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.




The Maltese

The Last of the Phoenicians - the Maltese People

When National Geographic explorer Spencer Wells and Pierre Zalloua a geneticist from the American University of Beirut embarked on a genetic study of the Y chromosome, to trace the male line of descent in the Mediterranean basin, little did they expect to find that more than 50% of the Y chromosome lineages in today's Maltese population is identical to that of the Phoenicians.

To see the full report on their study.

The Y chromosome – Paternal Inheritance

The Y chromosome is a chromosome, which is exclusive to males, (females being XX whilst males are XY).
The Y-chromosome is therefore passed on only to a son and only from his father – so there is no contribution from the mother in this regard.
Therefore studies of the Y-chromosome in a particular population are actually a study of the paternal lineage.
The genetic markers of a Y-chromosome in brothers from the same father are identical – even when the mother is different.
Spencer Wells and Zalloua used as a reference for their genetic prototype the DNA extracted from human remains discovered in Turkey, as well as that extracted from a human jaw (4,000 years old) found in a mountain cave at Raskifa, Lebanon.
Wells and Zalloua compared this DNA with the DNA in the Y chromosome of present day Maltese males- and to their surprise found that more than 50% of the Y chromosome lineages in today's Maltese population is identical to that of the Phoenicians.
Wells himself could only speculate about this surprise finding ‘Perhaps the population on Malta wasn't as dense at the time. Perhaps when the Phoenicians settled in Malta, they killed off the existing population, and their own descendants became today's Maltese’.
I propose that the Phoenician men married Maltese women in large numbers. This would explain the paternal heritage of the present Maltese Male population – of course the Phoenician men might have killed off a few Maltese males as well whilst in the process of taking their women folk.
The fact remains that the results of Wells and Zalloua are consistent with a settlement in Malta of people from the Levant, and that this points to the Phoenicians

So who were the Phoenicians?

The Phoenicians, who are referred to as Sidonians in the Old Testament, and as Phoenicians by the Greek poet Homer, were Semites, and were related to the Canaanites of ancient Palestine.
They seem to have originated in an area in the Middle East - essentially today’s Lebanon –some 5000 years ago. They founded their first settlements on the Mediterranean coast about 2500BC.
The name Phoenician – a Greek word meaning the red people – because of the Purple dye, called Tyrian purple which the Phoenicians used to dye textiles – they extracted this dye from the shells of certain sea snails (the Murex Snail).
The Phoenicians were maritime traders and they established a “new land” Carthage (k-art = which means land in Maltese and hadash means new) as their primary colony in North Africa (now Tunisia).
The Phoenician fleets travelled throughout the Mediterranean and even ventured further into the Atlantic certainly to Britain.
When Alexander the Great of Macedonia invaded Asia he defeated the Persians and the Phoenicians, who gradually lost their separate identity and they were absorbed into the Greco-Macedonian Empire. The Phoenician cities became Hellenised, and, in 64 BC, even the name of Phoenicia disappeared altogether, when the territory was made part of the Roman province of Syria.
The most important Phoenician contribution to our civilization is probably the alphabet consisting of twenty-two characters; it is the basis for all Western alphabets. The Phoenician alphabet contained no vowels – 22 consonants – and is described as Abjad (Maltese meaning white or pure).
Phoenicians referred to Malta as MLT (probably pronounced MALET) meaning shelter – and they referred to the sister island of Gozo as GL (probably pronounced GOL) meaning trading ship/vessel.
Each Phoenician city had its special god, known as its “Baal”, or lord, a term still used by the Maltese however now in a rather derogatory sense (meaning bastard).
Hannibal – whose name means “Chosen or Anointed” (Hanni) by the god Baal – a Carthaginian - according to tradition, was born in Malta (247 BC).
Hannibal’s surname was Berka (Maltese for Lightning). Hannibal at the age of 29 commanded the Carthaginian forces against Rome in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) these wars lasted 17 years.
An area in Rabat Malta is known as Hal Barka

William Drummond discovered a tomb in Binghajsa containing the bones of Hannibal

ref 1810 Sir William "Essay on a Punic inscription found in the island of Malta."

Hannibal died around BC 183 (aged 64) having committed suicide in Bithniya (Asia Minor) to avoid falling into the hands of the Romans – his bones were brought to Malta – probably because of his birth connection to the island

The Phoenicians built a temple for their main goddess Astarte at tas-silg in Malta– and it is believed that another temple dedicated to Melkart (another of their gods), lies under the foundations of fort St Angelo

The Phoenicians referred to their sacred places (as sanctuary – sacred wood – as Nemusa) – this inscription NMS can be found in the archaeological museum of Genoa.
This word Nemusa – Maltese for mosquito – makes you wonder - perhaps these woods were infested with mosquitoes?
The Phoenicians moved inland in Malta and they probably were the first to have established Mdina and Rabat some 800 years BC.
The Phoenicians also founded what eventually became Sicily's largest city, Palermo which they called Zis

Phoenicians may have discovered the manufacturing of glass and perhaps also perfected the technique to produce clear glass – (although this is disputed by some) – nonetheless glass blowing is still an ongoing industry in present day Malta.

Deciphering the Phoenician Language

In 1694 a pair of Candelabra (Cippus) marble columns were discovered at the Tas-Silg Punic temple in Malta
Because the Cippe were inscribed in two languages Greek and Carthaginian it was possible for French scholar, Abbe Barthelemy, to decipher and reconstruct the Phoenician Language and alphabet.

The Cippe de Malte are to Phoenician understanding what the Rosetta Stone is to ancient Egyptian.

One of these candelabras can still be seen at the National History Museum in Valletta the

The other candelabra is housed in the Louvre in Paris - a gift from Knight of Malta Grand Master de Rohan to French King Louis XIV

The Cippe were gifts (votive) offered by the brothers Abdasar and Aserkemor to the Carthaginian god Melkart -- for having shown his mercy in saving them from drowning at sea.

an exhibition at Institut du monde arabe in Paris on 6 October 2007 , until 20th April 2008 on the history of the Phoenicians.

La Méditerranée des Phénicians, de Tyr à Carthage, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, until 20 April 2008

A Maltese Commemorative Stamp issued in 1965 commemorating the Phoenician Cippe

The Pharaoh Hound introduced by the Phoenicians to Egypt and to Malta.
The Maltese refer to this intelligent and lively dog as Kelb tal Fenech – Fenech can mean Rabbit or Phoenician (FENIKI).

In 1935, a burial tomb of a dog was found in the great cemetery west of the Pyramid of Cheops at Giza with the following inscription recording the ritual burial ceremony, "The dog which was the guard of His Majesty, Abuwtiyuw is his name."

This was a "Pharaoh Hound" type dog.

The Pharaoh Hound is the National Dog of Malta (since 1979) and is referred to in Maltese as "Il Kelb tal Fenek". Many translate this as "the dog of the rabbit".

I contend that the word "Fenek" here refers to the Phoenicians (Fenici in Maltese - Feniki) -admittedly the Pharaoh Hound is an excellent hunting dog, and was probably used for hunting rabbits by the Phoenicians

The Phoenicians introduced the Pharaoh Hound to various places including Egypt, and most probably also to Spain - a land which the Phoenicians named tsepan, “rabbit land “, later translated by the Romans into eSpania.

Phoenician words
Maltese Equivalent

RK 		Spirit or Wind		Ruh	
FNK		Phoenician		Fenici	
Alef 		Ox			Alef to feed animals
Bth		House/nest		Bejta	
MXT		Comb   			Moxt	
Gml		Camel			Gemel	
ZYN		To weigh		Tizen	
KHTH		Wall			Hajt	
YD		Hand			Id	
MM		Water			Ilma	
Ayn		Eye			Ghajn	
TSD		Fishing			Tistad	
RSH		Head			Ras	
SHN		Tooth			Sinna	

Dr Frank Portelli MD FRCS(ED) FRSM

The Maltese

Never seen so much hogwash :)

I'm Maltese and call this personal opinion of "Dr. Frank Portelli" rubbish.

For starters any arabic settlers (as knowledgeable of history as any other farmer would have been) would not have known of the existance of the phoenicians since they had already been replaced by the Greeks and especially the Romans by about 800 years. If any survivors there where they would have been known as 'Rum' as in fact we still have in Malta a Wied ir-Rum. The dog in short would have had stood a better chance to be called Kelb tar-Rum in that case :)

The confusion and gobble-de-gook of swapping Fenek with Feniki (never heard this word being used but I give the benefit of doubt) is also rubbish. There exists little certainty of where the label phoenician came from but the closest would be the Greek reference for the precious purple dye they farmed from the sea and traded. So what do rabbits and purple dye have in common? No idea :)

Its very easy to pick Arabic derived words in Maltese and claim they are phoenician but no proof exists either way so I think it should all be taken with more than a pinch of salt.


I cannot understand how one chooses to be anonymous in a civilized discussion

Dr Frank Portelli

Science cannot be wrong

I am a scientist and whatever all non-scientist beleive does not make sense since one cannot deny scientific proof.

I agree fully with Dr Portelli not only about genetics but also about the language.

When a living organism is isolated in a contained environment it evolves and is endemic.

This is what happened to the Phoenician language in Malta and it evolved into the Maltese language.

The Maltese people added Arab, Latin and other words for their convenience but it was very important to keep mainly the original basic phoenician to insulate ourselves from our invaders.

Sure some Arab words come from Phoenician (what we now call Maltese). Our language is more similar to Algerian, Marokk, Tunis and mostly Lebanese rather than the Arab used in the gulf.

Explain to me why they do not say "kesha" but only "bard"? Why they say "tigieg" but nit "serduq"?

We are more the original Phoenicians but Arabic has been adulterated many more times due to more exposure and wider geography.

Whatever your hypothesis you need to prove it!

As yet science has proven we are Phoenicians by origin and culture shows we have preserved much more than the genes!

Yes and no ...

It is not surprising that the Maltese people would have some Phoenician blood in them.

But saying that the Maltese language is Phoenician is unlikely. The language never survived anywhere after the decline of Carthage. Not even in its homeland of what is now Lebanon.

Where are the inscriptions that are evidence of Phoenician evolved into Maltese?

Even if this was the case, later evidence show that it was replaced by Arabic, just like what happened in Lebanon, Egypt, North Africa and Mesopotamia. All of which had Semitic languages before Arabic gradually became the spoken language of the majority.

Otherwise, how can you explain something like the ability of a modern day Arabic speaker to decipher Il-Cantilena and other texts like "May has arrived", ...etc.?

Science can never be wrong

Your statement that some Maltese are Phoenician contradicts all your convictions that Maltese is Arabic because it admits that in the year 869AD it's not true that all Maltese were taken into slavery but surely some (I think it was the majority, probaby the poor people which had nothing to be stolen by the Arabs) remained in Malta to continue with
(1)the Phoenician geneology
(2)the Maltese Language
(3)the Christian Faith
All 3 things have continued despite 200 years Arab rule and despite centuries of Roman, Knights and British rule.
Whilst thanking you for your admittance about some Maltese being Phoenician it would be good for you to know that your word SOME=44% of the Maltese people which is the highest amongst the Phoenician Colonies.
Still you have not explained why words which are not of European origin and are not Arabic are found in the Maltese language.
Of these I have found some which are surely not arabic but both Maltese and Lebanese (land of Phoenicians)
English Maltese Lebanese Arabic

cross-eyed werċ ورش ???
crook ħajjen هيّن ???
face wiċċ وشّ ???
bluff qarraq قرّق ???


I am half Irish/Maltese. I studied Arabic at university and have been living in the Arabian Gulf for 11 years. I agree with one of the writers, that the Maltese racially are not Arab. There were native Maltese prior to the Arab Period. Malta has had many invaders, but the Maltese remained Maltese. Of course, we must also recognise that fact that some contemporary Maltese must have Arab roots, being descendants of those Arabs who remained in Malta after the Norman conquest.

When it comes to the language though, Maltese is undeniably Arabic in its roots. It helped me immensely in learning Arabic - just as Portuguese would help someone from Lisbon to learn Italian, both language being Latin and therefore similar in structure and vocabulary. Denial of the Arab influence in the Maltese language is ridiculous and boils down to bigotry and ignorance. Maltese is at least 70% Arabic, of course with variations in pronunciation from the original Arabic. Yes it has many loan words from Italian, French etc, but its structure and lexis is Arabic! .... not Phoenician, as on particular website, very erroneously claims.

I'm not a historian and do not claim to be, but Arabic has in fact made me more aware of how Arabic Maltese actually is. Many Christians in our world are Arabic speakers and don't have a hang up about their language because Muslim Arabs happen to speak Arabic! Many Maltese basically are ignorant of Islam and Arabs, so base their denial of the truth of their linguistic origin on pure ignorance. Mux hekk?!

I'm proud of my Maltese language .... it helped me to learn Arabic, a skill which has helped me tremendously in my career, and made me unique amongst many. Malta has a rich and wonderful heritage. Let's be open-minded and stop denying! So many of my Kuwaiti/Saudi friends are so fascinated by Maltese and Malta. They are equally educated and well-travelled and would love to learn Maltese!

Well said ...

Denial of the Arab influence in the Maltese language is ridiculous and boils down to bigotry and ignorance. Maltese is at least 70% Arabic ...

Well said. I hope someone will listen to reason.
Khalid Baheyeldin