Malta history is fascinating, reaching back to several centuries before the Christian Era and with mysterious megalithic temples that represent the oldest free-standing structures in the world, older even than the Egyptian Pyramids. This Neolithic phase in the history of Malta dates to about 3,600 B.C. with the Ggantija Temples on the island of Gozo; it is one of these temples that is the oldest structure. One of the fascinating facts about Malta is that these Gozo temples also comprise the most complete shrines complexes anywhere in the country.
Ultimately, the history of Malta reads like a Who's Who of the western world. Its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean and guarding the narrow strip of water between Sicily and North Africa meant that it has been a very desirable piece of real estate since great civilizations first took to the sea. Phoenicians arrived about 1,000 B.C. and occupied the area around the current cities of Rabat and Mdina. About 200 years later, the Greeks founded a colony here and then the Empires of Carthage and Rome enjoyed brief rules.
Malta history took a turn in 870 A.D. when the islands fell under the influence of Islam for more than 200 years. At the same time, the Fatimids controlled Sicily and southern Italy. This Islamic period exerted a profound effect on the culture of Malta as well as its language; they are responsible for making Italian the country's official language.
The most fascinating facts about Malta concern the Knights of Malta—not to be confused with the Knights Templar of the Da Vinci Code novel and the legendary search for the Holy Grail fame. Although both orders performed the function of protecting pilgrims en route to Jerusalem and the Holy Land during the Crusades, The Knights of Malta (also known as the Knights Hospitaller) were older by about 500 years. The Knights Hospitaller arrived on the scene of Malta history in 1530 after being expelled from Jerusalem and then from the island of Rhodes. As their name implies, the Knights main service was in the building and funding of hospitals, one of which is found on the point just north of Vittoriosa, across the Grand Harbour from Valletta.
It is the history of Valletta that was most impacted by the Knights Hospitaller who made this city their headquarters until surrendering to France and the armies of Napoleon in 1798. During their rule, they built great cathedrals, grand palaces, and made the fortified city's Grand Harbor one of the safest ports in all of Europe. Many of the palaces and other structures built by the Knights are today museums, and it is tours of these edifices that are most popular with visitors. They also played a decisive role in the Great Siege of 1565 from their forts in Vittoriosa. This battle in which the Ottoman Empire was defeated by the vastly outnumbered Knights changed the course of European history.
Only two years later, the Maltese people became so disenchanted with the rule of France that the history of Malta was altered again when its citizens volunteered to become part of the British Empire. As part of the United Kingdom, the strategic importance of these small islands again impacted the world when they became a central focus for Allied forces during both World Wars. Facts about Malta include the designation of September 8 to celebrate the islands' success in the Great Siege of 1565 as well as the surrender of the Italian fleet at the end of World War II. Malta gained independence from England in 1964, along with several other British colonies in Africa.