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The strategic importance of the island of Malta—situated as it is in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, halfway between Gibraltar and Alexandria—was recognized by the Phoenicians, who occupied it around 600 BC. It was then ruled in turn by the Greeks and Carthaginians before the Roman Empire took over governance during the first Punic War in 264 BC.
With the division of the Roman Empire in AD 395, Malta fell under the control of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire, which ruled from Constantinople, from 395 to 870. Although Malta was under Byzantine rule for four centuries, not much is known from this period. Between 870 and 1090, the island came under Arab rule. The Arabs introduced new irrigation, fruits, and cotton to the island, and the Siculo-Arabic language was adopted; it would eventually evolve into the Maltese language. The native Christians were allowed freedom of religion but were taxed tax for following a non-Islamic religion.
In 1091, the Norman noble Roger I, then ruler of Sicily, came to Malta with a small retinue and defeated the Arabs. During the Norman period Malta became part of the newly formed Kingdom of Sicily, which also covered the island of Sicily and the southern half of the Italian Peninsula, and the Catholic Church was re-instated as the state religion.
The Knights of St. John (Malta) obtained the three habitable Maltese islands of Malta, Gozo, and Comino from Charles V in 1530. The order had been driven out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Empire in 1522. In 1565, the knights faced the Ottomans again, this time withstanding a full-blown siege by the empire, the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean at the time. After the siege the order increased Malta's fortifications, particularly in the inner-harbor area, where they built the new city of Valletta, now the nation's capital.
Napoleon seized Malta in 1798, but the French forces were ousted by British troops the next year, and British rule was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1814. The British used Malta as a shipping way-station and fleet headquarters, and the island was considered an important stop on the way to India.
Malta suffered heavy attacks by German and Italian aircraft during World War II, but was never invaded by the Axis powers. It became an independent nation on Sept. 21, 1964, and a republic on Dec. 13, 1974, but remained in the British Commonwealth. In 1979, when its alliance with Great Britain ended, Malta sought to guarantee its neutrality through agreements with other countries. Although Malta applied for membership in the European Union, the Labour Party, after winning the election in October 1996, froze Malta's EU application and withdrew from the NATO Partnership for Peace program in an effort to maintain its neutrality. When the Nationalist Party won the September 1998 elections, however, it revived the EU accession bid; in May 2004, Malta joined the EU. In July 2005, Malta ratified the proposed EU constitution.