The town of  Mosta's church, based on the Pantheon in Rome, has one of the world's largest unsupported domes, with a diameter of 131 feet. Photo: Eoin Clarke © Photographers 2003

Click on the image above to see a map of Malta's islands with major cities and towns.

Top 10 Facts: Malta

One of the major settings of Storm Track is the island of Malta, located in the Mediterranean Sea approximately 50 miles south of Sicily and 230 miles to the east of the Tunisian coast. As a country, Malta is slightly less than twice the size of Washington, DC, and consists of three islands—Malta, home of Valletta, the country's capital; Gozo, reputed to be the fabled isle of Calypso; and tiny, car-less Comino, noted for its Blue Lagoon, seen to the right. All three provide excellent diving sites, with clear water providing visibility as deep as 100 feet.

Filfla, 3 miles off the southwest coast of Malta (photo:

• Although Malta is known for its falcons, the island does not figure in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. The “black bird” of the title is a centuries-old statuette of mysterious origin.

   “I wanted to show you my falcons, Mr. Henderson.”
   I shrugged. “So, where are they? Little black statues sitting in an alcove?” (Storm Track, p. 187)

“We feed them petrels captured on the island of Filfla. Sometimes we go rabbit hunting with them. And for special occasions we give them a treat of human flesh.” (p. 188)

• According to legends, two of the most famous ancient visitors to Malta were Ulysses, who is said to have stayed with Calypso on Gozo, and the apostle Paul, who may have been shipwrecked on Malta in 60 A.D., although scholars today contest the accuracy of the claim (citing a Greek island instead).


• Those interested in Baroque art will know Malta as the site to which Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, fled after impulsively murdering a man in Rome in May 1606. He spent a year on the island, was imprisoned at a certain point, but managed to escape to Sicily. One of the paintings that dates from his stay on the island is his Sleeping Cupid, an oil painting on canvas now in the Pitti Palace in Florence.

Fortified citadel of Valletta on the island of Malta,

• In 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave the islands to the crusading order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, the oldest chivalric order of any kind, having been founded following the First Crusade and confirmed by the Pope in 1113, five years before the Knights Templar.

In exchange for the islands, the emperor required a symbolic rent of one Maltese falcon a year.

Coat of arms of the Order of the Knights of St. John

St Johns Co-Cathedral and Museum, Valletta
Photo: Eoin Clarke © Photographers 2003

Flag of Malta:

• Malta's history has much in common with Italy. In the Middle Ages, like much of Italy, Malta fell under the successive domination of the Byzantines, Arabs, Normans (who conquered the island in 1090, the same century they took Sicily and England), Swabians, Angevins (usually brothers of the French king with nothing else to do but invade other lands), and the Aragonese of Spain.

Not long after the Knights of St John arrived, the Ottoman Turks lay siege to the island in 1565. And later yet, in 1798, the Knights gave way to Napoleon during his Egyptian campaign.

Napoleon didn't last long. In 1799, British forces attacked the island and the French surrendered a year later. By 1814, Malta was a Crown Colony of Great Britain, a status it held until independence in 1964. The last British services left Malta in 1979, and the country joined the European Union in 1990.

• Home to ancient civilizations, the Maltese islands have several World Heritage sites, which include prehistoric, megalithic temples, the oldest stone buildings in the world; the capital Valletta, founded in 1566 by the Knights of St. John, after having withstood a siege in which 700 Knights and 8000 Maltese held off 30,000 Turks); and the walled, medieval capital, Mdina. Valletta and Mdina have numerous palaces and cathedrals housing treasures.

Megalithic Temple Complex at Tarxien (photo: Wilfred L. Camilleri)

Flag of the Order of St. John, the Knights of Malta

• Many people are aware that Italy contains the two sovereign governments of Vatican City and the Republic of San Marino. Fewer know that the third extraterritorial entity within Italian borders is the Order of Malta. Their Grand Magistry is located in the Palazzo di Malta at number 68 Via dei Condotti near the Piazza di Spagna. The Order has bilateral diplomatic relations with 93 countries and has Permanent Observer status in the United Nations. The Order issues its own passports and stamps.

Below: Fort St. Angelo, Birgu (photo: Alexander Sternin)

Fort St. Angelo, Birgu (photo: Chris Saliba)

• The Order also recently returned to Malta, having signed an agreement with the Maltese Government which granted the Order the exclusive use of Fort St. Angelo for a term of 99 years. Located in the town of Birgu, the Fort belonged to the Knights from 1530 until the island was occupied by Napoleon in 1798.

Flag of the Grand Master of the Order of St. John

Route to the Blue Grotto (photo: Leif Holmberg)

Above: Basilica of Ta' Pinu, Gozo

• “We Gozitans are very religious. More so than the Maltese. Both islands are fervently Roman Catholic. We put Rome—the Vatican even—to shame.” He paused reflectively. “You know how many churches and chapels there are on Gozo?”
   He didn't wait for a response.
   “Forty-three! We have the highest church attendance of any Catholic country in the world.” (Storm Track, p. 201)

• Grand Harbor, Valletta. One of the Mediterranean's great ports.

One Extra Fact

California Oranges were shipped in wooden boxes from the 1880s until the 1950s, when cardboard boxes were introduced. The same box size and label format were used for the entire period. The label measured about 11" x 10" and was glued by brushing wheat paste to one end of the wooden crate. During this seventy year history of using wooden orange boxes, over a billion labeled crates were shipped. Here is an example using the Maltese cross.

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