Malta Diary Was Malta uninhabited for 150 years in the 9th and 10th Centuries? New discoveries may throw light on the matter
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On 8th May earlier this year, my Malta Diary dealt with the saline qualities of aptly named Salina Bay on the north-east coast of Malta and how the salt pans developed from Roman times were an important source of precious salt – and revenue. I titled the article “The lure of the salt and the sea – Malta’s lengthy history in saline culture” (see https://b-c-ing-u.com/2019/05/08/malta-diary-the-lure-of-the-salt-and-the-sea-maltas-lengthy-history-in-saline-culture/)
Well, this fascinating spot on Malta’s coastline continues to draw attention with new and archaeological discoveries at Salina which cover a period of 500 years in three different eras. These discoveries are estimated to have great implications on Malta’s medieval history.
These discoveries include pottery from the period of Arab domination in Malta, specifically of the 9th and 10th Centuries AD, a period during which according to a particularly controversial theory Malta was uninhabited for around 150 years.
How could this have happened for such a lengthy period of time? I find this hard to believe.
The theory surfaced about 30 years ago after the discovery of a script written by the Arabic writer Al Himyari who specifically wrote that Malta had no inhabitants during the 10th Century.
Professor Timmy Gambin, a professor of archaeology who has researched the matter states he is very cautious about this theory. He said it is still too early to say that those who believe this claim are mistaken, However, with continual discoveries gathered on land and from the sea, more light is being thrown on the matter because that particular era of Malta’s history remains mysteriously dark.
The historical time-line facts seem to discard this theory. For example, Malta’s old capital city Mdina was already existent in 700 AD having first been developed by the Phoenicians and named “Maleth”. When the Arabs began their occupation of Malta around 790, they promptly occupied the city as their capital but renamed it after their own Islamic holy city of Medina and hence Mdina.
The Arabs, as with many others, saw Malta as a valuable outpost to Sicily, the Italian peninsula and hence to Europe’s heartland. They continued to develop Mdina and the surrounding area and it is therefore inconceivable they could have left the island uninhabited – although they may have carted off most of the population into slavery.
Excavations are now being conducted by international students as part of their maritime archaeology course at the University of Malta. The underwater excavations at a depth of around ten metres are being conducted on an underwater site a few metres off the coast in Salina Bay.
Over a period of five weeks, many objects were recovered from the seabed including a few from the Roman era. However, a considerable amount of Byzantine pottery has been found, including one with a Greek inscription.
The archaeologists believe the objects found were mainly items discarded by seacraft that entered or anchored in the bay, mainly broken items that were dumped overboard as well as food particles. These sank into the slime on the sea bottom and have been preserved for centuries.
Clearly, sea pollution began many centuries ago!
Professor Gambin said, “People used to live on board; they cooked, disposed of food and broken objects at sea. Therefore, through a period of hundreds of years, these objects were buried in mud and seaweed deposits”.
Archaeologist Nathaniel Cutajar maintains that the discoveries confirm other discoveries made on land in recent years….from Mdina to Safi. These are featured in the exhibition Core & Periphery by Heritage Malta on Malta’s role in trade roots and the lifestyle of the island’s inhabitants in the Islamic period.
Cutajar said the deposits found clearly do not emanate from one vessel or an occasional accident. The quantity indicates a great amount of trade in this and other bays and ports and co-relates with some finds found in other areas such as Marsascala.
One other important test of Malta’s history is in the analysis of the pottery found as this may determine the point from which the Arabs embarked to settle in Malta, whether this was from Tunisia or whether from Sicily. A further factor may throw more light on the origins of the Maltese language as it stands today.
Once more, the fascination of Malta’s history remains never-ending.
“He has his own God”
A reference to a hard-headed person who will not listen to or tolerate the opinions of others but believes only he is right and doing the right thing.