Independent nation in the Mediterranean Sea, S of Sicily, consisting of the main island of Malta and two smaller ones, Gozo and Comino. Malta has been fought over for centuries because of its strategic location in relation to some of the most vital sealanes in the world. The earliest archaeological remains found on Malta date from before 3000 b.c. to c. 1500 b.c. and include a number of enormous Neolithic, stone temple tombs. The Phoenicians were the first of the early civilizations to occupy Malta, followed by the Greeks, and , in the sixth century b.c., the Carthaginians. Rome, in its deadly war with Carthage, captured the island in 218 b.c. Saint Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in a.d. 60 on his way to Rome as a prisoner. The Saracens conquered Malta in 870 and the Norman kingdom of Sicily followed in 1090. After the Knights Hospitalers of St. John of Jerusalem were driven from Rhodes in 1522 by the Ottoman Empire, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave them sovereignty over Malta. They founded the capital, Valletta and successfully defended it against the Turks in 1565. The Knights of Malta were forced to leave when Napoleon I of France captured the island in 1798. He was driven out by the British in 1800, and their ownership was confirmed by the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 further increased Malta’s strategic importance, which was confirmed in World War II when the Axis powers bombed it some 1,200 times without entirely depriving the Allies of its use. George VI of Great Britain conferred the George Cross on the entire population in 1942 to honor their bravery. On September 21, 1964, Malta became independent but remained in the Commonwealth of Nations. The government, however, wished to be nonaligned in world affairs and insisted on the closing of the British naval base when an agreement concerning its use expired in 1979. The base had been maintained for 179 years and had been a valuable asset in the Maltese economy. In 1974, Malta became a republic. In 1990 Malta applied for full membership in the European Union. It was admitted in 2004.