The Maltese Islands
Set in the clear blue Mediterranean Sea between Europe and Africa, Malta is at the southern tip of the European continent. The archipelago is about halfway between the coasts of Sicily and North Africa and consists of five islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino, together with two other uninhabited islands Cominetto and Filfla. The total area is approximately 316 sq km (Malta 246 sq km, Gozo 67 sq km, Comino 2.7 sq km). The longest distance in Malta from North West to South East is about 27 km, with a width of 14.5 km.The Islands are only 90 km south of Sicily and 290 km from the northern coast of Africa. Malta's topography is characterised by a series of low hills and slopes towards the Northeast and low lying land to the Southeast. The Islands have a typically temperate climate offering warm, dry summers and mild winters. They enjoy some 300 days of sunshine and the average rainfall is about 590mm. Temperatures range between 14°C in winter and 32°C in summer.
Malta is one of the oldest civilisations in the Mediterranean, dating back to circa 5000 years B.C. The population is around 366,000 and is homogeneous with its own identity and language. The Island boosts a rich legacy from its centuries-old history, from megalithic temples - unique in the world - to its capital Valletta, a jewel of baroque architecture, and its massive fortifications which witnessed the bravery of the Maltese people over the centuries. Malta has also a long tradition of hospitality. One of the most famous "guests" of the archipelago was the apostle Paul - the future St. Paul - who was shipwrecked on Malta in AD 60 and who sowed the first seeds of the Christian Religion to which Maltese people overwhelmingly now belong. The strategic position of Malta, Gozo and Comino has made these Mediterranean islands a crossroad of history and a bone of contention. The powers of Europe's past recognized it as a stepping-stone between Europe and North Africa. All part of Malta's history were the Stone-Age and Bronze-Age people, the Romans and Phoenicians, the Arabs, the Normans and Carthaginians, the Castilians, the French (Napoleon Bonaparte did unutterable damage in an only six-day occupation) and lastly the British from whom Malta became independent in 1964. Malta stood firm against Hitler despite massive bombing during World War II and the courage and endurance of the Maltese people was recognised when the United Kingdom awarded to Malta the George Cross in 1942, which is now an integral part of the national flag.
The Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, a religious and multinational order of soldiers and hospitallers, had a significant influence on the history of Malta. Well known is the Maltese Cross, which is the insignia of the Knights of Malta and the Maltese falcon — the Mediterranean peregrine falcon — which was the annual rent required by Roman Emperor Charles V when he donated the Island to the Knights in 1530. The Knights of St John of Jerusalem also left the most physical mark on Malta, after successfully defended it from the power-hungry Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1565. The Knights were in charge of the island for 270 years, building magnificent churches and lavish monuments — each nationality had its own palace (AUBERGES)— before losing power to the Napoleon Bonaparte and the French empire in 1889.
The two official languages are Maltese and English. The English language is a leftover of about 160 years of British colonization of Malta. Maltese, whose closest languages are Lebanese, Hebrew and classic Arabic, is the only Semitic language which is written in Roman alphabet. Italian, too, is widely spoken among the younger generation, particularly due to the television programs which are transmitted from nearby Italy.
Malta is one of the world's most densely populated countries in the world (1,234 per km˛). It takes approximately an hour to drive between any two points on the main island and this is achieved without ever breaking out into wide-open spaces; the island is virtually solid with a jungle of buildings built of native white limestone. Valletta is the capital city and houses the seat of Government. Malta has a parliamentary democracy with executive power resting with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Parliament is composed of 65 representatives elected every 5 years. The President represents the unity of the nation. Since May 2004, Malta is a member of the European Union. Tourism is the most lucrative industry. The export base of the economy is concentrated in a few sectors, mainly in electronics, machinery and transport equipment (which generated about 75% of total exports in the first half of 2001). Malta is well integrated in terms of trade with the European Union. The latter accounted for around 33% of Malta's exports and 60% of its imports in 2000.
Natural resources are nearly non-existent, except for its famous golden stone (globigerina), and rivers are absent. Nevertheless farmers succeed to produce a wide variety of products in their small terraced fields. They even export part of their crop. Bee-keeping industry, already renowned in ancient times, is still flourishing. Still, Malta is not only an island in the sun and an open-air museum in the Mediterranean, it is also an island looking towards the future. Apart the tourism and manufacturing industries by now firmly established, Malta is currently developing its service economy and it also aims to become a hub for communications in the Mediterranean. For this purpose, Malta has a winning card - its human resources - a flexible labour force easily adaptable to new circumstances and having the great advantage to being multi-lingual.