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.




You have not answered the

You have not answered the question, even if you are right about British attempts to de-italianise the Maltese. The question is: what is the origin of the Maltese language? You haven't been anywhere close to answering this question.

Saracens, moors, maltese, phoenicians, muslims and christians

Interesting and emotional = fun response..

Let me start by clarifying, I'm from Egypt, in my thirties, and have lived in kuwait for a long timw which made me familiar with more arab accents among the arab expat community there.

i've in Malta 4 times, recreational trips over the years. one thing is for sure, someone with my background, given a few days in Malta and an honest attempt to listen, will stat to understand without training the general topic of Maltese conversations, with zero training.. Fact.

I was told by a linguistics professor in the nineties that maltese was considered by linguists to be a dialect of Arabic, and that about 70% of the vocab. Comes from Arabic... That was an American professor at the american univ. In cairo, commenting in a casual conversation in a closed room, without a maltese in miles around us.

One has to be able to separate language, from race, mind you, there are lots of black europeans, americans etc.. linguistic heritage is possible to explain in the absence of arab lineage.. You don't have to be of Arab descent to speak arabic in a territory that was ruled by arabs for hundreds of years.. Which takes me to the next point:

The term is Arab, not saracens, not moor... These are obsolete historically abandoned terms that are seen only in historic orientalist texts, and are considered derogetory in some contexts.. They are also used by people who don't want to use the term ARAB..

The other thought here also, is that it seems like the poster wants to relate Malta to spain, italy, and Lebamon, and any other region that he considered kool, but not any Arab roots or heritage.. This reminds me of rediculous Lebanese efforts by a tiny minority who want to claim the lebanese are not arabs... One click on any major encyclopedia will teach you how Lebanon was carved out and created into an entity out syria.. It also reminds me of how some rare, silly Egyptians want to revive the ancient egyptian language... As if you can re-educate 85 million people.

Like it or not, your language is arabic, but the rest of your culture is not, and that is fine.. You are free to be what you want to be.. Never too late, never too old to do it.. Heck, i know Egyptians who will only speak french to each other, in cairo, and in the oresence of others who dont speak french.. Personal freedom.. Fine.. But don't try to rewrite history, it is just silly, and it really shows insecuroty.. Be proud of who you are... Maltese... I love your island, it is a wonderful place..

Majority of Maltese are Not Arabs,

I am in agreeably with the writers response that "Maltese are not Arabs", but those that may be of Slave origin or were converted to Christianity may be part of the mix, but a very small component.

I myself have question the validity, having been told consistently that my family name orgins are of middle east, why must you say...because of the way the surname is pronounced and its spelling....but over the years and digging for past historical records I have established the true origin of my own surname, and established how my early ancestor arrived on the Island of Malta. He arrived in Malta in the 13th Century. This is the period when the Rulers established a great migration program to re populate the Island Sicily and Malta, with Immigrants from Northern Italy. This was also the period under the Swabian Rule, the House of Hohenstaufen, and this is the period of Great Influence from the Swabian (South East Germany, Bavaria)people over the Island. Germans, Lombards military were stationed in Garrisons on the Islands. The Genoese, Pisani all were part of the mix.This was the period of the expulsions of Muslims....and following this later the Expulsions of the Jew....this are actual facts written into history and records are alive today.

So back onto my surname, 1) the historical written evidence shows the original name, had been derived form a castle/town in South East Germany that was established in the 9th Century AD. Also my ancestral father was a Knight who served under the House of Hohenstaufen. To further add proof to the evidence is that these early fathers had married into the House Of Hohenstaufen and Genoese Families that were connected with the House of Hohenstaufen and the final evidence is that having undertaken to do genetic testings, my closest Y-DNA matches place my origins some 1000 to 1500 years to central Europe, with most matches being of German, North Italian decent.

So now in my situation I have proven that I myself is not Arab and that being descendant from The Bavarian Region of Europe.

Maltese has had a rich history being rules by different rulers of the millenniums. The Maltese language is not specific just to Malta, there was a period that what the Maltese speak today was the general language of the peasants of Sicily and Southern is also classified as Siculo-Arabic. Maltese language is a remnant of a past history of a greater region, the Kingdom of Sicily, which at the time was a powerhouse of Politics and control of the central Mediterranean.

In terms as the so called presence of Arabs on Malta, there is very little evidence showing that the Arabs were permanently on the Island from 870AD to 109O. What records do show is that the initial Arab conquest with their success they pillaged the island, tore down buildings. The tore down buildings and took back to their homeland as a trophy. Arc (This is why we do not see many greek churches on the island from the period pre 870 AD. Remember Malta was under Byzantine Rule for some 300 plus years. The Arabs, destroyed the ten population, to slaves to be sold in North Africa and the east) In arab records the Island is noted to be desolated, no was only until the 11th century that they tried to establish themselves as the Sicily had been lost to the Normans early in the 11th century, and they need a presence close to Sicily. Malta this period under Arabs was more a Military outpost than and colony.

In summary, Majority of Maltese are of European heritage, and if the genetics of the population tells us anything, it reaffirms the truth of their origins majority being from Italy. There is one note of history,, that may have relevance that entire male muslim population of the town of Celano (Italy) in 1223 forceably removed and sent to Malta, which then was a CONVICT colony.

So to those who preach that Maltese are Arabs, the science, the history and the Archaeological records are against you. If you want to be absolutely sure of your orings, take a genetic test and see what real truth lies within your genes. I for one a Maltese who has ancestral heritage back to the 13th Century AD can vouch for this, and I acknowledge that pre 12th Century AD Malta was not my homeland...but Malta I love because it became my fathers homeland.

Response to Identity

I live in Australia, I came to Australia when I was 7 years old from Malta, born to Maltese parents. Australia has had Europeans & many nationalities inhabit the content for over 200 years, a minor time period compared to European history. Whilst the language spoken is English, it would be ludicrous to say that everyone in Australia is of English decent.

It may be true there are components of the Maltese language that may stem from middle eastern influence. For example the expression of the counting system and the expression of certain words. Having said that, there are many words that are identical or sound very similar to other European cultures.

Malta has a big history a long time line, and a very small populus. Whilst some cultural components methods may have remained this may only be a sign of a visitors passing.

Australia has built a society that is one of the world's most diverse multiculturally & has benefited greatly from it.The same could be said about North America.

Throughout History Malta by way of it's geographic location has held a strategic position for travellers which for the greater part has been by sea. This would have resulted in many varied nationalities visiting, or overcoming the island. When you consider the low population numbers it would not take much to influence the blood line.

I have brothers and sisters that have married into other nationalities. For the children of my sisters who have surnames that are Anglo or Germanic, you would not know they are part Maltese other than a few tell tale signs to a discerning eye. Are they Maltese or German, or Maltese or English ?

I from time to time have asked the question what is the origin of the Maltese race. How did it come to be ? Other than what I have found in the history, from BC to now, the one overriding pattern has been diversity.

I cannot help ask the question what will the populus of Australia be in a thousand years from now ? what will being Australian be ?

this is really an interesting

this is really an interesting article the brilliant knowledge has been shared about Malta i did not know about it.

Saliba means people of the

Saliba means people of the cross (Salib). It was a nick name given to those remnants from the crusades that stayed over in the middle east area especially in Lebanon. The same nick name could have been given in Sicily during the Aglabait and Fatmid period. Christians and Jews still existed during these times but had to pay higher taxes. You would find that all nicknames during this time were of Semitic in origin since Arabic was the 'lingua franca' both in Sicily and Malta and also areas in Iberia irrelevant of ethnicity.

Please note that surnames started off as nicknames, and only became compalsory during the Norman era and more enforced further during the Aragonese so no nickname would have survived example from the Phoenician period. Al Hymiardi states that during the Fatmid / Aglabait period the Island of Malta was turned to ruin (Hirba) and only visited by fishermen and to harvest honey, with wild donkeys grazing around.

The Caliph decided to re build Mdina and repopulated the Maltese Islands from Sicily a few decades before the Normans set foot on Malta. The Main thriving town (like Seville) was Palermo, were it was a great learning centre of the time

Facts are facts and History is carved in time

Dont trouble yourself with petty arguments with those whom are clueless and even ignorant.
Saliba s predate islam. The family's origins are 700 years before Mohamad was even born. and Saliba's are of Spartan Royal Origins. We have our family tree traced back over 2400years back and its purely Christian from 67AD
While others cant go back 3 generations without wondering and guessing were they came from...
Its not possibly to have a muslim Saliba... its not about Jesus Christ its About the Crucifix, Saliba means of the Crucifix and that conflicts with their faith...
Saliba's became Christian over 1950 years ago. the same year the Bible was put together and Christians were called Christians and were in power
Ful positions from back then and have therfor played a very important role in the establishment of Christianity

Maltese History is above all carved in its language

Dear friend,
I beg of you, Maltese friends. We respect your faith. There are crows of Christian Arabs in the world who, by the way, call our common God "Allah" (or "Ala" as their non-Arab Maltese counter-parts put it).
From a Maltese perspective, I am afraid the point about saliba/crucifix-related is not very convincing since we have other Maltese words borrowed from (muslim) Arabic: for example, "ramdan" for "Fast", and "miled" for Christmas, etc.
Therefore, the key to the problem is, again and again, the language. Interestingly, a Tunisian re-searcher has recently read in colloquial Arabic, and in less than 1 minute, the oldest and most com-plex document of the Maltese literature: the Cantilena. You can listen to it in MP3 sound.

Saliba surname

Hi. I would like to hear from about the research that you have done into our shared surname. Would you possibly be interested in discussing this further? Cheers