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.




Two new articles on this hot

Two new articles on this hot issue:

"Malte, si proche et si lointaine de la Tunisie" 20 June 2013

"Malta as seen from Tunis, a thousand years later…" The Malta Independent on Sunday, 16 June 2013, page 21.

Surnames and how they sound

Surnames and how they sound has nothing to do with ethnicity. One has to look at DNA for correct answers. From various studies it has been established time and time again that Malta's closest kins are the Sicilians. The Maltese are predominant R1b 32% a signature prominent all over Europe (often called the celt dna) and 22% J2a a signature prominent in the south of Europe dominant but also found in Lebanon so it could be linked with both Greek and Phoenician past. The haplogroup that is linked Mostly to the Middle east is J which is 8% in Malta and 3% of North African Dna (E-81). The reason why some surnames sound Semitic is because surnames were only created during the Norman period where in Sicily and Malta were the lingua Franca was Arabic due to the Fatmid and Aglabid rule after the take over from the Byzantines. It is obvious that some surnames would have a semetic sounding name as most surnames where mostly related to family trade.

There would be absolutly nothing wrong if Maltese were genetically close to the Arabs that have given the world some cultural achievements at some point in time (of the Middle east I presume) since North Africans are genetically different. But that's not what hard science tells us.


Even though 'Maltese' sounds like 'maltesers', the country name probably does relate to chocolate itself, like being malted, since Malta comes from the Greek word melios, meaning honey!

Malta Arab

It would be worthy to note that the Arabic names in Malta are pre Islamic. In particular place names.
Also note that the Arab prefix bint or ben are not affixed to names in Malta.