By RUPERT SHORTT
Before visiting Malta a few days ago, I’d thought of it as a place of many quiet charms, but few if any superlatives. I was only right about the charms. Among other things, I’d failed to grasp the power and reach of the Knights of St John, who ruled the island from 1530 to 1798, lavishing their wealth on a network of churches, palaces and fortifications that rival much of baroque Rome.
In any case, though, the country’s importance long predates the time of the Knights. First settled by Sicilian farmers in around 4000 BC, Malta and the adjoining island of Gozo contain clover-shaped megalithic temples built several centuries afterwards, but not unearthed until the Victorian era. Later in antiquity came periods of rule by the Phoenicians, Romans (under whose watch St Paul was shipwrecked on the island, c.AD 60), Byzantines, Arabs and Normans. After the last Norman king died without an heir in the late twelfth century, Malta was controlled by Swabians, Angevins and Aragonese in turn. It was a Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who offered the Knights of St John a home on the island after they had lost their foothold on Rhodes to Arab invaders.