This week: Malta

Fifty miles south of Sicily, the tiny, densely populated island of Malta sits at the epicentre of Mediterranean history. Perched midway between Europe and Africa, it has long been a cultural crossroads, and its strategic importance has been recognised by a complicated succession of foreign rulers – including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights of the Order of Saint John, French, and British.

Many centuries before the first of these incomers set foot on Maltese soil, however, another civilisation had already come and gone.

From as early as 5900 BC, it is thought that farmers and hunters from Sicily began to settle the then-uninhabited island. Over the next 3,000 or so years – until their mysterious disappearance in about 2500 BC – they grew crops, raised livestock and built some of Europe’s most remarkable megalithic monuments, including elaborate tombs and vast temples that are among the oldest freestanding structures in the world.

Tarxien Temples, Malta. Image: Wikimedia Commons/George Karl Ell.

To celebrate the opening of a fascinating new exhibition at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, this week on The Past we are taking a broad look at the archaeology of megalithic Malta. In the latest edition of Minerva, curators Luc Amkreutz and Sharon Sultana explore the island’s temples – six of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites – and examine what these impressive structures and the striking sculptures found within can tell us about a vanished civilisation.

Also this week, we delve into the archives to bring you a deeper understanding of Malta’s past. In Current World Archaeology, we visited the capital, Valletta, and the Baroque town of Mdina to highlight the island’s ancient riches; we reported from neighbouring Gozo on the illuminating investigations that took place at the Brochtorff Stone Circle; and we even plunged underwater on a virtual tour of a Phoenecian shipwreck found nearby. Meanwhile in Military History Matters, we reported on the more recent discovery of HMS Olympus, a British submarine sunk off Malta in 1942; and we went looking for evidence of the epic air battle that also took place above the island during the Second World War.

And finally, if all that leaves you hungry for more, why not continue the theme with our latest quiz, which this week is designed to test your knowledge of Mediterranean islands. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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