The stories behind Malta’s historical maps

Malta Map Society is making an appeal for pre-Siege maps of Malta.

Map of Malta by Johan Jacob Muller dated 1743-90.
Map of Malta by Johan Jacob Muller dated 1743-90.

That Malta's history is rich and varied is a fact taken for granted by both locals and visiting foreigners alike, and while its heritage is a common draw for tourists, the practice of cartography seems to be an essential, if somewhat easily forgotten, component of our accumulated cultural riches.

However, the Malta Map Society, first established in 2009, is still trudging along in its mission to unveil and raise awareness about the many historical maps Malta has up its sleeve.

A brainchild of its president, the cartography expert Albert Ganado, the Society is now keen to build a backlog of pre-Great Siege maps, which would supplement Ganado's own groundbreaking research into the subject.

Rod Lyon, press officer for the Society, described how this would be of particular interest as a curio, as prior to the Siege, "Valletta did not, of course, exist yet and the Valletta peninsula - Mount Sceberras - was just a wasteland and an area which gave invaders a big advantage when they attacked the fortress strongholds of the Knights and Birgu".

Another reason why our cartographic history seems to start with the time of the Knights is quite simple: Malta's previous occupants didn't appear to have all that much interest in mapping out the island.

"Prior to the Knights arriving only a few manuscript maps seem to be known of Malta. These were drawn up by navigators who were trading along the Mediterranean sea routes. With the arrival of the Knights, there was an explosion of interest in the islands and the number of maps printed increased and was further stimulated by the Ottoman attacks, the Great Siege, the invasion of Napoleon and the coming of the British. From a little known island archipelago, the interest in Malta blossomed.

"It is a fascinating story with many twists and turns," Lyon added.

Among these 'twists', Lyon brings up the fact that Maltese maps vastly outnumber those of the rest of the Mediterranean - "by at least four". This could of course be attributed to the self-evident fact of Malta's crucial geographical position, but other historical episodes could have played a part too.

For one, Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) was "very concerned" about Malta's fragile position - as the Valletta peninsula offered a "perfect attack point" for the Knights' fortresses across the harbour.

But Lyon also calls for us to remember another crucial historical fact that led to the development of more detailed maps of the Maltese Islands.

"Don't overlook the fact that in 1551 the Turks attacked Malta and took away the entire population of Gozo into slavery," he said.

"This is the reason behind Lafreri Gastaldi and Bertelli making maps of Malta. This event struck fear into the people of the Mediterranean in particular and Europe in general. It took years for the people to be ransomed and repatriated. In many cases the Gozitans never saw their homeland again. This is why there are some old houses with double walls so that the people could hide between them until the invaders disappeared," Lyon added.

Commenting on the aims of the Malta Map Society, Lyon said that "what is obvious to some is not to others. But we can open their eyes".

"Maltese people should be made aware of every facet of their incredible history," he added.

For more information on the Malta Map Society log on to their official website.