Malta’s position - near major Mediterranean shipping routes, yet out of the way - has resulted in long stretches of isolation punctuated with often violent episodes of foreign intrusion. The islands’ oldest monuments are the megalithic temples that date from as far back as 3600 BC.

The Phoenicians colonised Malta around 800 BC and stayed for about 600 years.

The Romans then made it a part of their empire in 208 BC. The most famous visitor to the archipelago was the apostle Paul, who became shipwrecked on the island of Malta in AD 60. Tradition has it that he converted the islanders to Christianity. It has been suggested by biblical and scientific scholars, however, that he may have actually been wrecked on Kefallinía in Greece.

Several hundred years of peaceful isolation followed, until Arabs from North Africa arrived in 870. They exerted a powerful influence on the Maltese, introducing citrus fruits and cotton, and warping the language. Norman invaders from Sicily displaced the Arabs in 1090, and for the next 400 years Malta remained under Sicilian sway.

In 1530, the Emperor of Spain gave the islands to the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, in exchange for the rent of two Maltese falcons a year. The Knights, formed during the Crusades, were a dumping ground for those younger members of the European aristocracy who didn’t stand to inherit property. They fortified the islands - just in time for an invasion of 30,000 Turks in 1565.

The Turks laid siege to Malta for three months, but 700 Knights and 8000 Maltese managed to hold them off. The Knights were hailed as the saviours of Europe. With fame and power came corruption, and the Knights turned to piracy; but by the time Napoleon arrived in 1798, they were too enfeebled to defend themselves. It was the British who aided the Maltese in their fight against the French and, by 1814, Malta was a British colony. To a limited extent, Malta continued to absorb the cultural influence of Italy.

However, Britain turned Malta into a major naval base, making it an inviting target for the Axis during WWII. After a long blockade and five months of non-stop bombing raids, Malta was devastated. On 15 April 1942, King George VI awarded the George Cross - Britain’s highest award for civilian bravery - to the entire Maltese population. The Maltese were staring down the barrel of surrender when a relief convoy limped into port, allowing Malta to go on to play a crucial role in the invasion of Italy. Soon after the war, Malta began inching towards independence. It achieved complete autonomy in 1964.

In 1974, it became a republic, and by 1979 the government was signing agreements with Libya, the Soviet Union and North Korea, much to the chagrin of Britain and its allies. This flirtation with Communism ended with the victory of the Nationalist Party in 1987. In recent decades, Malta has achieved considerable prosperity, thanks largely to tourism - every summer the population triples due to an influx of tourists. The island nation is also increasingly benefitting from trade and light industries. On 1 May 2004, Malta became the smallest of ten countries to attain membership of the European Union. Consequently, Malta is preparing for the adoption of the euro as the new national currency, currently scheduled for 1 January 2008.