Medieval Muslim Malta

Luke Gauci

The Maltese Islands were once a part of Dar al-Islam

The Maltese archipelago (Malta, Gozo and Comino) sit in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. Roughly 100 km south of Sicily and 350 km north of Libya, the islands have been exposed to centuries of historical events and empires, from Phoenicians to Normans to the British Empire. What is sometimes overshadowed in our history, due to our strong Roman Catholic mindset and the overall lack of archaeological evidence from the period, is that the Maltese Islands were once a part of Dar al-Islam. Up till 870 CE, Malta and Gozo fell under the dominion of the Eastern Roman Empire, who governed the islands from the ancient Roman city of Melite, today the fortified city of Mdina. Being so close to North Africa, Malta was in the direct line of sight of the Muslim conquests of the 8th and 9th century. According to the 14th century Arabic chronicler al-Himyarī, the Aghlabids led an invasion of the island and besieged the Byzantines held up in Melite. The city eventually fell, and although there are no matching sources, as al-Himyarī and Ibn al-Athir give different dates to indicate how long this took. C. Dalli confirms that the year of the invasion was 869/870 CE, based on the accounts in Kitāb al-‘Uyūn, the Chronicle of Cambridge and the works of M. Prevaes and G. Wettinger. After this point Malta vanishes from the literature. According to al-Himyarī, the islands were pillaged and then abandoned until the late 1040s, which may explain why there is no mention of the islands until the 11th century. However, this is unclear and debated, as there is some archaeological evidence that suggests that the islands were not completely abandoned. Yet, when a Muslim community from Sicily settled on the island and rebuilt Melite, naming it Medina, there already seemed to be some form of Islamic community present. This was most likely due to the abundance of trees and fishing spots around the island. Therefore, we cannot take al-Himyarī’s work at face value, but we cannot discredit it completely either.
Medieval Muslim Malta
Sarcophagus and limestone tombstones from the Muslim cemetery at the Dovus Romana. Rabat, Malta.

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Medieval Muslim Malta
Maimuna tombstone found in Xewkija, Gozo

There is a 19th century misconception on the Muslim period in Malta

This misconception was put forward by Giovanni Francesco Abela, saying that the native Maltese population remained predominantly Christian during the Islamic period indicating a continuity between 870 CE and today. However, this narrative was contested by the late Profs. Godfrey Wettinger, a Maltese Medievalist who is considered the father of Malta’s Medieval period. Wettinger argued that there is no indication, historically or archaeologically. that there was a large Christian presence in Malta after 870 CE. Considering al-Himyarī’s statement that the islands were partly abandoned, this break in continuity regarding the Christian religion is plausible, considering the noted slaughtering and possible escape or slave captures during the siege. Wettinger refers to Bishop Burchard, who in 1175 CE was passing through Sicily on the way to Saladin's court, noting that Malta was in fact inhabited by Saracens and not Christians. This statement is backed up by the archaeological evidence, as, while no mosque ruins have ever been found on the islands, multiple Islamic graves have been found. Most notably, the Islamic cemetery which was excavated stratigraphically above the Roman remains at the Dovus Romana in Rabat, outside modern day Mdina, as well as the Maimuna tombstone found in Xewkija, Gozo. This indicated that at least from the 11th century onwards, a bustling Muslim population was present on Malta and Gozo. The biggest legacy left on the Maltese islands from the Muslim period is, in fact, our language, Maltese, which uses a Latin script but is heavily influenced by Arabic. Modern Maltese derives a lot from Sicilian Arabic, alongside influence from Italian and English. Many of the place names around modern day Malta showcase the Arabic influence, such as the towns of Marsa ‘harbour’, Rabat ‘suburb’ (there are two, one in Malta and one in Gozo), and Marsaxlokk ‘southern harbour’, to name but a few. While the Muslim period of Malta ended in 1091 CE, the culture did not. It was the Norman raid by Roger I of Sicily that started the Christianisation of Malta, but the Muslim population would not be exiled until 1127 CE by Roger II of Sicily. The period is a fascinating one and despite the setbacks due to the lack of clear evidence, its influence is clear to this day. Malta has a rich history with the Muslim period being an important part of our heritage.
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Medieval Muslim Malta

Luke Gauci

Luke Gauci is a 3rd year Honours Undergraduate of European and Global History with Archaeology within the Department of History at the University of Malta. He is currently researching his dissertation on the cultural shift of Granada and Valencia from Islamic to Christian culture during the final years of the Reconquista under the supervision of Mr Charles Dalli. He has experience as a Historical and Archaeological researcher and is an executive member of the Malta University Historical Society, currently serving as its Public Relations Officer. History has always fascinated him since a young age, visiting historical sites in Malta and abroad on a regular basis. He is particularly fond of the Medieval Mediterranean and Crusading, but is also fascinated by Bronze Age and Classical Archaeology, Early Modern Maltese/Order of St. John corsairing activates and the History of Railways in Britain.
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