The history of Malta — actually an archipelago that includes three inhabited islands, just 50 miles south of Sicily — is peppered with violence and disorder. Today, though, it is hard to find a corner of the country that doesn’t feel peaceful and safe. Its crystal-clear, intensely blue waters make for some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in Europe, while its beaches, rocky coves, arid hills and warm weather have long attracted northern neighbors in search of cheap sunshine. And yet not even 2 percent of visitors come from the United States. If you have seen it recently, it was probably in its role as a Hollywood stand-in for places like Athens (“Munich”) and Jerusalem (“World War Z”).
But underneath that tranquil, movie-set-friendly surface lies an astoundingly rich past, even for a region crisscrossed over time by myriad cultures. Settlement on Malta dates back to prehistory; it has been ruled over the centuries by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs, among others. After briefly being conquered by Napoleon around the turn of the 19th century, it spent many decades under British rule before achieving independence in 1964.
But the main draw for me was the pivotal epoch of the Knights. The Hospitaller Knights of St. John, founded during the Crusades, settled in Malta in 1530 and stayed until 1798, during which time they left an indelible mark. “It was the greatest thing that ever happened to us,” Mr. de Piro said of the Knights’ rule, during which the cosmopolitan soldier-aristocrats lured artists and craftsmen to their shores and built castles, cathedrals, and the city of Valletta, still the nation’s bustling capital.
Though it covers less than half a square mile, Unesco calls Valletta “one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.” And despite plenty of visitors, it doesn’t have that over-touristed, museumlike feel that afflicts some historic quarters. During rush hour, Maltese on their way to and from work stream across the 16th-century bridge that leads from the surrounding neighborhoods into the city. At night they spill out of the Italian-Baroque Manoel Theater, which shows opera and classical concerts, to down quick espressos during intermission. On Friday evenings during the warmer months, the Bridge Bar puts out cushions on the 450-year-old stone steps outside its doors, and a throng gathers to listen to live jazz by candlelight.
My interest in the era began at the age of 10, when a Spanish teacher gave me “El Guerrero del Antifaz” (“The Masked Warrior”), a swashbuckling and politically incorrect Christians-versus-Moors-themed comic book. It left me with a lingering interest in the fault lines between Christianity and Islam that, as an adult, would take me on trips across the region, from Spain to Syria. But even amid the endlessly complex, warring and trading history of the Mediterranean, Malta, right in the middle, stands out. In 1565 it was the site of an epic clash of civilizations when the Knights faced off against the superpower of the day, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s Ottoman Empire. The gory and hard-fought Great Siege of Malta was the climax of a fight between cross and crescent for control of the region. One of the island’s crucial strongholds, Fort St. Angelo, sat directly across the Grand Harbour from the patio of my hotel, just about within cannon range.
Paradoxically, all that conflict left Malta a harmonious mash-up of civilizations, perhaps best reflected in its own sui generis language, rooted in both Arabic and Italian.
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