Flying into Malta I was excited. I had always wanted to be met at an airport by someone holding a placard with my name on it. The Maltese Tourism Authority (MTA) had kindly arranged for a driver to meet me at the airport with a sign displaying my name. However, unseasonal rain and a car accident ensured that the driver didn’t show.
As a person who clings to omens like a Byzantine to his Toga, I wondered what this would mean for my Malta trip. Rain, no signs or placards and a delayed flight into Malta.
Would I struggle to find signs of Malta’s Byzantine/Greek past. I had given myself two days to find evidence of Malta’s Greek history. And the signs weren’t looking good!
Malta is undoubtedly a jewel in the Mediterranean. Reminiscent of a medieval Greek island (i.e. Rhodes) combined with modern comforts, it is also a unique melting pot of influences from some of history’s greatest civilizations; Phoenicians, Carthaginian, Romans, Arabs, Normans, the Knights of St John, Spanish, British and of course Greeks.
Interestingly, the Knights of St John also ruled the Greek island of Rhodes for a significant number of years, and hence areas such as Valletta have a striking resemblance.
Before I get to the Greek history in Malta I should alert the reader to a remarkable aspect. It is home to a number of megalithic temples. These temples are older than the Pyramids, dating back to 4000 BC. This makes Malta home to the oldest freestanding buildings in Europe. I also heard a rumour from the locals that Malta could have been the home of Atlantis, which in my opinion was in Santorini.
When you consider the ancient Greeks established large colonies in Sicily, it is surprising that Malta, the immediate neighbour, was largely ignored for large scale colonisation. Instead, the Greeks of Sicily passed on the secrets of making olives, oil, cloth and honey – ‘meli’ in Greek – which may possibly be the origin of Malta’s name (Melita).
Greeks were present, living in Malta in the 700s BC onward, though not on the same scale as they were in Syracuse or Marseilles. There are some claims that Minoans and Myceneans made their way to Malta even earlier.
By 200 BC, Malta was heavily influenced by Hellenes, which is evidenced in some of the artistic finds, locally minted Greek coins and the use of Greek as a common language, along with Punic and Latin. As well as some Greeks permanently living in Malta and the nearby islands, Greek merchants and ships made their way to the land of the Falcon.
After the death of Jesus, Greek-speaking Christians and preachers made their way here. Churches were steadily built and as paganism was phased out over centuries, while Rome and Constantinople vied for religious control.
Several centuries later, the Byzantines, under general Belisarius, established a permanent presence in Malta.
It is generally agreed by historians that Belisarius’ forces occupied Malta in 535 AD about the same time northern Africa was reclaimed for the empire. However, there are dispatches from Greek historian Precopius that could place the Byzantine fleet in Malta in 533 AD.
Frustratingly, there are few signs of the Byzantine rule of Malta. In fact it receives little coverage from the medieval Greek writers. We do know there was a Greek governor and Greek troops would be a mainstay of the island under Byzantium.
African and Arab influences
Most Christians and the Church of Malta were invariably linked to that of the Holy Sea of Africa.
When Africa was conquered by the Arabs in the late seventh century AD, Malta is mentioned in reference to the Greek Church of Sicily and also as a place of exile for dissidents from Constantinople.
There are signs (evidence) that by the start of the eighth century, the Byzantines were building fortress style towns such as Mdina (which I made a visit to) in anticipation of an Arab invasion. This eventually occurred in 870AD. The Byzantines were expelled after approximately 337 years in Malta, a relatively long reign compared to other foreign occupiers.
The Byzantines returned years later to unsuccessfully besiege Malta.
The fall of Malta had a profound impact on Byzantium’s Mediterranean territories. By 965 all of Sicily was occupied by Arabs, as well as Sardinia and Corsica around the same time and by the late twelfth century Byzantine Italy was occupied by conquerors.
I have mentioned above a lack of Byzantine sites in Malta, however I was fortunate enough to visit the few that have been located or are currently under excavation.
After spending my first day in Malta enjoying the hospitality of the locals and relaxing by the sea, I spent the second touring Byzantine sites courtesy of a driver provided by the MTA. True to form I choose a time when most of the sites were closed.
My driver took me to what was a secluded part of the small town of Milqi. In anticipation of my arrival, the Villa was shut. Thankfully my driver was able to locate the caretaker who allowed me access to the interior and the outer grounds.
The Villa was built by the Romans. Centuries later it was used extensively by the Byzantines and renovated accordingly. It was also the temporary home of Saint Paul who was shipwrecked off Malta in 58AD. I was also allowed access to the cellar where Byzantines made oil and wine.
In Rabat, which is literally a stone’s throw from medieval walls of Mdina, I found another Roman Villa and a museum. What interests us here is the mosaics that adorn the courtyard. The mosaics of the ‘Drinking Doves’ were painted in the Hellenistic period (the period following Alexander the Great’s death) most likely by Greeks. The design was copied from Sossos of Pergamum in Asia Minor. This particular mosaic was famous in the Hellenistic world and copies have been found in Alexandria, Anchialos, Delos, Ostia, Pompeii and Rome.
The Roman Villa of Rabat was transformed into a Hellenistic style of villa around the first century BC, taking on the colonnaded peristyle with 16 Doric columns to make it different to the Latin Vitruvian model. Also in Rabat, there are a number of frescoes from the early Byzantine period at St Agatha’s catacombs.
Another highlight, was the Greek Gate of Mdina. I was intrigued to locate the ‘Greek Gate’ – one of the entrances to the stunning medieval town of Mdina. The Arabs developed the town on what had been a Byzantine city. Certain aspects of the town’s fortifications are from the Byzantine period and are located near the ‘Greek Gate.’ Walking around the town it is easy to understand that the town would have a been focal point for the Byzantines against invading forces as it has a high vantage point with a view that extends for miles.
By the time we reached Tas – Silg soon after via Marsaxlokk Bay, an idyllic seaside town, I had become firm friends with my driver. This friendship was put to the test during a time in the day usually reserved for siesta, as he went out of his way to find the site known as Tas – Silg which is not properly sign posted at the time. After a drive around a deserted hilltop, we came across a local who showed us exactly what Tas – Silg is. It was sealed off to uninvited visitors such as myself which meant I had to peer over the wall to view the site that was being excavated. There have been a few Byzantine finds at Tas – Silg including a number of Byzantine coins.
In the archaeological museum on the island of Gozo you can view the Byzantine Seal of the governor Theophylactos, circa 750 – 850 AD. The Seal was used by the governor for official Byzantine business. Gozo by the way, is the second island of Malta and means ‘joy’ in Castillian (Spanish). Gozo is the island where Odysseus spent seven years of his life under the spell of the nymph Calypso. Homer calls the island Ogygia. His description of a tranquil paradise may still ring true as there are a number of beaches and places to watch the sunset.
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Another island off Malta is Comino. Not necessarily the Byzantine or Kytherian surname, though it was known as Ephaestia, which is Greek.
After the period of the Greek speaking Byzantines had ended, Greek presence did not disappear, though it did dwindle. The fact is Sicily and Calabria remained Greek and were a short trip away.
By the eighth century, most Christians came under the Byzantine Rite. Towards the end of the ninth century, there were massacres against Greek Orthodox. Most of the remainder converted to Islam, though they continued speaking Greek.
The Norman conquest of the early 1100s had a positive impact on the Greek and Christian population. Ironically, the Normans were significant enemies to Constantinople, however, in Malta, they released Christian slaves, protected Greek speakers, allowed Greeks in their navies to settle here and ‘encouraged’ Greek speaking Muslims to convert back. A local Greek poet wrote about this in 1150.
A Greek named Nicólaos Protopapàs Máltes who died in 1230 was indicative of the continued Greek presence. Anthropologist, Stefan Goodwin, believes that the Greek Orthodoxy ended in the 15th century. However, the fall of Constantinople, Tribizond and the Morea ensured that many Greeks migrated to Magna Graecia and Malta around this era.
In 1522 to 1530, the Knights brought with them hundreds, if not several thousand Rhodian Greeks and others from the surrounding islands who did not wish to live under the Ottomans.
Orthodox and Catholic Greeks from Malta and Tripoli in Tunisia were allowed to trade with Muslim states, engaging commercially with the Greek diaspora abroad. Merchants included Sydero Metaxí and Stammato Galanti and the Fundomali family of Birgu. A prominent Greek priest was Angelo Metaxi and I believe that family contributed many a priest over the years.
Another Greek who came to my attention was Iacob Heraclid, the ruler in Moldavia and Romania in 1560, who was born in Malta of Chios or Rhodes ancestry.
In an area known as Birgu, numerous churches existed at this time, with up to 200 men fighting for the Knights in the siege of the Ottomans in 1565. As a reward, the Greeks were granted the Church of St Nicholas in Valletta.
During the 1600s and 1700s, Malta led raids against Ottoman and Arab ships and its is estimated that 5 per cent of participants were Greeks from Malta and elsewhere. Slave trading, unfortunately found a hub here and generally, not always, Christian slaves which included Greeks, were turned over to locals as free people, slaves or something in between.
Decades before the War of Independence against the Ottomans, Maniots and others from the Peloponnese found their way to places such as Malta and Corsica. Napoleon, who conquered Malta in 1798, was sponsored in the French military by a Greek general. Napoleon was from Corsica and it has been speculated that he had some Greek lineage. Napoleon explicitly thanked the Greeks in Malta for their support.
It should be noted that many Greek merchant vessels were located in Malta, flying under the Maltese flag. When the British took Malta, It was claimed that Greek Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic adherents had declined over centuries by 12,000 to several hundred.
Around the era of Greek Independence, a Greek consulate was established and large shipowner and political activist Alexandros Kontostavlos, and broker Ioannis Papafis moved to Malta.
Greeks have remained in Malta and surrounding islands since the 1800s which was a key destination for ships, and a place of refuge for some Greeks fleeing Ottoman lands or Alexandria under Nasser in the 1950s. Being members of the EU also enables a flow of limited migration.
Today, 2021, its estimated that Greeks and adherents of Greek Orthodox may number between 100 – 200 people. An unbroken presence since ancient times.
As a Greek Australian myself it never ceases to amaze me how far the ancient Hellenes and the Byzantines spread their influence and culture. In the end whilst there may not be an abundance of Byzantine and Hellenistic sites, there actually are a number of signs of Greek Maltese heritage.
A big thank you to the Maltese Tourism Authority for providing me with all the necessary support during my visit. The MTA impressed me no end with their expedient assistance and infectious enthusiasm for their fascinating country.
*Billy Cotsis is the author of 1453: Constantinople & the Immortal Rulers, which is now available at the Greek Bilingual Bookshop online and Amazon