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Take a short break in Malta - a history and culture tour of Malta - a sunny winter holiday destination

Pleasure Island

(Extract of article first published in The Lady magazine)

Discover prehistoric temples, magnificent Baroque architecture and old-world splendour on the welcoming island of Malta - named after Jean Parisot de la Valette, the Grand Master of the Order of St John in 1566 when the city was founded

The Maltese archipelago, made up of the islands of Malta, Gozo, Comino and some minor islets, sits in the heart of the Mediterranean, some 60 miles south of Sicily. The biggest island, Malta, earned the name of Melita, 'the island of honey', from its architecture in golden stone, which is a type of limestone.

Malta could easily be described as a treasure island - for its wealth of maritime history, or for the impregnable city of the Knights, Valletta, the 16th century capital with its steep and stepped streets flanked by balconied buildings; or for its priceless art treasures contained behind the sober façade of St John's Co-Cathedral.

There are also Roman ruins, catacombs, the oldest free-standing temple in the world, and the ancient capital city of Mdina - a tranquil gem.

Sightseeing in Malta - touring the island of Malta
The prows of fishing boats bear beady eyes to protect them from evil; rickety Leyland buses dating from the 1950s trawl the streets; the pounding of cannon fills the air and history is constantly relived. Religious, superstitious and proud of its past, strategically-placed Malta
can take you back as far as 7,000 years, to the first traces of man on the island.

Around 1,000 years before Stonehenge, mysterious megalithic temples were being built here to honour the Mother Goddess, a fertility deity. Tools, made of flint and obsidian, and antlers were used to carve these temples. Gigantic stones weighing several tons were somehow moved to erect them, only for the worshippers who built them to disappear mysteriously around 2,000BC.

Pendants, pottery and other finely decorated objects have been discovered amongst debris close to the temples and now form part of the collection of prehistoric, Neolithic, Punic and Roman artefacts in the island's archaeological museums.

History of Malta
Start at the beginning, and explore the megalithic temples built by the island's first settlers during the Later Neolithic period. These people built a number of elaborate structures dedicated to the goddess of fertility. They include: the underground Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, the Tarxien complex, which is close to Valletta, and, to the south, Mnajdra and Hagar Qim, the best preserved examples of temple culture in Malta.

Because of its strategic position in the heart of the Mediterranean, its sheltered bays, natural harbous and deep anchorage, people from other lands were attracted to the island - the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, the International Order of St John, the French and the British. Playing a key role in the island's history and culture were the Knights of St John who, after moving from town to town in Europe for many years, settled in Malta in 1530 when Emperor Charlves V ceded the island to them.

The Knights Templar - towns, fortresses, and churches of Malta
They endowed Malta with monuments, towns, fortresses, churches and palaces; they also contributed significantly to the decline of Ottoman power following the Great Siege of 1565. This Order of Chivalry, which did not exclude military action, was originally formed in 1048 by a number of monks in Jerusalem who founded a hospital to care for pilgrims.

The Order still survives today, operating in 120 countries around the world, running hospitals, medical centres, hospices, old people's homes and drug rehabilitation centres as well as offering disaster and humanitarian relief. The white eight-pointed cross that the Order adopted as time went on is still its symbol today.

Caravaggio masterpieces
The Order's ceremonies were characterised by sheer splendour, evidence of which adorns the Conventual Church of the Knights, St John's Co-Cathedral (consecrated 1578) in Valletta, where a profusion of elaborate designs in gold and rich colours greet the eye.

The sumptuously painted vault, baroque statues and valuable paintings all hide behind the church's austere façade; the eight chapels, each dedicated to one of the Knights' original nationalities, are also lavishly decorated.

The floor of the nave is inlaid with multi-coloured ornate marble memorial tablets of the Knights and a flamboyantly painted vault depicts the life of St John the Baptist. Two masterpieces, painted by Caravaggio during his sojourn in Valletta, grace the walls of the cathedral - The Beheading of St John the Baptist dominates the oratory.


For more information visit the Malta Tourism Office website -

For a full copy of this Malta article, email


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Valletta stepped street

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