Many people are aware that the Maltese Islands were once ruled by the Knights of St John. After all, their heraldic symbol is known as the Maltese Cross and can be seen on our national flag. But that’s only one part of Gozo’s fascinating history, which extends back 7,000 years.
Gozo’s dramatic history is largely caused by its strategic location in the Mediterranean. There have been successive invasions and terrible sieges. But Gozo’s history is also one of survival and traditional values.
Fortunately, much of our history can be experienced today in Gozo’s landscape, buildings, traditional culture, our distinct local cuisine, and our language. Our history is all around us, and exploring Gozo’s past can be fun for all the family.
In this blog post we take a journey through time to look at Gozo’s history and suggest some of the interesting places you can visit.
Prehistory comes to life on Gozo
The Gġantija Temple copmplex on Gozo. Photo credit: Instagram @philippesaliba
It’s believed that the first people to settle on Gozo were settlers from Sicily in around 5000BC. Luckily, Gozo has some amazing evidence of this thriving Neolithic community in the shape of the famous Gġantija temples, which were constructed between 3600-2500BC.
Older than Egypt’s great pyramids, this megalithic temple complex is more than 5,000 years old and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll find the temples just outside Xagħra and a walkway takes you through the complex.
Further south, near the amazing cliffs at Ta’ Cenc you can see further evidence of our prehistoric Bronze Age culture. Ta’ Cenc has three tombs dating to between 2,500 and 1,500BC as well as some tracks, thought to be cart ruts, worn into the limestone plateau.
Early beginnings of the Cittadella
Canon on the rampart walls of the Cittadella on Gozo. Photo credit: Baron Holiday Homes
Gozo’s first defensive fortifications were made around 1500BC on the flat-topped hill that was to eventually become The Citadel, or Cittadella in Victoria (Rabat).
Around 700BC Gozo was colonised by the Phoenicians, who strengthened the Citadella’s fortifications. And then 500 years later, in 218BC, the Romans arrive on Gozo and begin to construct more substantial buildings and fortifications. The Citadella, becomes part of a settlement called Gaulos. The Romans were later replaced by the people from the Greek Byzantine Empire in 535CE. They ruled for nearly four hundred years, helping to strengthen Christianity on Gozo.
If you’re interested in exploring this period of Gozo’s history there are plenty of artefacts to see in the Gozo Museum of Archaeology in Victoria. And why not get the kids to find the Roman inscription on a block of limestone that was later reused to make the main gate of the Cittadella?
Stone in Citadel wall with 2nd century Latin inscription. Photo credit: Wikipedia
Arab influence on Gozo
In 870CE Aghlabid Arabs expel the Byzantines after a siege and add Malta to their empire which comprises parts of northern Africa, Sicily and southern Italy. Islam gains ground.
The Arab influence can be seen in the Maltese language, in our place names and surnames. The name they gave to Gozo itself – Ghawdex is still with us today. Our distinctive local cuisine also has some distinctive Arabic flavours.
While you’re in the Gozo Museum of Archaeology look out for the beautifully carved Maymūnah Stone. This was used as a tombstone during the Ottoman rule – they carved an Islamic inscription on a Roman tablet.
European influence on Gozo
Two centuries later, in 1091CE, the Maltese Islands became part of the Kingdom of Sicily and Christianity is brought back to Gozo.
Between 1200–1500CE Malta and Gozo were leased as feudal lands to various European rulers – including the Swabians from Germany, the Angevins from France, and the Aragonese from Spain. Each nationality brought elements of their culture and cuisine to Gozo in turn.
The rule of the Knights of Malta
The next significant event takes place in 1530CE when The Knights of Malta (Hospitaller Knights of the Military Order of St. John) establish a base on Malta after being expelled from Rhodes by the Ottomans.
Gran Castello Historic House. Photo credit: TripAdvisor.co.uk
During their time on Malta and Gozo, the knights built many houses, forts and even prisons. Within the Cittadella you can still see a cluster of 16th century houses that come from this period. One of them – the Gran Costello Historic House – is a museum where you can explore the traditional farming way of life on Gozo.
The Old Prison Museum is worth putting on your itinerary – look out for some really old graffiti scratched into the walls. And when you’re out and about touring Gozo you’re bound to come across Fort Chambray, which overlooks Mġarr Harbour, and the Isopu watch tower between San Blas Bay and Dahlet Qorrot – both built by the Knights.
Before you explore the Citadella, we recommend you check out the Citadel Visitor’s Centre which will help explain the history of the site and what to expect.
The Seige of 1551CE
The worst seige in Gozo’s dramatic history occurred in 1551CE when Gozo was attacked by the Ottoman Turks, who arrived with 145 ships. Citizens of Gozo were besieged in the Citadella and endured heavy bombardment from the ships. Many homes and churches were destroyed and the Cittadella was badly damaged. Thousands of Gozitans were captured and enslaved but it’s thought around 300 people escaped.
If you visit Victoria and walk around the Cittadella, look out for the monument with an eternal flame outside the Citadel’s gate which marks this violent episode.
Historical reenactment of the Great Siege of Malta. Photo credit: Xaghra Historial Reenactment Organisation
In September each year the Xaghra Historical Reenactment Organisation brings history to life by putting on many parades and events to mark the great seige of Malta (main island) which occurred in 1565.
The modern era
The Knight’s rule of Gozo lasted 268 years and ended in 1798CE when the First Republic of France under Napoleon invaded and occupied the Maltese Islands. Within a couple of months there was an uprising which then turned into a two-year blockade of the French garrison. The Maltese were helped by the British, Neopolitans (Sicily) and Portuguese.
The French surrender in 1800CE and the Maltese Islands become a British protectorate and on 23 July 1813 Malta becomes a Crown Colony. By 1934, English and Maltese replace Italian as the official languages.
One of the most visible signs that the British once ruled Gozo are the iconic old red telephone boxes which you’ll see around the island.
British red telephone box at Saint Lucija Square, Gozo.
If you’re visiting Gozo during the middle of August and happen to be in Victoria you can experience the Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition which has been held every year since 1855. Said to have been inspired by the Victorian Great Exhibition in London in 1851, it is a celebration of local agriculture produce and you’ll see farmers proudly vying to win prizes for the best honey, fruit, vegetables and even livestock.
Second World War
WW2 air raid shelter on Gozo.
Gozo’s location in the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa has always been of strategic importance and Britain established a naval base here. During the Second World War (WW2), Malta became the headquarters of the Mediterranean Fleet – and subsequently became a target for the German and Italian forces.
In 1942 the Maltese Islands suffer an almost unthinkable 154 consecutive days and nights of sustained bombing but refuse to surrender despite terrible hardship. And on 15 April 1942 King George V subsequently awarded the entire Maltese population the George Cross. And you can see this proudly symbolised on our flag.
In all around 170 public air raid shelters were dug in Gozo between 1941 and 1942. twenty of those were in Victoria, including two large shleters in the base of the St. Martin’s and St. John’s demi-bastions at the Cittadella. These can be visited to give you a taste of what it must have been like during those dark days.
On 21 September 1964 Malta gained full independence from British rule. This significant date is celebrated each year throughout the Maltese Islands with a public holiday and many cultural events. And 10 years later Malta became a republic. Then, in 2004 Malta officially joined the European Union.
We think you’ll agree that there’s a lot more to Gozo’s history and traditions than you probably thought. If you’d like to read more, you can browse these blog posts:
Our guide to make the most of your day in Gozo’s capital Victoria - provides a useful itinerary to explore the Cittadella, the museums and winding laneways of Victoria.
It’s amazing what you can discover at Gozo’s quirky museums - a round up of some of the more unusual museums you’ll find on Gozo.
Don’t miss these five hidden gems on Gozo – interesting but hidden things to see and do on Gozo.
The special affection Queen Elizabeth II had for Malta – an account of the strong connection between the British monarchy and the Maltese people.
Talk like a local when you next visit Gozo – a guide to the Maltese language and its pronounciation.
Our guide to a local taste experience – an essential guide to finding your way around the local specialities of Gozo.
Be dazzled by the unique arts and crafts of Gozo – fascinating look at the traditional skills and crafts that are still practised on Gozo today.
Ask us for help
Baron Holiday Homes is happy to organise car hire, tours of Gozo, and special activities for our guests. Just get in touch and we'll tell you all you need to know about walks near to your rental property, special events in villages nearby, and other local information. We can also help organise in advance a Discover Gozo ticket (including a family ticket) which is valid for a combination of different attractions, including the museums at The Citadel.
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