19 January 2010

History from the Ground Up, Part 3: Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs, oh my!

This is Part 3 in a series about Maltese history, as told via the conceit of an archaeological excavation - from the bottom layer up.

In about 1000 BC--about 1500 years after the end of the temple period Nana looked at in a previous post--Malta was settled by Phoenician colonists from Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon. The called the island "Malat," or "refuge," and that's presumably where the name comes from today. You can still see the Phoenician influence on modern Maltese fishing boats, which still feature a classical Phoenician design.
(That's a public domain image--not mine!)

A few centuries later, Malta became a territory of Carthage, another Phoenician colony, and then passed into Roman hands in 218 BC, during the Punic Wars. (The same wars of "Hannibal's-elephants-over-the-Alps, sow-your-city-with-salt" fame.)

The Roman era was a golden age for Malta, as the island sat at an important crossroads between the eastern and western halves of the Mediterranean. There are a number of Roman sites still extant today, such as St. Paul's Catacombs (previous post), but by far the most precious is a ruin of a Roman villa just outside the fortified town of Mdina.
(That, by the way, is a modern facade.)

This villa, now a museum, features some of the most spectacular Roman mosaics anywhere in the world. What's better, several of the mosaic floors are left in-situ, giving visitors an idea of how they would have originally looked.
Viewed up-close, the mosaics display a remarkable level of detail and realism. As Nana put it, you don't really think of the Romans as folks who produced beautiful things--impressive, functional, but not really beautiful. These mosaics, though, you couldn't describe as anything but. I mean, I'd decorate my house with them. Almost 2000 years later, they still get the job done!

The villa museum also had several pieces of Roman statuary.

(Got your nose!)

Some of the pieces were great examples of one of Nana's favorite did-you-knows about Roman statues: the bodies were generic and mass produced without heads, so that owners could commission a custom-made likeness without having to buy a whole new statue. Check it out:

Malta has been a Christian country since 60 AD, when St. Paul's ship wrecked on Malta, presumably in St. Paul's Bay (crazy coincidence, huh?). This makes Malta one of the oldest Christian countries in the world; today, Roman Catholicism is still the official religion, and as you'll see in a later post, the Maltese are pretty ga ga for their saints.

Malta remained under Roman/Byzantine control until the late 9th century, when the Arabs occupied the islands as part of a general campaign to invade Sicily and southern Italy. The Arabs established several of Malta's most fortified towns, such as Mdina (from the Arabic for, you guessed it, "fortified town"), and much of the general architecture of Malta is in the Arab/North African style.
(That's the walk up to Victoria, the fortified town on Gozo, the smaller of the two main Maltese islands. Victoria, confusingly enough, used to be called Mdina, too; both Mdina and Victoria still have suburbs called Rabat, from the Arabic for, you guessed it, suburb.)

But the greatest Arabic legacy in Malta has to be the language. Maltese, which is the only Semitic language to be written in the Roman alphabet, descends from Sicilian Arabic. Many place names in modern Malta are derived from Arabic: for instance, there are two towns named Zebbug ("olive"--one each on Gozo and Malta), a town named Marsaxlokk ("port" + "southeast"), and a town named Marsaskala ("port" + "Sicilian"). Overall, almost 40% of the vocabulary in Maltese is derived from Sicilian Arabic; the rest is a blend of Italian and English.

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