The Republic of Malta is a small and densely populated island nation in southern Europe. It consists of an archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea directly south of Italy. These strategically located islands have been ruled and fought over by various powers over the centuries.
Malta has been inhabited since around 5200 BC and a significant prehistoric civilization existed on the islands, a civilization which predated the Pyramids of Giza by a millennium, prior to the arrival of the Phoenicians who heavily colonized the island and used it as an outpost from which they expanded their sea explorations and trade in the mediterranean. The name of the main island is thought to have originated from the Phoenician word "Malat", meaning safe haven. These islands later came under the control of Carthage (400 BC) first and then of Rome. The islands prospered under Roman rule, during which time it was considered as a Municipium and as a Feodorata Civitas, and many Roman remains still exist, testifying to the close link between the Maltese inhabitants and the people of Rome. In AD 60, the islands were visited by Saint Paul, who is said to have been shipwrecked on the shores of the aptly named Saint Paul's Bay. After a short spell of Byzantine-rule, and a probable sack by the Vandals, the islands were conquered by the Arabs in AD 870; their influence can be seen most prominently in the modern Maltese language, which appears to have stemmed from an Arabic dialect, though it has been heavily influenced by Romance tongues. The Maltese written language uses the standard Latin alphabet. The period of Arab rule lasted until 1090, when the island was taken by the Sicilian Normans, restoring Christianity again. Subsequent rulers included the Anjouvines, Hohenstaufen and the Aragonese. The Maltese nobility was established during this period; some of it dates back to 1090. 32 noble titles remain in use today, of which the oldest is Barons of Djar il Bniet and Buqana.
In 1530 the islands were given by Spain to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in perpetual lease (Aragon having owned the island as part of their Mediterranean empire for some time). These Knights, a militant monastic order now known as the "Knights of Malta", had been driven out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Empire in 1522. They withstood a fully-blown siege by the Ottoman Turks in 1565, who, at that time, were considered to be the greatest non-European military power: after this they decided to increase the fortifications, particularly in the Inner-harbour region, where the new city of Valletta, named after Jean Parisot de Vallette, was built.
Their reign ended when Napoleon conquered the islands in 1798. The occupying French forces were unpopular, however, due particularly to their negative attitude towards religion; the Maltese therefore rebelled against them, and the French were forced behind the fortifications. Great Britain, along with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, sent munitions and aid; Britain also sent part of her navy, which instigated a blockade of the islands. The isolated French forces, under General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois, surrendered in 1800, and the island became a British protectorate, being presented by several Maltese leaders to Sir Alexander Ball -- a move that was unpopular among the islanders.
In 1814, as part of the Treaty of Paris, Malta officially became a part of the British Empire and was used as a shipping waystation and fleet headquarters. Malta's proximity to the Suez Canal proved to be its main asset during these years, and it was considered to be a most important outwork to the British dominions in India. In the 1930s, due to Malta's cultural and geographical proximity to Italy, the British Mediterranean Fleet was moved to Alexandria. Malta played an important role during World War II, owing to its vicinity to Axis shipping lanes, and its people's bravery led to the awarding of the George Cross now seen on its flag.
After the war, and after a short spell of political instability due to the Malta Labour Party's unsuccesful attempt at 'Integration with Britain', Maltese was granted independence on September 21, 1964. Under its 1964 constitution, Malta initially retained Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign of Malta, with a Governor-General exercising executive authority on her behalf, but on December 13, 1974 it became a republic within the Commonwealth, with the President as head of state. Although Malta had been independent since 1964, the British armed forces did not finally leave until March 31, 1979, when the Maltese Prime Minister of the time, Dom Mintoff, demanded they either pay a greater rent for their bases, or withdraw. This freed Malta of foreign military occupation for the first time in history, an event celebrated as Freedom Day. Malta joined the European Union on May 1, 2004 after months of heavy campaigning in its traditionally heated political scene.