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Malta and Sardinia (23 March 2022)

Malta and Sardinia

Presented Online 

Nicholas Hardwick


Set in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, the islands of Malta and Sardinia have always been the focus of trade and human interaction in the region.  They have had a long standing link to Lebanon as a result of Phoenician trading, and later from being part of the Carthaginian Empire, centred on Carthage in modern day Tunisia, which was a Phoenician colony.  Their isolation, which created distinct island cultures, led to differences from the civilisations on the closest regions of the mainland.

Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea after Sicily.  It is presently part of Italy and its capital is Cagliari, which is at the south of the island.  Cagliari was the capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia from 1324 to 1848, and, in 1861, the island became part of the Kingdom of Italy.  Italian is the most widely spoken language, but the native language, Sardinian, is spoken.

Cagliari is known for its many important buildings, and especially its examples of art nouveau architecture, which was an international style of art and architecture during the period 1890-1910.  The University of Cagliari, which was founded in 1626, has some major buildings which date to the eighteenth century.

Prior to the Phoenician and Greek influence, Sardinia had a prehistoric Nuragic culture, which dated from about the beginning of the second millennium BC until the time of Roman colonisation, which commenced in the second half of the third century BC.  The name of the culture is derived from the ‘nuraghe’, the tower-fortress construction which was built in large numbers during the period of this civilisation.  These structures were probably defensible  home sites, although other suggestions have been made for their use.  Important remains are at Su Nuraxi in Barumini and Santu Antine at Torralba, both of which are in the centre of the island.  The island is rich in mines and bronze was an important product of the civilisation.  Bronze statuettes are an important artefact of the culture.

A significant find from the civilisation are the Giants of Mont'e Prama, which were discovered in 1974 in central western Sardinia.   There are remains of forty-four limestone statues of males from 2.0-2.5 metres high, which date from the eleventh to eighth centuries.  They are the oldest anthropomorphic statues in the Mediterranean region, preceding the date of the kouroi (male sculptures) of ancient Greece.

To the north of Sardinia is Corsica, the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, which is today part of France, but shares with Sardinia and Malta its isolation, which led to a distinct island culture.  Its capital is Ajaccio, which is located on the west coast of the island.  From 1284 to 1755, it was ruled by the Republic of Genoa, and the city of Genoa is on the Italian coast to the north of the island.  Indeed, the Republic of Genoa also had trading posts in Lebanon and nearby areas in the fifteenth century.  Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the French emperor, who ruled from 1804 to 1815, was born on Corsica.

Between Malta and Sardinia is Sicily, which is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea.  Its position in relation to Malta and Sardinia means that the history and the culture of those islands are closely linked to Sicily.  Sicily was also important in Phoenician trade, and the Phoenicians had trading posts at Motya and Parnormos, modern Palermo, in the west of the island.  From the middle of the eighth century BC, the Greeks established colonies, particularly in the east of the island, the most important of which was Syracuse.  

Much of the island was held by the Carthaginians for a long time, in particular the western part.  The Carthaginians and the Greeks, and then the Romans, vied for dominance of the island.  Ultimately, it was conquered by the Romans during the Second Punic War (218-201), and the Latin language gradually replaced the earlier languages on the island.

The Punic Wars take their name from adjective ‘Punicus’, which is derived from the Latin name for the Carthaginians, ‘Poeni’.  This in turn comes from the Greek name of the Phoenicians, derived from the Greek word phoinix, which means ‘purple’, because of the purple dye which they traded.  Thus, their descendants, the Carthaginians, are also the people who traded the purple dye. 

Sicily was important in other periods of its history, such as during the nineteenth century, between 1816-61, when it was part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with the other part being the southern part of Italy.  Palermo was an important city during this period, and it has significant architectural monuments, such as palaces, from this period.  The famous novel by Giuseppe Lampedusa (1896-1957), Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), 1958, was set in Sicily during this period.  In 1963, it was made into a film directed by Luchino Visconti (1906-76).

Malta is an archipelago, of which the three largest islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino, are inhabited.  It has its own language, Maltese, but English is also an official language.  Its capital is Valletta, which is known for its significant harbour, the Grand Harbour.

The islands have prehistoric remains, of which the most significant are the megalithic temples at Ġgantija on the island of Gozo, which are dated from the fourth to the third millenium BC.  Other temples of the same date are found at a number of sites on Malta and Gozo.  An important example is the temple-complex at Tarxien on the main island of Malta, situated not far from Valletta.  This temple is dated to the later period of temple construction and has sculptural decoration including spiral reliefs, and is significant for the quality of the associated pottery.  

The temples are constructed of limestone, and the use of apses, that is, curved rooms with one open side, is a structural feature of the complexes.  As well as spiral decoration, the relief carvings include animals, plants and trees.  Some of the relief carvings have been moved to the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.

Both Malta and Sardinia were well known to the Phoenicians.  They were important staging points for Phoenician trade from Phoenicia to the western Mediterranean region.  Malta was occupied by the Phoenicians from 1000 until the late fourth century.  Sardinia had four trading posts at the south of the island, and the Phoenicians were familiar with Corsica in their trading activities.

The Greeks also had colonies in Sardinia and in Corsica.  These included Olbia, in the north of Sardinia, which regained its ancient name during the Fascist Period of Italy (1922-45).  It was initially a Nuragic, then a Phoenician settlement, but acquired its name from the presence of Greeks during the seventh century BC.  Alalia, modern Aleria, on the west coast of Corsica, was a colony of Phocaea in Ionia, in present day western Turkey.  The Carthaginians and the Etruscans briefly occupied Corsica, before it became a Roman province in 238 BC.

The Phoenician colony, Carthage, which was founded in 814 BC, eventually became much more important than the cities of Phoenicia.  Malta and Sardinia were close to Carthage and Carthaginian colonisation of both islands took place, in the south of Sardinia from the sixth to the third century BC, when it was annexed by Rome in 238 after the First Punic War (264-41), and Malta from the late fourth to the late third centuries.  

Significant sea battles during the First Punic War were fought around Sicily, as well as near Sardinia, which was also a focus of military operations.  Off the north coast, the Battle of Mylae, which was fought in 260, was the first major sea battle between Rome and Carthage, and resulted in a victory by Rome.  The Battle of the Lipari Islands, which are just north of Sicily, was a naval battle fought in 260, which resulted in a Carthaginian victory.  The Battle of Cape Eknomos in 256, off the coast of southern Sicily, was a Roman victory.  In terms of combatants, it is possibly the largest battle in naval history.  The Battle of the Aegates was a naval battle fought in 241, near the Aegates Islands off the west coast of Sicily.  It resulted in a Roman victory, which led to the end of the First Punic War.  The Battle of Sulci was a naval battle fought in 258, off the coast of Sulci at the south of Sardinia, which resulted in a Roman victory.

The islands were for many centuries part of the Roman Empire and, indeed, their position placed them very close to the centre of power in Rome.  In AD 58, while on route to Rome, Paul the Apostle and Luke the Evangelist were washed ashore on Malta following a shipwreck, and the island is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (Ch. 28, v. 1).  During the period of Roman rule, Sardinia was an important source of grain for the city of Rome.

Sardinia is noted for its Romanesque architecture, that is, the European style which is characterised by its semi-circular arches, and which preceded the Gothic style, which is characterised by its pointed arches.  On the island, as in Europe, many examples of Romanesque architecture date to the eleventh century AD.  On Sardinia, important surviving examples are churches and the style is characterised by many unusual variations.  The craftsmen, who built the structures, came from the surrounding regions of the mainland, that is, Pisa and Lombardy in Italy, Provence in France and Muslim Spain, so that the local style incorporates many different influences.  The earliest example is the Basilica of San Gavino in Porto Torres on the north-west coast of the island, which dates to the eleventh century.

The use of alternating purple and cream, or black and cream, horizontal stone courses is found in a number of churches. This use of coloured masonry is also employed in decorative features on the exteriors and the interiors of the churches.  The use of blind arcading, that is, arches without openings attached to the wall as a decorative element, is a feature of the churches, and is characteristic of Romanesque architecture generally.  The church of San Pietro di Sorres in northern Sardinia, which was built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in Pisan Romanesque style, is a good example, representing both of these features.

The island is also noted for its many mediaeval castles, and towers in the city of Cagliari.  These mostly date from the second half of the thirteenth century onwards.  They belong to the Giudicati period, that is, the period of independent states on the island from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries, when each state had a ruler called a judge (judike).  The reason for the large number of such structures on the island is because of military and strategic reasons, as a result of the island being divided into many states.  In Cagliari, the Torre di San Pancrazio, built in 1305, and the Torre dell'Elefante (‘Tower of the Elephant’), built in 1307, both during the period of Pisan domination, are good examples.

From 1530 to 1798, the islands of Malta and Gozo belonged to the Order of Saint John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, which also held Tripoli in Libya from 1530-51.  The order, which was founded in 1113, was important during the Crusades, which were the wars conducted by Roman Catholic countries in Europe from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries AD to free the Holy Land from Islam.  Formally based in Jerusalem from 1113 to 1291, it was influential in the area of Lebanon.  The Order moved to Rhodes in 1310, and then in 1530 to Malta.  

Indeed, in Lebanon, the Maronite Church welcomed the Crusaders because of their shared Christian heritage.  The church had been largely separated from the Christian world for several centuries because of the Islamic conquest.

One of the most important structures built by the Order, which remains, is the Hospitaller commandery of Saint-Jean-d'Acre, at Acre, which is on the northern coast of Israel, just south of Lebanon.  Its construction began in the twelfth century and it was the headquarters of the Order until the fall of Acre in 1291.

During the Crusades, it was known for the construction of fortresses in the region of Lebanon.  One of the most famous was Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, near the border of Lebanon, which was in use from 1142 to 1271.  Another important one was Margat on the Syrian coast north of Lebanon, which was in use from 1186 to 1285.

After leaving the Holy Land for the Greek island of Rhodes, the Order was based at the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, which is dated to the fourteenth century.  The Knights also built the fortifications of the town of Rhodes, which were commenced in 1309.  Within the fortifications, the mediaeval town, which was largely constructed by the Knights, still remains, with some later developments.

In Malta, much significant construction took place in Valletta during the sixteenth century during period of the rule of theOrder of Saint John, including the building of St John’s Co-Cathedral and the Grandmaster’s Palace.

Malta was significant during World War II for its resistance to German aggression during the Siege of Malta (1940-2).  It sustained very heavy bombardment, which resulted in the destruction of many buildings and considerable loss of life.  For its actions, the island was collectively awarded the George Cross (GC) in 1942 by George VI of the United Kingdom (reigned 1936-52), which is highest British award for bravery in a civilian context, and is second only in standing to the Victoria Cross (VC), which is for bravery in the face of the enemy.  The George Cross is represented on the flag and the coat of arms of Malta.

Malta gained independence from Britain in 1964 and became a republic in 1974.  Dom Mintoff (1916-2012) was an influential, but controversial, politician during this period and served his second term as Prime Minister from 1971-84, during which Malta changed from being a monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State to a republic.

City Gate of Valletta was opened in 2014 and was designed by the Italian architect, Renzo Piano (1937-), whose buildings include the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and The Shard, the skyscraper in London.  The gate has a modern design constructed of limestone with steel pieces, and a breach between two bastions where the road enters the city.  The project also turned the ruins of the Royal Opera House into an open-air theatre, Pjazza Teatru Rjal (Royal Theatre Square), opened in 2013, which was also designed by Piano.

As part of the same precinct, the same architect designed the new building of the Parliament House in Valletta, which was opened in 2015.  Since 1921, the parliament had met in the Grandmaster’s Palace.  The new building was controversial because of its high cost, as well as its modern design.  It has a locally quarried limestone, the same as was used for the City Gate, as cladding with a honeycomb design.  This alludes to the name of Malta, which derives from ‘Melite’, which means ‘honey’.  Melite is an ancient site on the island, which was a Bronze Age and Phoenician settlement, and was the ancient centre of administration.

Today, both Malta and Sardinia are popular tourist destinations, incorporating beach resorts and historical sites.  In Malta, three times as many tourists visit each year than there are residents, and tourism contributes over ten per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.  In Sardinia, tourism represents the main industry of the island and is focussed on the sea.

Malta and Sardinia are thus closely linked with Lebanon throughout their history, commencing with the Phoenicians, then the Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans, and later the Knights Hospitaller.  Lebanon shares with the islands the interaction of its culture with the Mediterranean Sea, which is influential on the countries which are bounded by it.