Malta’s oldest monuments are the mysterious megalithic temples at Ġgantija near Xagħram on Gozo, and Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra on the southwest coast of the main island. Built between 3800 and 2500 BC, they’re the world’s oldest surviving freestanding structures. From around 800 to 218 BC, Malta was colonised by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, and then became part of the Roman Empire. In AD 60 St Paul was shipwrecked on the island, where (according to folklore) he converted the islanders to Christianity. Arabs arrived in 870 and had a considerable influence on agriculture and language. Afterwards came a succession of Normans, Angevins (French), Aragonese and Castilians (Spanish).
In 1530 the islands were given to the Knights of the Order of St John, a religious crusader organisation founded in Jerusalem. The Knights expelled invading Turks in 1565 and were considered ‘saviours of Europe’. Soon afterward, though, the order declined and surrendered to Napoleon in 1798 without a fight. The British helped liberate the island in 1800 and began to develop Malta into a major naval base. The new member of the British Empire suffered greatly from WWII bombing.
In 1947 the devastated island was given a measure of self-government. The country gained independence in 1964, and became a republic in 1974. In 2004 Malta joined the EU, and plans to introduce the euro as its currency in January 2008.