Old Arab influences linger in Malta’s present
SLIEMA - Few places have been shaped by their history as much as the Mediterranean island of Malta. About 500km off North Africa, its landscape and language stand as testament to the long and brutal contest for power between Ottomans, Arab and European powers that often centred on the island.
The Arabs were among Malta’s early occupiers. The conquest of 870, during which Arab armies swept through North Africa and into the seas, changed the region beyond recognition. In their path was the small Byzantine-ruled island of Malta, which fell to their advance and remained so until 1090.
The occupying armies have long gone but their legacy remains. It lives in the language, agriculture and culture of Malta and its people.
Walking around the island today, little is visible of its Arab occupiers. However, viewed from above their legacy is more obvious. It can be seen in the distinctive terraced fields introduced to the island along with irrigation systems that still nourish them. Crops such as cotton and citrus fruit were introduced along with Arab delicacies such as the almond-flavoured pastries and spices that can still be bought on any street corner in Valletta.
Place names such as Marsa, Mgarr, Mqabba, Ghajnsielem and Gozo are vivid reminders of the Arab’s occupation. The Maltese language itself, which mixes Arabic with Italian, French and English to create a unique Mediterranean voice, serves as an unmistakable reminder of the Arabs’ presence on the island.
Even today, ghana, the traditional spontaneous songs of the countryside, remain popular and can be difficult to differentiate from the zajal of the Greater Syria area.
Arabic motivations for conquering Malta did not spring from cultural concerns. Like the Romans before them, the Arabs valued Malta primarily for its strategic significance on control of sea routes from Sicily and dominance of the Mediterranean.
“After the conquest of Sicily, the Arabs came from Tunisia. They laid siege to the island between 869 and 870. The Byzantines resisted for a long time,” Charles Debono, curator of Malta’s National War Museum, said at sprawling Fort Saint Elmo, itself the legacy of later conquerors.
The island’s Christians have had a mixed experience. They appear to have been left largely free to worship as they chose. Some, however, converted to Islam and historians said many of the island’s Christian structures were dismantled and shipped to Tunisia as trophies.
“According to one Arab chronicler from the 13th century after (the ancient Roman city of) Mdina fell, all the inhabitants were carried off to Tunisia to be sold as slaves,” Debono said of how the Arabs established their capital there in the 11th century.
Following Mdina’s fall, the Arabs sought to impose their vision. “They made it much smaller because at that time, Mdina incorporated parts of Rabat (a village about 5km away) to make it more defendable,” he said.
Though the Arab occupation of Malta appeared to have been relatively successful — records of large ships suggest a booming population — the strategic significance of the island proved insurmountable. In 1091, Count Roger of Normandy landed in Malta and defeated its Arab defenders, who agreed to recognise him as their overlord, give up their weapons and pay him an annual tribute.
However, Count Roger’s occupation did not end the Arab presence on Malta. His visit was little more than a strategic raid designed to quieten the island ahead of his attempts to seize control of Tunis and North Africa. The Arabs and Islam remained in Malta for more than a century until, as the ancient Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun recorded, Frederick II “chased out” the Muslims who lived in Malta in 1249.
Though the precise date is disputed, it seems that, as the Arabs fled, their masons and craftsmen departed with them. After they left, few freestanding buildings were constructed until European architects arrived some years later.
The centuries since then have seen many armies occupy and exploit Malta’s position. Each sought to project their power over North Africa and the Mediterranean.
The Arabs were just one more on a register of many. However, to walk the streets of the island, to hear the conversations in the cafes or to smell the baking of the sweetbreads in the bakeries is to be reminded of the enduring legacy of their presence.