fleabane. More rarely you may find hoary rock-rose, wild artichoke and the scarce endemic Maltese pyramidal orchid.

Among Malta’s more unusual plants is the Maltese everlasting, a rare bush up to 1m high, flowering yellow in May/June, found only on the western cliffs of Gozo and on Fungus Rock, Dwejra. Also on Fungus Rock (and occasionally on Ta’ Ċenċ) is the once much prized plant after which the rock was named (though it is not in fact a fungus), Cynomorium coccineum .

Fauna

Land fauna

Besides rabbits, butterflies and birds, Malta’s main animals are reptiles. Lizards are regularly seen: copious geckos camouflaged against the limestone or darting across the ground, as well as rounded stumpy skinks. There are four kinds of snake (two possibly accidentally introduced during World War I and limited to southeast Malta), but no poisonous species. This is credited by some to St Paul, who is meant to have miraculously remained unharmed by a viper biting him shortly after his shipwreck on Malta in AD60. The more scientifically minded suggest the snake that bit him was probably Malta’s non-poisonous leopard snake.

Birds

Malta has very few permanently resident birds, with only 29 species breeding on the islands. This is partly due to destruction of habitat, but also to the continuing – though slowly declining – popularity of bird hunting. The total species count to date, however, is nearly 400 because Malta is on the central Mediterranean migration, one of the three main routes used by birds to migrate between Africa, where they winter, and Europe, where they breed. Multitudes of birds fly over – and may stop for a rest – in spring and autumn. Unfortunately, some of these are also shot by Malta’s bird hunters.

The most common bird in Malta is the Spanish sparrow, which is abundant in towns and villages as well as countryside. The national bird, the attractive blue rock thrush, is reasonably easily seen on coastal cliffs. Various warblers live in open country, garigue and valleys, and over the sea, Scopoli’s shearwater, and in some places the much rarer and threatened Yelkouan shearwater, can be spotted on windy days or at dusk when they gather together like a raft on the water before flying into their cliff nests after dark. Malta has 10% of the world’s population of Yelkouan shearwaters and a recent special conservation project reversed a decline in the population and made valuable discoveries about the birds’ habits.

People and culture

Maltese crafts by Mario Galea Viewing MaltaLace making became established in the 16th and 17th centuries. © Mario Galea, www.viewingmalta.com

Ninety-seven per cent of Malta’s permanent population was born in Malta. Emigration and working abroad have long been features of the country’s history. Money earned in other countries has sustained many a family in hard economic times (there is a large Maltese population in Australia). Conversely Malta has absorbed Europeans of many nationalities over the centuries.

Yet the Maltese are not used to non-European, non-Christian immigrants from countries poorer than their own, so considerable disruption has been caused by the arrival over the last few years of several thousand destitute north African asylum seekers, some of whom are Muslim. The majority are trying to get to Italy but arrive in Maltese waters. This is a genuine problem for a small country, and has also brought to the surface an unattractive streak of racism.

On one level this is an odd place for colour-based racism as the Maltese themselves vary in colour enormously, from northern European white to quite dark. The deep-seated suspicion of anything Arab/Muslim/north African is not just a legacy of the Knights but also of the 1970s and Dom Mintoff’s indiscriminate promotion of all things Libyan.That said, the Maltese are fundamentally a hospitable people. They can be quite unpleasant to each other at times and are not above bearing lengthy grudges, but to visitors they are generally charming, friendly and immensely helpful.

Cultural attitudes

Malta is conservative, but not formal. Attitudes to women, race, homosexuality and the disabled are all similar to those in Britain a few decades ago. But this is an emotional and religious intolerance rather than stiff Victorian-style disapproval. Family is central to Maltese life. As one gay Maltese man put it: family comes first – if you step out of line with traditional morality you can expect deep disapproval and a constant earful, but you will never be deserted.

Families tend to stay close. A Maltese woman described how, ‘I am 40 and my parents still interfere in my life and ask every Sunday if I’ve been to church and taken my child to church. But if I am sick, or my child needs looking after, they are always there to help.’ Women still predominantly stay at home to look after the house, the men and the kids. Working mothers mostly rely on female relatives to look after their children. However, this is changing.

Music

Malta has a strong musical tradition and a remarkable proportion of the population participates in music making. Each parish has at least one wind band and some have a small orchestra as well. The main musical events of the year arethe festi, but there are other concerts and events too. Pop music is also plentiful, both live and recorded, and the Eurovision song contest is a national event (http://www.eurovisionmalta.com).

Malta’s traditional folk music is għana. Sung mostly by men it is peasant music with an Eastern root. There are various forms including one with improvised words in which the song is batted back and forth between two singers, and another in which the song is high-pitched, well above the normal male range. An annual festival of għana takes place in July.

Crafts

Lace making seems to have become established in Malta – and particularly amongst the women of Gozo – in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was given a boost in the 19th century when Genoese lace makers were brought to Malta to help revive the industry; Maltese lace is therefore a variation on Genoese style. Lace made in Malta, however, often contains the Maltese cross somewhere in the design. In Gozo you may still see older women sitting on their doorsteps making lace.

The Knights brought the art of silverwork to Malta and there are some very fine examples in museums and churches. Many small workshops still produce fine silver filigree and a classic tourist souvenir is a filigree Maltese cross. Other crafts include weaving, knitting and glassblowing. Maltese blown glassware – often in very bright colours – is marketed extensively to tourists, although it is in fact a relatively new addition to Malta’s crafts.

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