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.




Influences on the Maltese language

Whilst neither an academic nor capable of fluent Maltese owing to an upbringing and lifetime spent outside of Malta, simple observation of language, attitudes and often cultural activities increasingly convinces me that although our bloodlines have been broadened over the generations by the inputs of Normans, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians and as in my case Bavarian(German)let alone the British and to a much lesser extent British Colonial subject nations, especially Egyptian and Chinese a small colony of whom existed until very recently in the naval dock area, fundamentally in our language and family names traces of arab/aramaic remain. I recall that following a recent popular film 'The Life of Christ' in which much of the script was aramaic, a number of village Maltese said they preferred listening to the soundtrack rather than reading the English sub-titles. Once whilst in Bahrain I got into conversation with a group of Iraqi's from a district in the Upper Euphrates and felt able to understand much of what they said in their dialect. (Incidentally could the 'Dilmun' of Bahrain have any connection with the 'Delmon' of Malta?) I had similar experiences in Khor Fakkan and Fujeirah in the 1970's. Abdulmoisin Al-Mutlaq from Eastern Province Saudi Arabia, whom I knew well and who knew a number of Maltese then living in The Kingdom, strongly believed Maltese was heavily influenced by dialects still current in parts of Lebanon, Syria and Northern Iraq. On an entirely separate but perhaps historically interesting track, in the 1920's my father visited fishing villages in South Wales (UK), probably Pembroke. Using his Maltese he was both understood and able to communicate with the fishermen. He recalled they said he was the first 'outsider' ever to do so. They claimed to be the descendents of 'Mediterranean Traders' so perhaps at least in the confines of language at least there could perhaps be some truth in believing Near and Middle Eastern dialectic influences remain strong in isolated outposts such as Malta where for the vast majority of it's indigenous people travel outside of their homeland was impossible till well into the 20th. century.


i happen to have come to this website for my maltese projetc and its awsome gdjob

Christian Arabic Terminology and Maltese

Dear Sir,
maltese semitic religious terminology resembles has many in common to christian arabic(ex qassis,raheb,qrar,tqarbin,titlit,xbin,dejr,isqof,knisja,Ghid il-Milied etc) although some muslim influence such as the words Randan, Ghasar and possibly Gilwa can also be found.
As you may be aware Arab speaking christians are a diverse group.
It would be interesting if someone makes a profound study of our religious terminology.


Very informative

Thanks for a very informative comment.

Here are the Arabic equivalent for some of them:

qassis = قسيس = priest
raheb = راهب = monk/hermit
titlit = تثليث = trinity
dejr = دير = monastery
isqof = أسقف = bishop
knisja = كنيسة = church
Ghid il-Milied = عيد الميلاد = birthday / Christmas

I can't tell what qrar means. Tqarbin is perhaps derived from qurban (sacrifice), but Iam not sure exactly what it refers to in Maltese.
Khalid Baheyeldin

Christian Arabs are NOT a

Christian Arabs are NOT a diverse group! The possible exception is the Copts of Egypt who claim to be descended from ancient pharaonic peoples but who, themselves were also of Semitic stock.

Very interesting dialogue.

Very interesting dialogue. well done

May I put some comments, I classify myself as an amateur history enthusiast, who in my spare time try to reach for an answer shared by many who are we Maltese?

First to the surname Saliba very recently Prince Charles went to Turkey and on the border with Syria met a local Christian Bishop named Saliba, he was one of the dwindling Christian Armenian residents in that part.

First we must tackle why there were not any cemetries found from the arabic period? these cannot be destroyed as evidence is that Muslims enjoyed freedom under the Normans.

Secondly I agree with certain native historian that for a long period after the defeat of the Byzantines by the Arabs, Malta was depopulated, certain Arab historian of that time said that Malta was a place for vessels to call and rest,before completing their journey home and a hiding place for some escapees. To note in the west part of the island we have a valley called wied ir-Rum. This is in no way in relation with alcoholic Rum, but Arab lords refered to the Greeks by that name as ancient Romans i.e Byzantines.

Arab advances through the North African littoral pushed peoples from eastern mediteranean who accepted the new religion and fought for the common cause as allies to the arabs, thus can that be that people who inhabited Malta were in fact from the Lebanon/Syria area in the late 9th century.

To the question of us Maltese wheter now in 2008 what is our genetic relation, The answer is that after the Great siege Maltese population was increased by huge numbers from Christian Europe see the most common surnames and even the not so common ones. The magority is of Sicilian, Italian,Spanish,Greek, Jewish, Lebanese/Syrian Christian,some portion of French,German,Slav and very recent addition(last colonial rule) British. the latter surnames account to 7-8% of the population, and believe it or not a lot of Italian surnames came in the British period due to the upheavals of the 1800's in the peninsuila.

My answer is that if there was some arabic blood in the beggining it was overwhelmed by intermarriages from the European additions in the centuries that followed, not to forget that the first so called arab invaders were themselves the fruit of intermarriages of overwhelming allies who accepted the new religion.Another observation is that our forefathers were intellegent enough to keep to their tongue and accept or loan some new words and phrases from the incoming settlers, as a detterent from total submission to new rulers,wheter they come from the North or the South.

The Maltese Language

Maltese is easily understood in North Africa and in countries like Syria and Lebanon if you take care to remove all words of Italian and European origin. I know from personal experience, not just travel but also years residing in Egypt.

To write that the Maltese language " .. owes nothing to Arabic or Sicilian or Italian" is to misunderstand how languages grow and develop. English owes much to Latin and French. Maltese owes much not just to Arabic, Sicilian and Italian but also to French, Castellano, Catalan and English to greater or smaller degrees. Which is not to stay it is not a language in its own right, it is indeed that. The Maltese language developed from Arabic. Over many centuries it encountered and was shaped by multiple linguistic influences and it is now a language in its own right quite distinct from the languages it was influenced by.

Maltese people are not Arabs but they have Arabs among their ancestors and it is ludicrous to claim that somehow all elements of the Arab presence disappeared and subsequently the non Arab ancestors of the Maltese arrived on the island.

Many Maltese are sadly ignorant of their own history, yes this is true, and they are - equally sadly - unaware of the glorious periods of Arabic history, of the many contirbutions from mathematics to poetry, that Arabs gave world culture . The same is not true of Sicilians who are well aware that Sicily's Arab period was one of the most glorious in that island's long history, a golden era that witnessed a flowering of the arts and sciences, of culture and agriculture.

I fear that what underlies the sometimes hysterical insistence on our "not being Arab" is racial and religious prejudice. I hope I am wrong. And I hope, if unfortunately I am right, that we may soon grow beyond this unelightened attitude.

Anki jien Malti

I too am Maltese and proud of it. No need for capital letters.

It is enough for me to day I am Maltese, I don't need to define it by saying Maltes is Not X, Y OR z.

I am simply, calmly, very serenely Maltese.

I wrote in English to be polite, because I speak it, and this web site is in English.