February 2014: The Arab Years in Malta


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mdinaOld medieval city of MdinaThe first presentation event of the Maltese Historical Association of Australia for this year was delivered by Joseph Borg, the new President of the association. He spoke about the Arab Years in Malta.

He started the discussion by putting the following questions:

  • What language was spoken in Malta prior to the Arab invasion of 870 AD?
  • What happened to the Maltese during this invasion?
  • Was Malta occupied during the years following the invasion?
  • What about Christianity at the time? Did it flourish?
  • What happened when the Normans arrived?
  • What people resettled Malta and were did they come from?
  • What is the origin of today's Maltese and of place-names?

It is generally accepted that the Maltese people, prior to the arrival of the Arabs, spoke a language which probably was a hybrid, with Punic, Latin and Greek being in the mix. Over the later years it was more than likely that they spoke some form of Greek or Low Latin.

Over the last few years, historians in Malta have discovered new information from various sources suggesting that the Arab take-over was catastrophic for Malta. According to some Arab sources, especially Al-Himyari, it is suggested that the fortress of Malta was demolished as were the churches. The masonry was sent to Tunis to build the palace of the Qa'id. The island was laid to waste and left unpopulated for over 170 years. Talbi suggests that this happened because the Maltese had broken their treaty with the Muslims by supporting the Byzantines in their attempt to re-conquer the island sometime before 870 AD, as recorded by Ibn al-Atir.

One can therefore read in this that the whole population of the island was either massacred or taken as slaves. So the Christian faith as we know it also disappeared from the island. Some people argue that maybe some small number of people escaped and hid in caves to escape the Arabs. This of course could have been so, but the number would have been very small and most probably over the years, when Arabs visited the island to cut timber, to fish in the waters around the island, to capture donkeys that were running wild and to collect honey, they would have come in contact with adverse results.

The argument for this can also be deduced from the Maltese language that we speak today. According to two Maltese Linguists, there are no remains of Punic in the Maltese language. In fact, modern Maltese is based entirely on Arabic originating from Sicily (which also was under Arabic domination). Malta was resettled by Muslims and a large number of slaves, who could have been Muslim or Christian slaves, around 1040 AD. They rebuilt the City (now called Medina, pictured above) and settled on the island and started to re-built society. The Byzantines attacked the island again in 1048-9. The Arabs asked for a peace treaty but this was refused unless they handed all their wealth and their women to the Greeks. The defenders realised that the number of slaves was larger than that of the free men. So they asked the slaves to fight on their side and if they won the battle they would be given their freedom. The slaves sided with the Arabs and the Greeks were defeated. Hardly the action of Christian slaves who would have been released by the Greeks had they won the battle.

In 1090, Count Roger invaded Malta. He rescued the Christian slaves present on the island. They went with him to Sicily were he promised to build them a town where they could live or else they depart for their own countries. Malaterra, Roger's scribe, did not report whether any of the slaves were Maltese. He used the term 'christian slaves'. A treaty was signed between Roger and the Arab Qa'id on the following terms: the recognition of Roger as overlord by the islanders, and the payment of a tribute consisting of horses, mules, arms and 'infinita pecunia', as well as an annual tribute. However, he allowed the Arabs to stay and administer the island. He was in Malta for only a week.

After Roger's death in 1101, Malta seemed to have come under Arab influence again. Roger II, son of Count Roger, had to re-conquer Malta in 1127. According to Wettinger, Roger II left a Christian garrison on the island and reorganised the administration. Luttrel takes a much stricter position and says that the Norman Conquest did not have much influence on life in Muslim Malta. According to him 'Malta was never really Norman at all'. In 1175, Bishop Burchard of Strasbourg, who passed Malta on his way to Egypt reported that Malta was inhabited by Saracens.

Tomb stones found on the site of the Roman Domus in Rabat were of Muslim people and date to the twelfth century, suggesting that Muslim influence was alive and well even then.

The real integration of Malta with the Sicilian Kingdom must have started as late as 1220, when Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250), the grand-son of Roger II, came to Sicily to reorganise his Sicilian Kingdom.
In 1224, he expelled many Muslims from Sicily and colonisation from the Italian mainland took place. It is possible that a number of Muslims were also expelled form Malta and that this island was repopulated with people from Celano in Abruzzi (Luttrel). This is verified by Ibn Qaldun.

Because of the abrupt nature of the Arab take-over, the language spoken at the time disappeared. Arabic became the new speech and as was stated earlier it was introduced by Muslims from Sicily. Over the years, this language has been modified, firstly by the introduction of Latin script and then, over the many years, by the introduction of Italian, Spanish, French, English and a host of other words that make the language what it is today. One only has to look at the language of Pietro Caxaro's 'Cantilena' to realise how the language has changed over a period of 350 years.

Place names in Malta all have an Arabic nomenclature. There are some places which still have a Greek origin, like Xlendi. Otherwise they are all of Arabic roots. None are of Punic origin.

After the presentation, the audience participated in many questions. Quite a few refused to believe that the events as suggested by Mr Borg could have happened. They believe that Maltese folk remained hidden on the island and that they carried their tradition as of old. Others argued that the fact that there are basically hardly any Arab archaeological artefacts suggest that they were not as hard as Mr Borg suggested. Of course, the best piece of evidence is Mdina, which was built by the Arabs. However, Mdina has seen many modifications, especially of its buildings due to earthquakes etc. Unfortunately, archaeologists cannot dig up Mdina. However, recently, when the authorities were digging trenches for infrastructure, quite a lot of Arabic pottery was found.

It seems, however, that everybody in attendance enjoyed the presentation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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