Sitting in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta is unlike anywhere else you can find in Europe. Made up of three small islands, the country is surrounded by turquoise waters and bleached by the bright sun. Although it holds one of the smallest Jewish communities today, Malta’s Jewish population has been in continuous existence on these peaceful and beautiful islands for over three thousand five hundred years. The nation boasts an enticing mix of food, fine wines, monumental fortresses, and an ancient Jewish past.
Malta has been inhabited since Neolithic times, there is evidence of human settlement since as early as 5200 BCE. Some structures from the era still survive, such as the Ġgantija temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Throughout the ages, Malta’s location has meant that it has strategic and cultural significance for empires in the Mediterranean. Used by the Phoenicians as a waypoint for further exploration, they brought with them early Jewish settlers, and Malta would become an important location for Jews traveling throughout the Mediterranean. Jews would continue to coexist peacefully for centuries, and Malta even became a center of scholarship for Jewish mysticism.
Under Catholic rule, Jews were officially expelled from the island, and forced to pay for the inconvenience. However, Jewish communities would continue in secret, and many Jews were enslaved on the island during this period. During the short period of time in which Malta was occupied by the French, many Sephardic Jews moved to the island and formed the origin of the modern community.
During WW2, Malta’s position in the Mediterranean made it an ideal port to launch attacks on Axis supply lines – and also made the island a prime target for axis attacks. It became an important country for Jews fleeing the Nazis, as it was the only European country than didn’t require visas for Jewish refugees.
Today, you can visit sites that speak to the almost unimaginably long history of Malta. From finding hidden Jewish symbology scratched into the floor at the Ġgantija temples, to seeing the menorahs carved into Greek-Jewish headstones, you’re sure to gain an appreciation for the long arc of Jewish history in the Mediterranean.