Identification. The Maltese archipelago consists of Malta, Gozo, Comino, Cominotto, and Fifla, plus a few minute limestone outcroppings. Over 92 percent of the inhabitants live on Malta, by far the largest island, and the rest live on Gozo except for a few farmers on Comino. Although all residents call themselves Maltese, people on Gozo also are called Gozitans. The earliest written reference to Malta is in the biblical account of Saint Paul’s shipwreck.Location and Geography. Malta is located in the center of the Mediterranean Sea. Sicily is 58 miles (93.3 kilometers) to the north, and Tunisia is 194 miles (312.5 kilometers) to the west. The territory of the three inhabited islands is 94.9 square miles (320 square kilometers).Gozo has more greenery, and farming there is done on a larger scale. The environment has thin soil and scarce groundwater. Terracing is used to contain erosion in agricultural areas, and herding is confined mostly to Gozo. There is little wildlife besides insects and migratory birds.Public buses reach large towns on Malta and Gozo, and regular ferry service connects the islands. Beaches, coves, grottoes, and fishing villages lie close to roadways, but in some places, the islands fall abruptly into the sea over rocks and cliffs or look out to it across elaborate medieval fortifications. A rainy season occurs in October through February, but the climate is mild year-round.The Grand Harbor of Malta is dominated by Valletta, the national capital, whose construction was begun by the Knights of Saint John in 1566, a year after the defeat of the Great Siege by Ottoman Turkey. The capital of Gozo is Victoria.Demography. The population as of July 1999 was 369,451, of whom 341,906 lived on Malta and 27,545 lived on Gozo except for a handful on Comino. Live births in that year were 4,826 for a birth rate of 13.1 per thousand. The fact that the estimated national population as of July 1999 was 381,603 indicates that it is continuing to grow. In part, this is because the emigration rate has been declining. Singapore is the only country more densely populated than Malta.Linguistic Affiliation. Maltese is the only European language in the Afro-Asiatic family, which includes Arabic, Hebrew, Berber, and Hausa. Although its closest relationships are with the forms of Arabic spoken in Libya and Tunisia, its vocabulary has been strongly influenced by Sicilian. Written with a twenty-nine-letter alphabet, Maltese is universally understood by citizens and has only minimal dialectical variations. Educated Maltese often speak English, and many understand Italian.Symbolism. Saint Paul is a powerful national symbol, as he is credited with converting the Maltese to Christianity. It is symbolic that the Maltese, under theocratic governance, fought in Crusades long after most other Europeans had abandoned them. Other symbols are Roman Catholicism, the Maltese cross, a strong European identity, and a siege mentality. Not only did Malta persevere during the Crusades, it was victorious against the Turks in 1565 and survived intense bombardment during World War II. Dolphins are also a national symbol.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Megalithic temples that predate the Egyptian pyramids, Bronze Age archaeological sites, Phoenician inscriptions, and Roman catacombs all contribute to a sense of nationhood. Maltese place particular emphasis on the nation that emerged after Christian conversion. The long-ruling Knights of Malta recruited their members

History and Ethnic Relations

History and Ethnic Relations


from noble families throughout Europe while denying the Maltese entry into their ranks. As this order was able to maintain itself in Malta largely by keeping the nation on a continuous war footing, it was anachronistic at a time when Europeans in countries such as England and France were being introduced to the Industrial Revolution. Still, two centuries after Napoleon forced the Knights to leave Malta, chivalry, as well as pride in European and Catholic identity associated with a knightly and crusading heritage, impacts Maltese nationalism in fundamental ways.

National Identity. Maltese people celebrate the contributions to their culture of Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Normans, Sicilians, Swabians, Arogonese, Castilian, the Knights, and the British. Maltese claim little knowledge of or are ambivalent about the northern Africans who contributed the foundation of their language, however. The nation became independent in 1964, and became a republic in the British Commonwealth in 1974. Although identification with Europe remains strong, it has been tempered by a strong emphasis on nationalism and neutrality coupled with the idea of forming a cultural bridge between Europe and northern Africa.

Ethnic Relations. Malta is relatively homogeneous by modern standards. A Jewish community numbers about one hundred twenty, and settlers from India number about sixty. Perhaps six hundred Maltese are married to Arabs, mostly Libyans and Palestinians. There are a few Chinese as well as illegal immigrants from Bulgaria, Albania, and Russia.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Most buildings are constructed of limestone from domestic quarries, and many houses are identified by names rather than street addresses. Water is scarce, and residences have flat roofs to capture rainwater. Most houses lack lawns and are attached to each other in rows that nestle close to sidewalks or streets, which are often narrow. Some bedrooms may be entered only by passing through other bedrooms; their doors often are left open, with curtains providing some privacy. In both urban and rural areas, people tend to live in nucleated settlements surrounding a parish church.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. A heavy meal includes pasta, meat and vegetables, and dessert or fruit. Occasionally, a small bowl of soup called minestra begins the meal.Lampuki pie is a seasonal pastry-covered fish casserole containing spinach, cauliflower, chestnuts, and sultanas. Stuffed octopus, squid, and cuttlefish are served with a tomato sauce, while a roulade of beef known as bragoli is served with gravy. Stuffed poultry and baked pasta dishes are common. Among favorite finger foods are hot pastizzi , in which ricotta cheese, peas, meat, and anchovies are encased in a crust. The cuisine is seasonal.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Rabbit stewed in wine is a specialty, often with some of its sauce served over pasta as a first course. Tender lamb is eaten at Easter.

Basic Economy. The central Mediterranean location, moderate climate, beaches, and ports generate income and employment. Malta’s decimal currency has the lira (LM) as its basic unit and one lira is equivalent to 100 cents. Over two-thirds of the population is employed in services, slightly less than one-third in industry, and about 3 percent in agriculture. Parts assembly is also important, and a

View of Grand Harbor, where the Knights of Saint John began construction of the nation's capital, Valletta, in 1566.

View of Grand Harbor, where the Knights of Saint John began construction of the nation’s capital, Valletta, in 1566.

View of Grand Harbor, where the Knights of Saint John began construction of the nation’s capital, Valletta, in 1566.

single electronics firm produces two-fifths of industrial exports.

Tourism accounts for one-fourth to one-third of the gross national products (GDP) but employs a larger proportion of the population. Such employment peaks in the summer. The country annually attracts tourists equal to almost three times its population and television sets receive programming from abroad, making foreign cultural influences constant.

In the centralized capitalist economy, the state is the largest employer, with monopolistic control of utilities, fuel, the airline, the shipping line, shipyards and many factories and hotels. Agriculture accounts for about 3 percent of employment but about 4 percent of GDP. Despite a perennial trade deficit, the estimated 1998 GDP per capita of $13,000 was higher than that of Turkey, Portugal, and Greece.

Land Tenure and Property. As most houses are adjoined to others, many laws on land tenure and property relate to the competing rights of neighbors. A homeowner may legally compel a neighbor to maintain at joint expense a common wall between two courtyards or gardens, and neighbors are restricted from placing a stove or manure against common walls.

Trade. Important imports are machinery, fuel, and other products vital to the tourist industry, such as transportation equipment, live animals, food, tobacco, and chemicals. Exports also include chemicals and food. The European Community accounts for slightly more than three-quarters of foreign trade and most foreign investment.

Social Stratification

Nothing suggesting caste distinctions has existed in Maltese society since the expulsion of the ruling aristocratic knights and the freeing from enslavement of a small non-Maltese segment within the population. Despite traces of marginal variation based on heritage, Maltese society recognizes no entrenched ethnic divisions. Relative stratification is evident along the lines of higher education, economic status, comportment, and styles of dress, especially as found in rural areas.

Political Life

Government. The democratic government is highly centralized. The two major parties are the Nationalist Party, which stresses free enterprise and Christian democratic values, and the Malta Labour Party, which stresses income leveling, a mixed economy, and nonalignment. Until the Local Councils’ Act in 1993 provided for limited local government, local authority was largely religious and centered in the parishes. There are sixty-seven local councils, which share power with the national government in social welfare, housing, town planning, sanitation, leisure, and traffic planning.

Social Problems and Control. The crime rate in Malta is low. Typical offenses are growing cannabis, circulating counterfeit money, theft, homicide, and entering the country illegally. The National Prison in Paola has seventy to eighty prisoners. The Juvenile Court is in the Centre for Social Welfare, which also houses the Commission against Drug and Alcohol Abuse and the Action Team on Violence against Women.

Military Activity. The tiny Armed Forces of Malta has land, sea, and air responsibilities for national security, surveillance, and assistance to civil authorities in emergencies. It is organized in a headquarters and three regiments. An amendment to the constitution in 1987 made Malta a “neutral State,” and foreign forces may not serve on its territory.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

A social security system is supported by employee contributions, and benefits are available for injury or disability, surviving spouses, the support of dependent children, and pensions. The system also provides means-tested support for people in financial difficulty through the Social and Family Affairs Department, which also offers crisis intervention and counseling services in areas ranging from probation and rehabilitation to adoption and fostering. It also offers support to citizens who are physically and mentally challenged or abused and to the elderly.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Clubs exist for bands, plant lovers, and religious confraternities. There are also health- and disability-related organizations, single-parents groups, and professional, international, folklore, historical, social, and athletic organizations and teams.

Gender Roles and Statuses

That the literacy rate is equal for males and females in Maltese society (88 percent) suggests that both genders use education in carrying out their assigned roles in society. In the public domain of gainful employment, however, there exists less equivalence between the roles of married women and men than between those of single women and men. The public sector is where most Maltese are employed and, according to a long-standing tradition, women with government jobs were expected to resign upon getting married. That men as husbands and fathers should be the principal providers of material support for families has long been consistent with traditional Catholic values and has tended to be a status symbol among the middle and upper classes. However, the Constitution gives both genders equal rights in employment and, as there now exists within the Ministry of Social Development an Equal Status for Women department, more married women are employed than previously. The Soroptimist International of Malta has been making these and other changes for women.

The professions have long been open to both men and women in Malta although higher ecclesiastical positions are reserved for men. Women work as professors, physicians, nurses, reporters, editors, and legislators. In fact, approximately 15 percent of all persons elected to local councils nationwide are female.

Males and females are free to circulate in public without sanction. While it is still a common sight to see men gathered in piazzas or public squares near local churches socializing with each other on Sundays, until recently domestic chores restricted the time available to married women for leisure away from home. There continues to be considerable division of labor based on gender in households. For example, while some men may help to dry dishes and some boys take out rugs for spring cleaning, cooking as well as many other domestic chores generally is expected to be performed by females. Fathers are much less involved in the rearing of infants, especially female infants, than mothers, although the former may sometimes now be seen pushing a pram or carrying a child onto a bus.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Family connections are reckoned through both parents, but Maltese have closer emotional ties and more frequent contact through the maternal side. Matrilocal residence is considerably more common than patrilocal residence, although neolocal residence is preferred. A wife is legally obliged to obey her husband, reside where he wishes, and accept his surname. Children inherit the father’s surname and

A fisherman mending a net in the village of Marsa Xlokk. The Mediterranean Sea surrounds Malta.

A fisherman mending a net in the village of Marsa Xlokk. The Mediterranean Sea surrounds Malta.

often nickname. It is uncommon for single people to quit the parental residence at any age.

Marriage. Marriage is viewed as an opportunity for two groups of people to establish ties, and many status considerations come into play, with each side interested in obtaining prestige. The fact that women traditionally have been married with a dowry means that a family’s status can rise and fall with the amount of the dowry. Cousin marriages are not socially preferred. Divorce is still not legal in Malta.

Domestic Unit. There is no tribal or lineage organization in families, although the offspring of the same maternal grandmother are typically friendly while she is still living. However, people often recognize that they are related to other people going back at least five generations when marriage decisions are made. Singlehood is not uncommon, and there are large communities of priests and nuns.

Inheritance. Only a husband and wife can make a joint will. Although spouses, children, and parents have certain rights to inherit, there are extreme cases in which they are deemed unworthy or may be disinherited. Members of religious orders may inherit only small life pensions and cannot dispose of property through wills.

Kin Groups. In ordinary conversation, Maltese do not often refer to family units larger than those descended from a particular grandparent or grandmother unless they are tracing their genealogy. After a mother dies, relations between her children are often not close. It is not uncommon for elderly parents or grandparents with living children to reside in homes for the elderly or infirm.


Child Rearing and Education. Children sometimes are called by diminutives of their names. Christening takes place in church, usually about a week or two after birth. The parents select as godparents a married couple who are often relatives. A firstborn child may share the parents’ bed for two or three years, but if there is an older sister, that child may sleep with her after a year or so. Child rearing is considered more a matter for women than for men. Parents generally prefer that their children attend single-gender schools.

After first communion at about age 6 or 7, a child is taken to church regularly. Confirmation takes place at about age 10, and at that time a child gets a third godparent, always of the same gender as the child. If a child is admitted to a good secondary school, it is considered a tribute to the family. Sex is a taboo subject, and puberty is not discussed in detail. Open courtship is not encouraged before age 18.

Higher Education. The University of Malta goes back to the 1592 founding of the Collegium Melitense , a college founded by the Jesuits mainly to educate students not intending to enter the Jesuit order. It has seven thousand students, including four hundred foreigners. Its ten faculties range from architecture and civil engineering to arts and theology. Associated with the university are fourteen institutes. Higher education is also available through the Archbishop’s Seminary and the Foundation for Theological Studies.


Maltese culture defines correct behavior and comportment in a variety of ways depending on status, familiarity, age, and social connections. They range from reserved and courtly to warm and expressive.

Men play brilli, a form of bowling often called ninepins, on a narrow street in Gozo, Malta.

Men play brilli, a form of bowling often called ninepins, on a narrow street in Gozo, Malta.

Whereas introductions and recommendations can open doors, presumptions of instant familiarity invite rebuff. Even business relationships are sometimes resented as manipulative if they do not unfold in a context of social intercourse. Invitations into homes for tea or dinner are considered special and non-routine occasions.

The wearing of scanty dress away from the beaches is not welcomed, nor is immodest dress inside of churches. Face-saving behavior is important in Maltese society, not only because of decorum and for the sake of maintaining the respect of individuals, but also to protect the honor of families. In contrast to nearby northern Africa, public hand holding among men and the veiling of women do not occur.


Religious Beliefs. Over 98 percent of the population are Roman Catholics, who tend to be highly observant. The year is filled with important religious events, and all localities are identified with patron saints who are celebrated, somewhat competitively, with fireworks andfesta pageantry, including processions. Numerous pilgrimages take place, including the annual Franciscan pilgrimage to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Mellieha in May. In Valletta, there are a Greek Catholic church, a Greek Orthodox church, an Anglican cathedral, and a Jewish synagogue.

Death and the Afterlife. It is common to pray for the souls of the departed to assist those in Purgatory, and family members openly discuss the kinds of graves they are considering buying. A sharp distinction is made between a common grave and a family grave, which is considered more honorable. The average family grave has compartments for four or five coffins as well as a space below for bones when it is periodically “cleaned” by cemetery workers. It is considered improper to open a grave in less than a year even if another death occurs in the family.

Medicine and Health Care

The largest hospital is Saint Luke’s Hospital with 900 beds; the Gozo General Hospital has 159 beds. There are also midwifery services and government dispensaries.

Secular Celebrations

Most celebrations have at least an indirect relationship to religion. Among those that may be considered secular are the pre-lenten Carnival, Independence Day (21 September), Republic Day (13 December), and the Spring Show of Flowers, Vegetables, and Fruits at San Anton Gardens that were established in the 17th century. Additionally, there are circuses, sports events, and activities associated with the theater as well as orchestral, rock, folkloric, and choral concerts.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. A long artistic tradition includes the making of furniture, jewelry in gold and silver, glass, sculpture, lace, tableware, dolls, ceramics, brassware, copperware, and miniature cribs and figurines as well as painting. Government involvement with the Valletta Crafts Centre and the Ta Ciali Crafts Village on Malta and the Ta Dbiegi Crafts Village in Gozo as well as its maintenance of the gilded and brocaded Manoel Theatre is important.

Literature. Oral literature exists in the form of proverbs, folktales, and folk songs. The earliest known written literary work in Maltese is a poem entitled Cantilena , which was composed in the fifteenth century; a tradition of written literature emerged in the seventeenth century.

The State of the Physical and Social SciencesAt the University of Malta, areas of scientific research are numerous and include concentrations as varied as dental surgery, microelectronics, gender relations, religious movements, and linguistics.