Arab Heritage in Malta

The history of Malta includes several centuries of Arab presence that were very influential in what its heritage today is, including language, and place names.

History of Arabs in Malta

From 870 CE to 1091 CE, the islands were almost exclusively Muslim by religion and Arab by language. Even after the Norman conquest, a significant Muslim segment in the society remained till the 13th century, since the initial Norman did not converted the population. This is similar to Sicily, where the Normans allowed the Muslims to remain Muslims for some time, and not forced to convert. For example, Al-Idrisi was a Muslim Arab nobleman who worked in the court of Roger, and wrote his geography book and named it The Book of Roger (Al-Kitab Al Rujari الكتاب  الروجري).

Eventually the Muslim presence in Malta ceased to exist, perhaps after it came under the Spanish Empire.  

Language of Malta

Their language remained Arabic though, and their family names remained Arabic, as well as most place names. Being non-Muslims the language slowly drifted to what it is today with heavy influence from Italian and Sicilian.

Why does the Maltese language remain spoken today and not vanish like Arabic in Iberia? I think that the more active suppression of Arabic by the Spanish authorities and the church is to blame here.

Nobility of Malta 

Much of the Maltese nobility have Arabic names referring to place names (Djar = Dar = house, Bneit = Bent = daughter/girl, Benwarrad = Sons/Descendants of Warrad, Gnien = Ganayen = Gardens, Tuffieha = Apple(?), Qajjed = Qa'ed = commander).

Place Names

Also, monuments and place names such as Hagar Qim are Arabic,  in this case a "Stone" in Arabic. Other place names include Mdina (The City), Flifla (pepper), Rabat (camp), Birzebbuga (Bir = well), Gzira (Island or peninsula), Marsa (port), Ghar (cave),  Qala (Fort), Gharb (west), il-Balluta (The oak), Triq (Way/Road), Isqaq (Lane), ...etc. A list of local councils of Malta reveal more.

It is interesting that the Maltese say that Zebbug and Birzebugga are derived from the name for olives,  while there is a town called Zejtun زيتون, which is the Arabic name for olives.

If one looks at the Attard anthem, one can see the extent of Arabic in it which sounds like a north African dialect.

Dissociation from anything Arab

Although the facts are there, some Maltese genealogists go out of their way to affirm that the Maltese are European and Christian, and have nothing to do with Arabs. The author,  Charles Said Vassallo claims descent from Cem, the younger brother of the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II, who after a period of failed civil war, seeked refuge in Cairo, then Rhodes, then in Europe with the Pope.

This attempt to dissociate the Maltese from Arab influence is similar to the phobia in Iberia in the 1500s and afterwards, from anything to do with Moors and Islam, be it dress, language, customs, taking a bath, circumcision, ...etc.

This is an all too common phenomenon where people would like to stop history at a certain point for their own bias and ignore all other eras in history, religion, language  and culture. 

Closing Anecdote

A common saying in Egypt today is : "Like a call for [Muslim] prayer in Malta زي اللي بيأذن في مالطة", which alludes to the fact that no Muslims are left there, and hence no one will answer the call. This  must be an old saying indeed, given that  this happened many centuries ago.




Maltese cannot understand Arabic

I am Maltese and quite a linguist. I can follow many languages to the point where I can at least be aware of what they're talking about. But not Arabic. I don't understand anything in Arabic - except when they say "he said" (huwa qal, in Maltese).

Having said that, I had two Lebanese friends when I studies in Moscow and their dialect was much closer to Maltese than standard Arabic. It was fascinating at the time.

That's my two-cent worth.

Spoken vs. Written

The issue here is that accents can skew a language beyond recognition. Think of a Southern USA drawl or a north west England accent. They are very different, and one has to put effort to understand what they are saying.

The same goes for Arabic: Egyptians have trouble understanding Tunisian and Algerian accents. If they slow down a bit, or if it is written, it is understandable.

I think you are experiencing the same thing: the rhythm, slant, accent is different.

As an Egyptian speaking Arabic, I was able to make out most of El Cantilena and other Maltese text when it was written. Because it was in the Latin script, it was hard, but I think doing it from spoken Maltese would have been harder.

Re: Maltese cannot understand Arabic

Khalid, Is it possible that the affinity between Maltese and some dialects in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt... is because the Phoenicians occupied those areas BEFORE the Arabs arrived in A.D.? Then of course, when the Arabs came, the semitic, Phoenician tongue spoken in North Africa and the Middle East was Arabized. But since in Malta the Arabs ruled (but hardly settled in numbers) for only 200 years, the old semitic language survived even if it had a high influx of Latin languages and English since at least 1090.... and also before that, of course, in the Byzantine, Roman and Punic periods (which is Carthaginian, hence Phoenician).

Having said that, the Maltese language is as mysterious to the Maltese as to foreigners. For a period of time it was believed that the Maltese were basically Phoenician. But then the British told us that was not the case and history seemed to be re-written. But it was never really told because the Maltese themselves could not understand this. Indeed, I was taught at school that 'Maltese is a semitic language with an influx of Romance' - and that was it! No teacher ever delved into it and no student ever bothered to ask. At least in the school and classes I attended...The 'Romance' bit was left to our imagination, while the semitic bit was usually understood to be Jewish.

I was made familiar with Arabic around 1970 when I was 9 years old. My great uncle called me into his room in a way that indicated he wanted to show me something special. He then tuned into an Arabic radio station and started pointing out Maltese sounding words. I was truly thrilled and surprised!

After 1971, when Mintoff came to power and established contacts with the Arab world, the Maltese perspective opened, of course. But it was still a word here and there without understanding. To us, Arabic seems as remote as Chinese, notwithstanding the few words our ears catch here and there. Even Jewish, at times, seems to be closer to Maltese.

but maltese can understand

but maltese can understand the spoken lebanese not the arabic lang. you hear in radio and TV.
believe me i was amazed how similar is Maltese when i heard it on TV. but its not close to the official arabic but only to the levante spoken lang.
my friend for example was born in australia and came to lebanon , he only know the Lebanese arabic but he doesnt know the arabic arabic taught in schools , if we put the news ( its arabic arabic) he doesnt understand anything so what about a Malteses person?!!

This issue can easily be

This issue can easily be solved on an individual basis. There are now genetic DNA tests that can determine each person's lineage all the way to early civilization. It is affordable, easily accessible to anyone over the internet, and can end this dispute once and for all. I stumbled upon this site and am not real familiar with Maltese history, so I have one question: How can a whole country be ruled by a certain group of people fr hundreds of years, to the point where the language is heavily influenced, and yet there are no genetic attributes?


It's appalling how much effort is put forth from either side of this debate! So much hatred...

I would just like to say that I am a Muslim Palestinian-American that got side-tracked surfing the web and somehow ended up here. I do not speak classical Arabic, but am fluent in colloquial Levant Arabic, and was amazed that, although I can barely comprehend spoken North African Arabic, I was able to read and understand the poem posted on this site (Il-Cantin...?).

I am very proud of my heritage and, at the same time, fond of many different cultures in the world. Most Arabs I know don't like the M.E. leaders and the negative aspects of societies over there, especially the ones that are shrouded in the veil of religion, but have nothing to do with it. It saddens me that everywhere I turn we are faced with racism, intolerance, and discrimination. To the point where a whole country would deny any connection to us when there is a big possibility one exists. I don't think any evidence would be accepted!

I am able to appreciate many things that non-Arab countries have to offer, and I don't want them to be Muslim for that reason. Almost all Muslims I know feel the same way. So please don't think we want to take over the world as some people have posted. The middle east is in the dark ages right now(like Europe centuries ago), and I would hate to see the whole world this way.

Djem Osman and Said Vassallo

Research carried out by self styled historian/Count/Prince? Charles Said Vassallo (when applicable DE BRANCHEFORTE SAID). This is an extract from (I had to correct some of the text):

A small though familiar Maltese surname established on the Maltese Isles since the 16th century. Established the future for the Knights of the order of St John, which history hasn’t documented so well, which was of relevance to the next several centuries. A family of Imperial blood that played importance’s in Europe as the heirs of the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Djem Osman, the younger son of Sultan Mehmed III, though elder son born during the reign...
The family of Sayd had established in Malta by this stage, with the younger branch of the 1st Prince de Sayd. Initially the Younger branch established at Birgu, and then moved to Santi, and Zebbug.

Within several years of the Princely family settlement in Malta, the Grand Siege of Malta had begun. The Ottoman Empire knew the threats of the pretentsive family and what it meant to an Empire that was strong and mighty. All enemies to an Empire were needed to be exhausted. The Grand Master knew of what fate lay ahead, though through determination and strength from the Maltese, Knights and the European powers to overpower the Turks once and for. Success was achieved eventually and the Turks left to never be heard of again. Upon the succession of the Grand Siege of Malta, the imperial family lost favour and respect. There was no further need of them and slowly and eventually moved into civilian life. The elder line died out at the end of the 17th century, with succession and acknowledgement by the Grand Master of Malta, of Salvatore Sayd, as the Prince de Sayd e Bibino Magno with rights as “His Highness”, instead of “His Imperial Highness”. (Self styled Count Charles Said Vassallo has purposely forgotten to insert footnotes. Actually the only reference submitted by the self styled Count Charles Said Vassallo is the book "History of Malta-convictions and conjectures volume four" pages 80-84, by Giovanni Bonello, Patrimonju Publishing, Malta, 2003, which does not have a whiff of a mention of any connection with the said family).

Mr Charles Said Vassallo continues that fortunately (for himself, maybe), the elder line kept key documentation and data, which survived, to the present family. Moreover, he continues that today, acknowledgement has been plenty some

Let it be known that half of the family trees included in are fictional, story-bound, and illusory whereas several other legitimate ones are depicted as illegitimate, yet I do humbly pray that pristine and accurate data be published in his destined site…

Malta, Caravaggio and Islam

My comment is not directly related to the subject, even though I appreciated very much the historical profile about Malta and Islam.
Where I would like instead to draw the readers' attention is the large ignorance of history and of a sort of mystical attitude towards islam and the arab world in contemporary European common culture.
Malta is known to many art historians because of Michelangelo Caravaggio's passage on the island. Reading a book on the Italian artist's life, written by Dominique Fernandez, a rather famous writer of fiction and history, I was astonished when one of the figures appearing in the story, a Maltese merchant travelling in Lombardy, is described as a muslim and his name is Ibn Jafar....! Malta is described as a place of peaceful cohexistence of christianity and islam and the merchant carries amongst other goods a cross of the Chevaliers... Malta was at that time - the end of XVI century - under its full christian influence (which meant a clear anti-islamic and fight oriented inclination) and I strongly doubt there could have been any muslim merchants within its local population...

Just came back from a holiday

Just came back from a holiday to Egypt, north Africa, Malta and Sicily. Maltese people don't look anything like the africans/Arabs. There were a lot of similarities between the Maltese and sicilians in terms of the peoples appearances,culture, cuisine and way of life. But I really saw no similarities between Malta and africa/middle east. Very different places and people. Maybe the language is the only small connection.. But that doesn't really mean much. I'm a Chinese living in the uk who speaks English.. But that doesn't make my background British.