Fearsome naval battles, Greek myths come to life, and plenty of pirates – Malta certainly has a more colourful maritime history than most
Technically an archipelago comprised of three main islands (Malta, Gozo, and Comino) as well as several more uninhabited outcrops, maritime Malta has been a nautical nation ever since rafts were invented.
A country with seafaring at its core, it’s thought that Malta’s first, prehistoric inhabitants floated over the water from Sicily. Evidence of ancient naval activity can even be found in the 2,500 year-old Tarxien Temple, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Centre that features walls embellished with carvings of ships.
Malta has always had to rely on the Mediterranean as a lifeline – as its largest island stretches just 30 km across and is largely comprised of inhospitable limestone, the country has never had enough resources to fully support the needs of its population. But what it lacked in arable land, it made up for with an excess of natural harbours. Thus, the Maltese became masters of the seas.
Many thousands of years ago, Malta was a vigorous trading nation. Around 800 BC, the seafaring Phoenicians landed on Malta and lived together with its indigenous people. Later overseen by the Carthaginians and the Romans, Malta was as well located in the ancient world as it is today: between Africa, Eastern and Western Europe, it made a pretty perfect trading hub.
It’s no wonder that the country is shrouded in its own ancient lore. Some say that maritime Malta was the real location for Ogygia, the island where the devious nymph Calypso lived – heroic Odysseus was stranded here for several years during his voyages in Homer’s Odyssey. Others point to 60 AD, when St. Paul was supposedly shipwrecked on the island, bringing Christianity to the Maltese.
Of course, such a well-situated and strategic island was bound to incite some competition. In 1283, tensions came to a head with a battle between the duelling Angevins and Aragonese. Held right in the Grand Harbour, it ranks among the bloodiest naval battles in history.
Another highlight from Malta’s maritime history? Pirates – but not the colourfully bearded storybook varieties. As Malta’s commerce increased, so did those looking to pilfer its booty for themselves. Fleets of pirates once prowled the waters around the islands, and were said to use the caves of Comino as their base. Once the British took on Malta as a colony in 1813, they eventually disappeared, and unfortunately, failed to leave behind any hidden treasure.
Today, visitors to Malta will not only encounter elements of the country’s maritime heritage – they’ll see them everywhere. One of the most popular nautically themed attractions in Malta is the Malta Maritime Museum, located in an old naval bakery in Birgu. Here you’ll find everything from the largest Roman anchor in the world to 60 traditional boats and no shortage of cannons.
To explore modern maritime Malta, take a walk down to the traditional fishing village of Marsaxlokk, where colourful fishing boats pull fresh produce from the sea. For a taste of the high life, a number of chartered yacht opportunities will let you trawl the archipelago’s ancient, azure waters on a leisurely day trip. Several local agencies offer different vessels and packages, while the Malta Sailing Academy will school novices in a first-hand approach.
When next you’re in Malta, then, hit the high seas: there’s a good 8,000 years of history behind you.