Malta - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Malta, independent island nation in the Mediterranean Sea. The country consists of the islands of Malta, Gozo, Kemmuna, and two uninhabited islets. Malta is a tiny country, covering a total area of just 316 sq km (122 sq mi). Deep channels separate the islands, the largest of which is the island of Malta. The capital city and leading port is Valletta, on Malta.

The Maltese islands are the rocky peaks of limestone mountains that rise from the sea south of Sicily. Sandy beaches break the rocky coastlines in some places. Washed by warm, clear waters, the islands are renowned for excellent diving. Summers are warm and dry, thanks in part to the hot sirocco winds that blow in from the Sahara to the south. Rainfall and fresh water are scarce, forcing residents to rely on desalinization plants for a stable water supply.

Malta was home to an ancient civilization. Prehistoric megalithic monuments dot the countryside. These include extensive stone temple complexes that predate Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt by many centuries. Much of Malta’s medieval architecture, from Norman cathedrals to baroque and Renaissance palaces, remains well-preserved. Narrow cobblestone streets wind through ancient fortified cities. In summer tourists flock to Malta to enjoy its balmy weather, picturesque cities and countryside, and archeological riches.

Located in the relatively narrow straits that separate Sicily and the coast of North Africa, Malta is of great strategic importance, and the islands have changed hands many times throughout recorded history. The United Kingdom gained control of Malta in the early 19th century, making it a British colony. The Maltese people maintained a distinctive national character and independent spirit, however, and in 1964 Malta became an independent nation within the Commonwealth of Nations.


The area of the largest island, Malta, is 246 sq km (95 sq mi); of Gozo, 67 sq km (26 sq mi); and of Kemmuna, 3 sq km (1 sq mi). The combined area of the uninhabited islets, Kemmunett and Filfla, is 0.3 sq km (0.12 sq mi). The total area of Malta is 316 sq km (122 sq mi). The axis of the island group runs from Malta in the southeast to Gozo in the northwest, with tiny Comino in between.

The Maltese islands are low-lying limestone plateaus. The islands are generally treeless, and the land has a gently rolling surface. Many of the hills are terraced for farming, giving much of the countryside the appearance of giant steps. The islands reach their highest point in southwestern Malta’s Binġemma Hills, which rise to 239 m (784 ft) above sea level. The best natural harbors are found on Malta. Gozo lacks good harbors.

Malta has hot, dry summers, and mild, humid winters. The mean temperature is 19°C (66°F). Average annual rainfall is modest—about 56 cm (about 22 in)—although in some years rainfall is as low as 25 cm (10 inches). Most precipitation falls between September and May. Malta has no permanent rivers or lakes. Pressures from farming, industry, and continued growth in tourism have placed a severe strain on Malta’s scarce water resources. Today, up to 70 percent of Malta’s water comes from plants that desalinate salt water.


The population of Malta (2009 estimate) is 405,165. Malta is highly urbanized, with only about 8 percent of the people living in rural areas. The overall population density is 1,282 persons per sq km (3,321 per sq mi), making Malta one of the most densely populated nations in the world.

The capital and leading port of the country is Valletta (population, 2004 estimate, 7,137), on the island of Malta. Located on Malta’s northeast coast, Valletta stands on a rocky peninsula lined by two natural harbors—the Grand Harbour to the south and Il-Port ta’ Marsamxett to the north. A well-preserved walled city dating to the 16th century, Valletta is famous for its palaces and cathedrals, public squares, and imposing defensive fortifications.

The largest city in the Maltese islands, Birkirkara, with a population of 22,435 (2004 estimate), is located in central Malta. But the majority of the people live in the towns and suburbs near Valletta and its twin harbors. Many villages and towns date to medieval times.

The people of Malta are predominantly Roman Catholic, and Catholic religious influences remain strong. Maltese villages regularly observe the feast days of their patron saints, called festas, with prayers and much celebration. The people speak Maltese, a language derived from Arabic. Over time, the language has incorporated a large influx of vocabulary from other languages, including Italian (particularly the Sicilian dialect) and English. Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet (see Latin Language). Both Maltese and English are official languages, and Italian is widely spoken. Maltese is generally used in courts and other official settings and education is conducted primarily in English. Education is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 15. The University of Malta, founded by Jesuits in Msida in 1592, provides university-level education.

Nationally, the Maltese celebrate the Imnarja, a harvest festival held in June during the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and the Regatta on September 8, which celebrates Malta’s victory over the Turks during the Great Siege of 1565 and Malta’s resistance to Axis bombing during World War II. However, the largest celebration in Malta occurs in mid-February during the festival of Carnival. Cultural influences dating to Malta’s colonization by Britain remain strong. Soccer is the national sport. As in Britain, people drive on the left side of the road.


Malta has few valuable raw materials and a small domestic market for its products. For many years, the chief activity driving Malta’s economy was servicing the military bases maintained by the United Kingdom. The decline of British military spending in the late 1950s, and Malta’s independence in 1964, led to new initiatives to diversify the economy. Efforts to promote tourism and foreign investment in a variety of newer industries proved largely successful, and Malta’s economy expanded briskly in the 1990s, although the country experienced a period of weak economic growth following the global economic slowdown in 2001.

In May 2004 Malta became a full member of the European Union (EU). Malta’s annual budget deficits remain high by EU standards, however, and the nation has undertaken measures to reduce public expenditures. In 2007 Malta’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $7.4 billion.

Dry-dock facilities in Valletta were expanded in the 1970s, and ship construction and repair became a leading industry. Other important industries include textiles, electronic goods (especially semiconductors), food processing, printing and publishing, tobacco products, furniture, and pharmaceuticals.

Since the 1970s, tourism has become the fastest growing and most important sector of the economy. Today, tourism generates about one-third of Malta’s annual GDP. In 2007 the country had 1.2 million visitors, with many tourists arriving on cruise ships that dock in Valletta’s Grand Harbour. Due to its favorable location, Malta is also a transportation center with well-developed port facilities.

Maltese farmers grow a wide range of crops, although agriculture remains of limited economic importance. Most of Malta’s crops are cultivated on terraced slopes. The principal crops include wheat, barley, potatoes, tomatoes, melons, a wide variety of vegetables, citrus fruits, and flowers and seeds. Some poultry (see fowl), rabbits, cattle, goats, and sheep are raised. Because the population is dense and the soil is generally poor, Malta must import most of its food. Just 2 percent of the labor force is employed in the agricultural sector.

Malta is heavily dependent on trade for imports of food, energy, and raw materials. Manufactured goods are exported. In 2007 exports earned $2.9 billion, and imports cost $4.3 billion. In January 2008 Malta adopted the euro, the currency of the EU, as legal tender, replacing the Maltese lira.


Until 1974, Malta was a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government. The head of state was the British monarch, represented in Malta by a governor general. Under the amended constitution of 1974, Malta became a democratic republic with a president serving as head of state. The president is appointed by the Maltese parliament to serve a term of five years.

The head of government is a prime minister appointed by the president from among the members of the House of Representatives, a single-chamber parliament composed of 65 members. Members of the parliament are elected for five-year terms by universal adult suffrage on the basis of proportional representation. The prime minister, who is assisted by a cabinet, is usually the leader of the majority party in parliament. The tenure of the prime minister and cabinet (also called the government) depends on the support of the House of Representatives.

Malta’s two major political parties are the conservative Nationalist Party (Partit Nazzjonalista-PN) and the democratic socialist Malta Labour Party (MLP).

Malta is a member of the United Nations (UN), the Commonwealth of Nations, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, and the European Union.


Malta was settled by an ancient farming people who migrated from what is now Sicily about 4000 BC. The arrival of Copper Age cultural influences around 3200 BC resulted in the development of a remarkably complex temple-building civilization. At first Malta’s megalithic monuments were constructed from slabs of rough-hewn stone, but eventually structures such as the great temples at Tarxien were crafted from carefully dressed and fitted blocks of masonry. The temples are among the earliest known major stone monuments built by humans. The temple culture went into an unexplained decline after 2400 BC.

By about 1000 BC Malta had become a Phoenician trading center. In 736 BC the islands were occupied by the ancient Greeks, who called them the colony Melita, and later Malta passed successively into the possession of Carthage and Rome (Roman Empire). The islands prospered agriculturally under Roman rule and developed an export trade based on textiles and some luxury items. In about AD 60 the missionary Saint Paul was shipwrecked on the islands and, according to lore, converted the Maltese people to Christianity.

When the collapsing Roman Empire was divided in AD 395, Malta was awarded to the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. Byzantine rule lasted until 870, when the islands were occupied by Muslim Arabs. The Arabs had a profound influence on local life. The Maltese language and many traditional agricultural practices date from this period. A Norman army conquered the Maltese Arabs in 1090, and Malta was later made a feudal fief of the Norman kingdom of Sicily. Muslim Arabs continued to form an important part of Malta’s community until the 1240s, when they were expelled. The islands eventually became part of the kingdom of Aragón, and when Aragón unified with Castile, Malta was made a possession of imperial Spain.

Development Under the Knights of Malta

In 1530 Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted Malta to a military religious order called the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, later known as the Knights of Malta. The knights used Malta as a base of operations against the Ottoman Turks (see Ottoman Empire) and the raiding corsairs of the Barbary Coast, who were upheld by the Turks. The knights ruled the islands until the 19th century, developing Malta as a center of commerce.

In 1565 a large Turkish force under Süleyman I attacked Malta. The greatly outnumbered knights held out throughout the summer-long siege, which shattered many of Malta’s defensive fortifications. The knights eventually drove off the Turkish forces with the help of a relief force from Sicily. Following the siege, the knights built a new capital city, Valletta, on the rocky peninsula that separates and commands Grand Harbour and Marsamxett. The city took its name from Jean Parisot de La Valette, who led the knights against the Turks. The knights fortified Valletta so well that it became one of the greatest strongholds in the Mediterranean.

The knights were absolutist rulers and governed the islands with little regard for the inhabitants, who were denied full membership in the order. The order owned property in many parts of Europe, and each year a percentage of the income from this wealth was sent to Malta, where it was used to support the elegant living of the knights and to build fortifications, equip the navy, and hire soldiers.

The infusion of the funds under the knights had a profound effect on Malta’s landscape and economy. The knights laid out numerous towns, including Valletta; built defensive bastions around the harbors; and ringed the coast with smaller detached fortifications. Shipbuilding and ship repairing grew in scale and importance, as did secondary industries such as sail and rope making, metal working, and carpentry. The knights built palaces, churches, bakeries, hospitals, and armories, and they invested money in wharves, warehouses, urban property, and agricultural land. Efforts were made to encourage trade, with Malta’s fleet giving a degree of protection to merchant vessels. The Maltese found employment as soldiers, servants, craftspeople, and laborers, and many residents moved to coastal towns. Living conditions in Malta gradually improved, and the population expanded from about 20,000 in 1530 to approximately 100,000 in 1798.

British Rule Established

In 1798 a French force under Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon I) on its way to Egypt expelled the knights. French rule was so unpopular that the Maltese rose in revolt in the same year. The Maltese appealed to Britain, and in 1799 British naval officer Horatio Nelson besieged Valletta and compelled the withdrawal of the French. By the terms of the Treaty of Paris, in 1814, Malta became a colony of the British Empire.

The British did not begin large-scale development of military facilities until the 1840s, but Malta rapidly gained importance as a naval base during the Crimean War (1853-1856) and especially with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The growth of dockyard facilities, particularly at Valletta, eventually provided jobs for 12,000 persons.

The Maltese increasingly demanded self-government during the 19th century. The British were prepared to encourage a degree of internal self-government, but Britain wished to retain control over all matters affecting its imperial interests. Movement toward constitutional reform was slow. Various constitutions, including one providing for self-government, were tried and rejected as a result either of friction among Maltese political factions or of conflicts between civil and imperial interests.

During World War I, Malta served as a base for British activities in the Mediterranean. As a reward for its help, the colony was given a constitution that established a legislature elected by Malta’s inhabitants. However, political crises resulted in the revocation of the constitution in 1936. During World War II (1939-1945) political differences were set aside, and Malta became a key base in the successful Allied struggle for North Africa. Consequently, Malta withstood heavy Axis bombing raids during the war. In 1942 British king George VI awarded the colony as a whole the George Cross for heroism.

Independence Gained

In 1947 full internal self-government was reestablished in Malta. However, the constitution was suspended in 1959 as a result of strife between the two major political parties—the Malta Labour Party (MLP) and the Nationalist Party (PN). A new constitution was introduced in 1961. The following year, in the campaign preceding the first election under the new constitution, the MLP called for independence outside the Commonwealth of Nations. The PN advocated independence within the Commonwealth. The PN won the election, and their leader, George Borg Olivier, became prime minister.

Malta became independent on September 21, 1964, and a United Nations (UN) member on December 1. Soon after independence the British and Maltese governments signed a ten-year agreement on mutual defense and assistance by which Britain undertook to pay Malta $12 million annually in grants and loans as rent for its military facilities.

Mintoff’s Government

In elections in 1971, the Malta Labour Party (MLP) won a narrow victory, and its leader, Dominic Mintoff, became prime minister. Early in his administration Mintoff demanded a revision of the 1964 agreement between Malta and Britain. In 1972 the British agreed, with aid from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to pay Malta $37 million a year to lease its military bases until 1979. In subsequent years Malta’s politics became exceptionally polarized, and Mintoff was accused of strong-arm tactics. Claiming nonalignment in international affairs, the Mintoff government refused a further renewal of the lease, and in 1979 British forces withdrew from the island. Malta and Libya cooperated closely in the late 1970s, but relations were strained in 1980 by a dispute over oil-drilling rights in Mediterranean waters.

After the Mintoff Era

The MLP enjoyed 16 years of unbroken rule, until the Nationalist Party (PN) won the 1987 elections by a narrow margin. PN leader Eddie Fenech-Adami became prime minister. The PN won again in 1992 by a larger majority, allowing it to continue with privatization measures initiated in 1987. The win also assured Malta’s continued efforts to align its economy more closely with the European Community (a forerunner of the European Union, or EU), to which Malta had applied for membership in 1990. Also in 1990, Malta and Libya renewed a bilateral cooperation treaty until 1995, and the two countries retained friendly relations after that time. Ties between the two countries had strengthened in the late 1980s with the establishment of Voice of the Mediterranean, a jointly administered radio station. Visa requirements between the two countries were subsequently abolished.

In 1996 Fenech-Adami’s government called an election to confirm its mandate to pursue EU membership for Malta. The Malta Labour Party (MLP) ran an election campaign based almost solely on its opposition to joining the EU. The MLP narrowly defeated the PN election, temporarily putting Malta’s EU application on hold. MLP prime minister Alfred Sant argued that EU agricultural policies would harm Malta’s farmers and that integration with the EU would conflict with Malta’s postwar tradition of nonalignment in foreign relations. Voters returned the PN and Fenech-Adami to power in elections in 1998, however, and Malta was confirmed as a candidate for EU membership following the EU summit in Helsinki in late 1999.

Recent Events

In 2002 the European Union (EU) formally invited Malta to join the organization. In March 2003 Malta held a referendum on EU membership that was approved by nearly 54 percent of voters. Prime Minister Fenech-Adami called a general election for April during which his Nationalist Party (PN) won 34 of 65 parliamentary seats; the Malta Labour Party (MLP) took 31 seats. The result was viewed as an endorsement of the previous month’s referendum approving EU membership. Fenech-Adami stepped down as prime minister in March 2004 and was replaced by Lawrence Gonzi. Fenech-Adami was later named president of Malta. Malta became a full member of the EU on May 1, 2004.

The Nationalist Party won reelection in 2008, and Gonzi continued on as prime minister. In 2009 George Abela was named president, succeeding Fenech-Adami.

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