Remains from an Arab tombstone found at the back of the Domus Romana, in Rabat

Arab rule in Malta

For reasons that have deep religious and cultural roots, it must be admitted that many Maltese people find it difficult to accept their Arab and Muslim past. Yet the very language that is spoken in Malta is basically a Semitic language with main words, like all the numbers and the names of basic foods, being perfectly recognizable by Arab speakers. Even the grammar has strong Arab roots and likewise several place names all over the islands.

Malta was conquered by Muslims in 870 AD after three centuries of Byzantine rule. The effects of that conquest caused ripples across the centuries that can be felt up to the present day. Various Muslim sources but no Byzantine ones record the conquest of Malta. This reminds one of the saying that history is written by the victors.

After Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, Islam spread across the whole of the Middle East and North Africa including parts of southern Europe such as Sicily, Spain and Malta. Some historians claim that among the general looting, some Christian structures in Malta were dismantled and taken to Sousse, in present day Tunisia, as a prestigious reminder of their conquest.

Although Muslim sources do not spell it out, it is reasonable to assume that the Muslim victors dealt merciless with the defeated. This is because the only report that speaks of the years immediately after 870 AD mentions an ‘uninhabited ruin’ when speaking of Malta. In fact no archaeological remains were ever found from the years immediately after 870 AD, while 10th and 11th century pottery, typically Arab, was unearthed at Mesquita square, Mdina.

By 910 AD the founding of the city of al-Mahdiyya in Tunisia brought a new development for Malta, as ships sailing from Sicily to this new capital had to cross very close to the Maltese islands. This placed Malta at the centre of an important political and commercial route. However this was a dangerous route due to the risk of pirates and this meant that the Muslim conquerors had to keep a number of soldiers on the Maltese islands in order to protect this sea route.

Al-Himyari who recorded the events of that period says of Malta “The Island was visited by shipbuilders because the wood in it is of the strongest kind, by fishermen because of the abundance and tastiness of the fish around its shores, and by those who collect honey because that is the most common thing there.”

The mid 11th century marks the arrival of many new settlers and the rebuilding of Malta’s ancient capital city Mdina. Many finds of 11th century ceramics confirm that by this time a growing community existed in Mdina. The ceramics are similar to ones found in Sicily indicating trade between the two regions.  Similar finds in the Gozo Citadel confirm the same for the sister island. Moreover there is evidence of the importation of food, and this would only have become necessary by the presence of a large population.

Between 1048-49, Malta was attacked by the Byzantines who tried to reconquer the islands. The Muslims came together and when they counted themselves, they found that their slaves outnumbered the free men. So they offered freedom to their slaves in return for helping them to drive back the attackers.  They succeeded in this and the islands were not attacked again. However one must be careful when dealing with records by writers of the period who may have been influenced one way or another.What really happened is uncertain, as in countless other ages, ‘history’ could have been written by biased observers.
What is clear from the above account is that the local community was composed of masters and slaves. It is unclear whether the slaves were all Christians and whether Malta was their place of origin or the place that they were brought to after capture. Because many village names such as Farruġ, Ġawhar, Kbir and Safi started off in this period, it is plausible to assume that the first ‘raħal’ settlements also originate from this time.

Around 1091, Count Roger of Normandy landed in Malta defeating the Muslim resistance, which soon surrendered and agreed: to recognize him as the overlord, to give up their weapons, to pay an annual sum, and to release their Christian captives. The Christian captives came out of ‘il-Medina’ tearful with joy at their sudden liberation and welcomed Count Roger’s rule with shouts of “Kyrie eleyson” (Greek for “Lord have mercy on us”).
Yet in reality, contrary to legend, Count Roger’s visit did not mark the end of Muslim presence in Malta, as it was not much more than a raid to control Malta before taking over Tunis and North Africa. In fact, it was in 1127 when Count Roger’s son, King Roger, took over the island when it was threatened by a Muslim rebellion, that Europeanisation started. Still, Islam continued in Malta for over a century and long after 1127; the official languages of Malta and Sicily were probably, Latin, Classical Arabic and Greek.

Christianity was reintroduced in Malta by King Roger in 1127 and flourished there ever since. At first, Greek Byzantine influence was supreme, but the Latin (Western) Church favoured by the Normans eventually took over in Malta.
Bibliography:  The ‘Norman’ Heritage of Malta by Godfrey Wettinger

Mesquita Square in Mdina
Mesquita Square in Mdina