Adel Bishtawi talks to Professor Godfrey Wettinger, Malta’s Outstanding Authority on Medieval History



Godfrey Wettinger is Emeritus Professor and Senior Fellow of the University of Malta. Professor Wettinger is a recognised authority on the medieval history of the Maltese Islands from 15th century documents and many other sources providing original scholarly research.

Wettinger, B.A. Hons. (London), M.A. (London), Ph.D. (London), was born at Mosta, Malta, 22 December 1929, but lived most of his life in Mellieha (1931-1994). He was educated at the Lyceum, Malta, and studied as an external student of the University of London after becoming a teacher in the Government Primary schools and subsequently at the Lyceum. After five years’ lecturing at the Junior College of the Royal University of Malta, he transferred to the latter institution in 1972 becoming a lecturer in the Department of History. He obtained the rank of Professor in 1989. He retired on reaching the age of 65, becoming Emeritus Professor and subsequently Senior Fellow of the University.

The subject of his Ph.D. thesis was Some Aspects of Slavery in Malta during the rule of the Knights (1971). Struck by the resemblance of the names of several of the Muslim slaves to various place-names in Malta and Gozo, he subsequently investigated the matter further when his participation with FR. Michael Fsadni O.P. in the discovery and publication of Peter Caxaro’s Cantilena (1968, 1968 in English and 1983 in Maltese) encouraged him to have a closer look at the Medieval nomenclature of the Maltese Islands. The result wasPlace-Names of the Maltese Islands ca. 1300-1800 (2000).
During the long gestation of the Place-Names of the Maltese Islands Professor Wettinger published a large number of papers on life in Malta during the late Middle Ages (such as those on farming, clerical concubinage, family honour), as well as several others of a more linguistic nature. In particular, the year 1985 saw the publication of The Jews in Malta during the Late Middle Ages, and the year 1993 when he published Acta Juratorum et Consilii Civitatis et Insulae Malta.

Scholar Wettinger and some of his books. Photo by A. Bishtawi

The following interview was conducted at Professor Wettinger’s residence in St. Julians, Malta in 2011.
© Copyright 2011 by Adel S. Bishtawi.

■ Adel: So, Professor Wettinger, if we really want to study the history of Malta in depth and I am your student, how would you teach me the history of Malta with a specific emphasis on its Arabic past?
✧ Wettinger: I’ll tell you what I’ve done. I don’t just teach flatly. I try to shock people, and then they react. How do I do it? Sometimes I’ve done it almost risking my life: ‘Are we Arabs? We were once, you know, but perhaps not now.’ That’s the way I’d start.
■ Adel: So they’re shocked.
✧ Wettinger: Yes.
■ Adel: Why?
✧ Wettinger: Because in history we have to deal with the past on its own terms, and the terms of history are the documentary evidence, which is the case of all countries, either written or archaeological, or linguistic in this case. The Maltese language is Arabic, not Punic and all that other rubbish. That idea was abandoned about a hundred years ago by academics. Some people are still wondering about Punic, Lebanese and so on because there is a resemblance in the language. Maltese is Arabic with some Italian words, a lot of Sicilian words, and so on. But some of the old-fashioned people still keep the old ideas. They keep on saying ‘but in the language of Jesus Christ’, shem, semsh, or whatever the sun is, is the same as the Maltese ‘xemx’. Yes, but in Arabic (shams) it’s the same sort of thing as well. So, if you look at the documents, the problem is that for about a hundred years there was nobody in Malta (human beings I mean) and that Muslims alone camefor brief visits for a long period: small groups, families perhaps, people catching fish or whatever and goingaway again. And then others came. When did all this happen? Malta has been inhabited with certainty for about (I’m guessing) 8000 or more years. We have no evidence of Palaeolithic culture in Malta. In Sicily there is evidence, in Malta there is none, yet. But Malta is a small place and small countries can pass through all kinds of drastic changes which are not likely to happen in countries of, let us say, normal size. There were periods when the total population of Malta could not have been more than a few thousand, perhaps merely a few hundred. And it would not take much in those days to either kill everybody or expel everyone. And it has been said hundreds of years ago in lots of famous poems that man is the most cruel of all animals. And unfortunately that is true. Now, in 870 AD, give or take a few months, the Arabs came from Tunisia and foughta big campaign lasting for several months. The leader of the Arabs died either in the fighting or throughillness. Then, another leader and another army were sent, apparently from Sicily. Up to then, the island belonged to the Greek Byzantine culture. When the fresh army arrived, the Byzantines fled. Were there any previous inhabitants who went with them? We don’t know.


Palermos’ Cathedral. Photo by A. Bishtawi

■ Adel: What information do we have on this second campaign?
✧ Wettinger: On the second occasion, the Arabs were completely successful and we are told that they followed orders that they must deal harshly with Malta, and they left Malta in desolation. Some Maltese have never accepted that. For them, 2000 years ago, a personage from the Middle East called Paul, nowinvariably referred to as Saint Paul, preached to the Maltese and they became Christian, details which are not in the Acts of the Apostles. Apparently he was credited with healing several inhabitants of their illnesses. Anyhow, he was treated well by the inhabitants of those days and for the last 700 or 800 years, the inhabitants of Malta following the reconquest by the Normans after either 1090-91 or c.1127 (the second invasion) have been saying the Maltese were Christian ever since the time of St. Paul. And they say that is why we have St. Paul’s Bay. That is why there is a church called ‘San Pawl Milqi’, which is bad Arabic. And so on and so forth.
■Adel: What proof do we have that the island of Malta was unpopulated? What historic references are there, and what classical documents can we consult on this issue?
✧ Wettinger: Al-Himyari[1] got his information, most people think, from Al-Bakri.[2] Al-Bakri was writing in the 11th century. He must have got his facts from someone before him; we don’t know who he was. Secondly, a hundred years later, an Arab traveller and geographer called Ibn Hawqal, said that Malta was inhabited by lots of wild donkeys, as well as sheep and goats, and that those who came to round up the donkeys brought provisions with them. This is all he is saying again and again and again: Malta was absolutely empty of people. The donkeys were wild: we still say it in Maltese when we pass through an empty street at night time: twahhaxt’. We use that verb still, with the same meaning! And those coming to round them up brought provisions with them: if there were some people left, they could buy the provisions from these people. And presumably the donkeys would have remained domesticated and not gone wild. And that is a hundred years after the Arabs of Tunisia conquered Malta.[3] Adel: So this was in 970 AD?
Wettinger: Ibn Hawqal’s account has been dated to c. 970 A.D. and he died soon after. If you’ve got a place uninhabited for a hundred years, there is no transmission of culture from one to other. Absolutely not.
■ Adel: So the subsequent re-population of the islands was a fresh start.
✧ Wettinger: Completely.
■ Adel: From when?
✧ Wettinger: From when people started coming. I had told a small group of students when Himyari first became known in Malta, about 20 years ago, that archaeologists should be able to tell whether a hundred or a 180 years passed, because it makes a difference provided the investigatioin is done properly. One of those students apparently got the idea, and arranged an investigation with an Italian archaeologist. And their findings were published in a preliminary report that throughout the 11th century there were people in Malta. In the late 10th century, you have evidence of people even at Mdina, but apparently not before that. Perhaps they will yet find evidence. I can assure you that they made a great effort to find it. The temptation to prove that Malta was inhabited is tremendous. They would have made themselves famous amongst the Maltese. I’ve been told since I saw you last that the research collections in the Museum of Archaeology- not open to the public or even scholars and students without special permission- they have quite a lot of evidence of Islam in Malta. That’s the thing. If they had found evidence of Christianity they would have brought it out and become benefactors of the country.
A beautiful design at Mdina. Photo by A. Bishtawi
■ Adel: What you are saying could have serious implications.
✧ Wettinger: I was told this by my successor at the University. He said he saw an image of a mihrab. I am repeating what somebody I respect told me. My own character is that I don’t trust statements without clear evidence, and I always recommend to my students that they develop their scepticism.

A beautiful design at Mdina. Photo by A. Bishtawi

■ Adel: Where was the mihrab found?
✧ Wettinger: Presumably in Mdina. My informant was shown images of these things on the internet, which are not normally open to inspection.
Adel: I met the rector of the Museum. She told me that they have quite a number of Islamic inscriptions.
✧ Wettinger: I was interviewed by somebody from Zurich, the editor of one of the leftist journals in Switzerland. He was intrigued by my surname: how did the surname Wettinger come to Malta, he asked. And I told him. And then, a few months later, I found part of this interview on the internet. He reported in his periodical- and it was placed on the internet in one of the universities in Germany too- that Malta could be one of the first countries where people prayed to Allah in Europe.
■ Adel: But what is the significance of the use of ‘Allah” in Maltese?
✧ Wettinger: In Maltese, Allah simply means the Almighty, the same as in the Arabic language. And it has been used in Malta since Islam, I have no doubt. But in Malaysia now, there is a big problem. They don’t want Christians to use the word Allah because they say that it is distinctive to Islam. Now, although the Maltese have always insisted that we are not Arabs: that we are Phoenicians mixed with Italians, and so on and so forth. But it looks as if the idea that the Maltese language is Phoenician started in the late 15th century. Before that, Maltese people used to say that we speak the Arabic language. I’ve got a book on that, I should give it to you: Kliem Malti Qadim. And I went into all the details of this. They used to accept that they spoke Arabic, but they said we’ve always been Christian. They had forgotten that for a period there was nobody in the islands, and then for a long period there was Islam only, without any Christians except prisoners of war reduced to the status of slaves who would have to pay a ransom to be freed. But linguistically it was Arabic. And although this didn’t come clearly into my mind until pretty recently, I used to think that not everybody was killed or expelled in the invasion of 870 AD, because it’s not normal. Arabs did not normally put people to the sword, as the Pope nearly said three or four years ago, which was totally wrong. A lot of people must have survived and gradually became Muslims. Why? Because there wassystematic discrimination in favour of Islam: you got better jobs, paid less taxes, and other ‘incentives’. But the language survived. That is the big fact of Maltese history in the Middle Ages.
At Medina – where else? Photo by A. Bishtawi
■ Adel: Now, when we look at the word ‘hadithkom’, with an ‘th’ as in the English word ‘thin’ –[6] ✧ Wettinger: Be careful, because that wouldn’t be very reliable
■ Adel: But then the word in modern Maltese is ‘haditkom’, so it looks to me ‘th’ is standard Arabic and the Arabic used in the past was closer to standard Arabic compared to many words in the Arabic vocabulary component today.
✧ Wettinger: Yes, but in Maltese it has always changed some way or another. For ‘thelj’ (ice), we say ‘silj’. And there are a few other words I wouldn’t know very much because I can never remember these things.
■ Adel: But I was wondering whether the origin of the spoken language in Malta was some sort of standard Arabic that became vernacular with the known Maltese flavour.
✧ Wettinger: Hardly likely, because the people were simple peasants. Some of them must have learned at some time to read the Koran. The last native Muslims in Malta probably died around 1300 and had beenforced to practise Christianity for the last fifty years of their lives. So from about 1249-1250 or thereabouts you had native Islam no longer being practised. But people who learned Arabic in their infancy would survive to old age and around about 1300 they would die off completely. In Arabic, you have two levels of language everywhere. For example, I downloaded from the internet a talk about Qaddafi. He doesn’t always get his message across because more often than not he falls back on the dialect of his tribe (The Qaddadifa), and in Cyrenaica they wouldn’t understand him perfectly. Somewhere or other I have said there was more literacy in Islam than in Christianity. Even among the Jews, there was greater literacy than amongst Christians. Why? Because the Church used to teach Christianity by means of pictures, statues, and so on. And in Islam and Judaism these are prohibited.
■ Adel: Did Arabs come to Malta from Sicily, Tunisia or elsewhere, and what was the nature of their Arabic?
✧ Wettinger: We have to distinguish between the invaders who did so much harm to both of the Maltese Islands and to other places in Sicily. The first group seem to have come from Tunisia. When the second army came, they seem to have come largely from Sicily. After that, the evidence is that they left Malta denuded of its people. I’ve been told by Arabs: don’t worry about that, it doesn’t matter where they came from. No, it is important! The most probable place they came from is Sicily. I am reluctant to accept that. But I have had to accept it.
■ Adel: Why?
✧ Wettinger: Because the idea that the Maltese language came from Sicily was favoured by those in favour ofMalta entering Europe: ‘even our Arabic came from Europe!’ That was part of the propaganda for Malta to enter Europe twenty years ago. However, when I gave the talk about Malta in the high middle ages some months ago I was told: ‘you’re telling us that Malta had plenty of fish, excellent honey, timber for building ships (pinewood yes, but ‘tal-arrar’ is not good for building anything) and so on and so forth. But Ibn Hawqal said they used to get wild donkeys from here, they used to get sheep and goats but there was no market for them abroad. And people told me: ‘but why did it take a hundred years for people to come here?’ They left Malta empty when there were these donkeys on the island. Well, the trouble is that Malta was not the only place that was ravaged in that war of 870. Eight years later, Syracuse, one of the biggest cities in the Western world in those days, was also destroyed. People were expelled or massacred. That was normal in those days. It is still normal in the Balkans, in the 20th century. What is the most likely explanation? When Ibn Hawqal said there was a market for the donkeys but not for the sheep and goats: why? There were no people in the parts of Sicily closest to Malta. It took time for them to recover as well as Malta. Gradually, those places got filled up again, almost entirely by Muslims, and from then onwards Malta not only could find a market for the donkeys but a market for the sheep and goats, as well as the honey. It took time for the whole region to recover.
■ Adel: How do we begin to understand the scope and depth of relations between the Maltese Islands and Sicily?
✧ Wettinger: Let’s start with food. Nowadays, it is easy to transport food from one country to another. But in those days, food like meat, fish and milk would go rotten or sour in a few hours. How could you preservemeat and fish? Large-scale salting. It was almost the only way. So, probably, amongst the earliest occupations of families who stayed in Malta was the production of salt and a few other basic necessities such as pottery, and so on. In addition, we have to remember, that in Eid al-Adha (The Muslim feast of sacrifice) they need a large number of sheep and goats for sacrifice. Where do Saudis get their sheep from nowadays? From Australia. Here we don’t have an ocean. All you’ve got is one day’s journey between Malta and Sicily and so sheep and goats can be taken over to Sicily in a relatively very short time on the hoof so to speak.

At Medina (Malta) – where else? Photo by A. Bishtawi

■ Adel: What about Tunis and other North African areas?
✧ Wettinger: I think that our connections at the time must have been with Sicily, not with Tripoli or Cyrenaica or Crete. But the newcomers from Sicily had themselves or their parents or grand parents had crossed over from Tunisia so it does not matter that much.
■ Adel: You have a 640-page book on Place Names in the Maltese Islands; what attracted you to this laborious filed of research?
✧ Wettinger: When I started my studies, about 50 years ago, I decided to study not the Knights because I was already sick of the Knights and their fortifications, of which we’ve got too many, but the slaves who had not been studied by anyone so far. Not just the poor, but the poorest of the poor, slaves who were prisoners of war in the time of Knights. I started collecting material in the library of Valletta, where there is plenty of stuff some of it going back to the Crusades, but mainly from the time of the Knights. And you know what I discovered? The Muslim slaves sometimes had identical personal names as the medieval place names of Malta and Gozo. You’d be surprised. That valley [next to my apartment (In St Julians)] is called WiedGħomor. What is Għomor? Nowadays nobody knows what it is. The valley has had that name since the Middle Ages: Omar’s valley. Sliema is Salama, a person’s name in the Arab world. There is even a street called Ġagħfar Street, another very common Arab name. And we’ve got Muammar in Malta, I think in Gozo as well.
■ Adel: So you’re saying the valley is named after an Arab or Muslim Maltese person called Omar?
✧ Wettinger: Yes. Not once or twice. Everybody knows that near Birzebugia there is a cave called Ghar Hassan. Everybody says that is the name of an Arab called Hassan. They mean Maltese, but they would never admit he was Maltese as he belonged to the Muslim/Arabic culture. I have discovered hundreds ofsimilar instances. I spent about 30 years collecting those place names. We don’t have documents from the time of the Arabs but, surprisingly, we have a lot of their personal names. If you go through my book on the subject you will even find the name of Halima. Halima is a normal female name in the Arab world, surviving in the place names of Malta when I collected documents. Those documents still exist. And the names were of real people, not taken out of a book.
■ Adel: But why is that significant?
✧ Wettinger: Because the only surviving part of the Arabic culture- apart from the language- are place names, plus some of the surnames: Abdilla, Agius, etc. But these are outnumbered by surnames that seem to be Italian or European. You know that when you bring a new idea along you meet with a certain amount of resistance. There is an Arabic word meaning Naxar, which is used as a person’s name in the wider Arab world. In Malta, it became the name of a village. You know what it means? Transmitter of information. They claim Christianity entered Malta through Naxxar. It should be written with one ‘x’. How did I get to know this?Because in the relatively early documentation I collected Naxxar was invariably written with one ‘x’. Perhaps that explains why the people of that town claim that Christianity was transmitted from there two thousand years ago. That’s popular ethimology. In total I collected 6000 place names in Malta and Gozo.
■ Adel: Do we know what the most important towns in the 10th-11th century were?
✧ Wettinger: There was only one town. What is the first document about that? From Himyari [al-Qazwini mentioned it also]: Mdina. He and al-Qazwini wrote that Mdina was refounded round about 1050 A.D. But some of the meanings of the village names also give an indication of their age.
But now a question: In the village of Ħal-Qormi; what’s the meaning of Qormi?
■ Adel: I am anxious to know.
✧ Wettinger: You are very diplomatic! According to me, Qormi is derived from the Crimea, a person from the Crimea would be al-Qurmi in Arabic. When did Malta have a connection with Crimea? In the early 13th century, the count of Malta was a Genoese. Genoa had colonies in the Crimea. Malta didn’t have much trade with Venice, but it did have close connections with Genoa, at the change of the century from the 12th to the 13th. Furthermore near Qormi, there’s an area called Tal-Handaq. How do you explain this? Handaq usually means a gorge or narrow valley and there is no gorge or narrow valley at Tal-Ħandaq.
■ Adel: In Arabic it means a ‘moat’.
✧ Wettinger: Yes, that’s it, a moat. But there is no moat at Tal-Ħandaq either. How do you explain the place-name? The Muslims in the 10th century took Crete from the Byzantines. They chose a spot to build their town. They surrounded the area with a moat. You know what they called that town? The moat: al-Handaq.Himyari actually calls it Rabat al-Ħandaq. If they came from Malta they [call it] tal-Handaq. ‘Tal’ is perhapsthe most prominent difference between Arabic in Sicily and elsewhere and Maltese: tal or ta is in every phrase, especialy in our place-names. I’ve written an article about it. In later ages, the time of the Knights, people from Crete came to Malta and they were called de Candia. [Regarding] Handaq, there is no ‘h’ in Italian. Instead of writing ‘h’, they had to write a ‘c’, and that was pronounced wrongly as ‘k’: Kandia. Tal-Handaq became Kandia. If you look up the origin of Kandia, it is from Handaq. This is official. And this is a not a coincidence. In the centre of Malta, there is another area called Ta’ Kandia. Obviously somebody who came to Malta at the time the Turks were taking Crete obtained this property in the centre of Malta that has been called ever since then ta’ Kandia. So, on one level, you’ve got Qormi, referring not to Crete but to the other colony of Genoa, Crimea. Then you’ve got tal-Handaq and ta’ Kandia. And one of the earliest conquests of the Count of Malta was precisely that of some place in Crete. It shows that there is a surprising amount ofhistorical information in our local place names and the personal nicknames of people who came to Malta from elsewhere. One other thing I can tell you is this: there are several places, I’ve found about ten of them, called Nigret. There are all kinds of meanings to Nigret, all to do with black. I said this is Italian: Nigretto, and the Arabic plural showing how old it is, Ingieret, That’s what we call a broken plural in Arabic and Maltese.
scholar and some of his books. Photo by A. Bishtawi
■ Adel: So they applied the Arabic suffixes of forming plurals to a non-Arabic word?
✧ Wettinger: Yes, that’s not unusual. We can say that Qormi was one of the oldest villages, going back perhaps to the 13th century. That’s old enough. Then you’ve got others like Imqabba, to do with domes. Again that would be pretty early, as well.
■ Adel: What about Mellieha
✧ Wettinger: This is something else. People from Mellieha have always said that Mellieha’s name has something to do with salt or honey. Salt from Arabic, honey from Greek. And I would tell them: would you mind deciding which one, this or that? Now I can ask them: explain, how can you have a Greek name, and a hundred years without people in Malta? So it’s decided for me now, it’s salt and where salt is produced or obtained. And in the old maps you find the place name saline vecchie: old salt pans. Where were those? At the reserve for birds, down near the sands.
■ Adel: Salina Bay?
✧ Wettinger: That’s another one because although Mellieha was the original word in Arabic, in Maltese the word salina tended to come in and take its place. In Mellieha it didn’t succeed. In the other bay near Qawra, the change happened. Nobody says Mellieha tal-Qawra. Everybody says Salina. But in my book on place names, you find several other Melliehas. There’s a Mellieha at Zonqor and at Benghaisa, where there is theFreeport. But if you go to Qawra you will find the same type of old salt pans, dug into the rock next to the sea. And there were the same similar salt pans in Gozo.
■ Adel: Can we talk about Sicily’s relations with Malta and vice versa?
✧ Wettinger: Now, in Sicily’s history is parallel to that of Malta in some ways, but not completely. In Malta there seems to have been a complete change of people, in or around the year 870 AD. In Sicily there was tremendous disturbance but not a complete change. A lot of people in Sicily survived, and many became Muslims for some time, and a lot of those who did not remain in Sicily went to neighbouring countries like Calabria, and when Sicily was reconquered by the Normans some of their descendants came back. Other people went to Sicily from other parts of Italy, like the Lombards. Sicily therefore suffered two extensive but incomplete changes of population. And therefore in Sicily you get a process by which Arabic spread everywhere for some time, then it was gradually squeezed out as is happening to the Palestinians in the West Bank today. When the Christians went back to Sicily they founded colonies around centres of Islam and squeezed these communities away, until they left or got assimilated. Some of the Muslim communities took to the mountains and began a guerrilla war, intifadas, and other acts of resistance and defiance.
■ Adel: When was that?
✧ Wettinger: Not in the time of the early Norman conquerors. The first two Norman Rogers followed a policy of almost surprising tolerance.[7] But from around the middle years of the 12th century, they became harsh and things turned sour. Very often Norman rulers accepted ex-Muslims as ministers, but very often too such ex-Muslims also fell out of favour and were imprisoned and executed as well. When they took to rebellion, they went into the mountains in Sicily and built castles and resisted. And there was guerrilla warfare for generations.
■ Adel: 13th century?
✧ Wettinger: Late 12th and early 13th century during the last years of the Normans and the time of the Swabians, mainly. And then the few that were left were expelled by the Angevins. Those who were not massacred- and there must have been mutual massacres- ended up in exile in Muslim countries, mainly in Tunisia but also in Egypt, presumably in Andalucia, and other areas. Others were exiled to Lucera in Southern Italy.
■ Adel: Why Lucera?
✧ Wettinger: Emperor Frederick II had a castle in Lucera and he established a settlement of prisoners of war, a kind of concentration camp. They were permitted to keep their religion, they became mercenaries fighting against the armies of the Pope, and at some stage Muslims from Malta were sent there.
■ Adel: As a punishment or to re-enforce the town?
✧ Wettinger: The historian Ibn Khaldun tells us that about the year 1249, when Abu Zaccaria, the sultan of Tunisia, died the agreement that existed between Tunisia and Frederick came to an end, and Muslims in Sicily staged a rebellion. Ibn Khaldun said that the tyrant of Sicily crossed over to Malta and sent the surviving Muslims in Malta to join their co-religionists, namely in Lucera.[8] Historians have said we know that Frederick never came to Malta, there was some mistake. And some have said the date must be in the 1220s, not 1249. But there is another historian, Frenchman Henri Bresc,[9] who says there were still some Muslims left certainly in Sicily and even in Malta, apparently, who may have caused trouble after 1250 and had to be dealt with. With regards to Malta, we’ve got other evidence: in an official report in 1241 it was recorded that Malta had around 800 families of Muslims, Gozo around 200, and so on and so forth.[10] One important thing is this: nowadays we give great importance to race. The world nowadays is racist, we can say. In the Middle Ages people gave importance to religion. The expulsion was not that of a race but of a religion. The Muslims were expelled. If they said they were Christian they could stay here and keep their land. And that is why Malta kept apparently the majority of its people speaking some type of Arabic. In Sicily it was different. The development was more harsh. There was much more fighting and warfare and Islam was not only expelled but people were replaced with those from Calabria and other parts of Italy. In Malta, apparently, things were not as bad as that. Some were expelled- you meet some Maltese in Lucera as late as 1300- but most of the 6000 place names in my book are Arabic. Those that are not Arabic are Sicilian post-Arabic. And that is the difference. Historians like Bresc like comparing Malta with Pantelleria. Pantelleria in the late Middle Ages had a curious arrangement. Pantelleria was supposed to be a condominium between Tunisia and Sicily. The Muslims there survived until the 15th century, but Muslims crossed over from Tunisia and told them: aren’t you ashamed to accept Christian rule? Why don’t you come back to Tunisia and resume living as Muslims as you should do. And they did just that. Pantelleria lost all its Arabic speakers. Pantellerians today speak some kind of Italian, with a lot of Arabic words in it.
■ Adel: Is this dialect specific to Pantelleria?
✧ Wettinger: Yes.
■ Adel: How do you describe the legacy of Arabic and Islam in Sicily?
✧ Wettinger: You’ve got about two or three hundred words of Arabic derivation in the Sicilian dialect, but some people would give you different statistics. Remember that Sicily is a biggish place and you’ve got different dialects, not just one. There used to be a lot of argumentation as to whether Greek in Sicily survived through the Arabic period or whether you had Italian in Sicily before the Arabs. Perhaps for nationalistic reasons, Sicilians prefer to say they had Italian before the Arabs. German scholars say you didn’t have much evidence of Italian or the Italian dialect in Sicily before the Arabs. You had a lot of Greek around Messina, from Messina up to Cefalu and then almost down to Catania. That triangle was largely Greek.
■ Adel: By Greek, do we mean common not classical Greek?
✧ Wettinger: It is not exactly clear. Under the Normans, Greek culture spread at first. According to Bresc, who was a scholar and is still alive, those Muslims who were prevailed on to become Christian preferred the Greek form of Christianity, not the Latin form, because that was the religion that dominated over them, while the Greeks were subjects like themselves to some extent. He may be right or not, there is a lot of argument about that. For some time Greek monasticism spread in Sicily. Professor Buhagiar in Malta has been trying to prove that the same thing happened in Malta but he is finding it difficult to prove. For one thing, he blundered by saying that the 12 place names I found called ‘deir’served as centres during the reappearance of Christianity in Malta. In the Arabic world, ‘deir’ means a monastery or monastic type building. But if you study the matter very carefully you find there are problems. I studied the problem in 1975. The deir place names had no connection with religion. In fact and there seems to have been a slight variance in the pronunciation of deir of a locality not connected with monasticism. It’s a farmhouse. And to have 12 farmhouses at the beginning when you had so many sheep and goats even before there were people is normal. I have it from Buhagiar himself that one of the best qualified professors who knows Arabic told him that I was was correct on that one. I actually found citations in late medieval dictionaries in Syria where deir spelled in a particular way with the ‘y’ [sound] doubled meant a farmhouse. Christianity must have entered Malta some other way, perhaps through Greek clerical influence but not in the deir localities. Only one deir locality in Malta has got some iconography that is Christian: the deir at Rabat. The others don’t have any. Christianity seems to have entered gradually, we don’t have details. The cathedral in Malta is first mentioned in 1299, as late as that.
■ Adel: And in Sicily?
✧ Wettinger: In Sicily we’ve got a lot of other details. The fight with Islam there was harsher and bloodier. Islam was expelled from Sicily but a lot of the Muslims remained in disguise as you can find out by reading the accounts of Andalusian traveller Ibn Jubair. When his ship approached Messina it ran aground and he had to be saved. He asked the young man rowing the boat to the shore: what’s that tattoo behind your ear? We believers, that is Muslims, he said, live in Sicily but we cannot practise Islam openly and that’s a sign that my religion is Islam.[11]

Gozo (Malta). Commissioned photo.

■ Adel: Some say the core Sicilian language is Latin or Greek but I have read in Arabic sources that it was a dialect of Arabic that became extinct.
✧Wettinger: The Arabic dialect of Sicily died out in the late middle ages. When we talk of the Sicilian dialectnowadays we are talking of a dialect of Latin origin or a series of such dialects. When Italy was united a hundred and forty or fifty years ago, only a couple of million Italians spoke Italian. They all had their own provincial dialect. They could hardly understand each other, the same way Arabs of Tunisia and Iraq cannot understand each other’s local dialects. Now, owing to compulsory education and –
■ Adel: And Jazeera.
✧ Wettinger: And Jazeera, yes.
■ Adel: Al Jazeera channel is forcing lots of Arabs to speak standard Arabic and it is becoming widespread.
✧ Wettinger: In Malta there is a bit of that. Malta is very small and you hardly understand this sort of thing on that scale. Every village used to have a slight difference in pronunciation. For example, I used to say ‘giebu’. And somebody told me that that is the Mellieha dialect, you should say ‘jabu’.
■ Adel: From your study of history in modern times, do you think we are becoming fairer to the Arab and Islamic past in places like Sicily and Malta or are we restructuring history to suit certain conceptions?
✧ Wettinger: I would say it is better, but with throwbacks. There would be a political situation that would suddenly push the clock back. It’s not consistently in one direction.
■ Adel: But it is fairer, generally, is this what you mean?
✧ Wettinger: A little bit, yes. But it depends who you are talking to: the class of people. For example, in Malta no one has any real interest in Arabic poetry or literature, and so on. We’ve got people who know Arabic for commercial reasons but who have no interest in the culture.
■ Adel: But then you have certain sounds for negation that are typically Arab.
✧ Wettinger: Yes, there are certain signs. The grammar is almost entirely of Arabic origin. I used to be hopeful but sometimes politics comes into the picture. For example, in one case one of my colleagues brought forward the idea that Gozo remained Christian for hundreds of years and that Malta was Muslim. And that is rubbish. Pure rubbish. And he was supported by an ex-President of Malta, Ugo Mifsud Bonnici (1994 to 1999), who you might have met. Normally he is a very cultured person, but on religion his mentality is that of the 17th century, not even the 18th century.


■ Adel: If you had the chance to write a new book, what would it be about?
✧ Wettinger: If I had the energy and someone to do all the hard work, like typing, the book would be about Malta in the Middle Ages with emphasis on the way the island developed, culturally as well as in other ways. I think this is the biggest lack we have. It would have to be done with a proper understanding of the contribution both of Christianity and of Islam, both of European culture and of Arabic culture.[12] Perhaps, also Jewish culture. Those poems in Judeo-Arabic which occupied my interest for a couple of years have got a language almost identical to the Cantilena. When I read them- they were transcribed by a scholar in 1949- I decided it had to be identified with the language of the Jews in Sicily not with the Eastern Maghrib, that is Tunisia. And now, someone is publishing one of my last papers concerning the children of Pietru Caxaru. All that bla bla bla, that he wrote a love poem: be careful. We know he had at least four children from his concubine. We know her name. I found a couple of pages about her. She was apparently quite a character. While attending a sermon about St. Paul in the church of Rabat, the women around her heard her saying, what a shame they sent us this parish priest, he is a drunk, and so on. Proceedings began against her. And that parish priest was the principal priest in all of Malta. She risked being burnt alive. I’m sure she was protected by her master/lover – Pietru herself. I made a few very small changes in one of the Judaeo-Arabic poems, a genuine love poem, and it is being published as if it were a Maltese fifteenth century short love song.
■ Adel: Why is it that Sicilian authorities today would like to emphasise the Arab and Islamic heritage of Sicily and they’re making films and seminars about Arab poetry and Muslim heritage, but not in Malta.
✧ Wettinger: Here in Malta in certain respects we are still living in the Middle Ages, nearly. People like Ugo Mifsud Bonnici have got a fixation on these things, but he’s not alone. In addition, most of these people are nationalists, in local politics, and they are all involved together. But I must also say not all nationalists have the same mental make-up. Stanley Fiurini, who brought forward his idea, started a campaign of lectures two years ago held in the Bishop’s Curia at Floriana, getting the religious segment of the people to hear him. When the book was presented, he got the presentation to be presided over by whom? By Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, getting the sympathy of right-wing politicians. That’s what I won’t forgive him for. He didn’t do it the proper academic way.
■ Adel: Would you like to add anything before we conclude?
✧ Wettinger: I can say this: there is an idea amongst certain people that Malta would have started speaking Italian if the Knights didn’t take Malta. I am not sure I would agree. Malta was under Sicilian rule for hundreds of years and the Maltese language survived, and that’s all I can say.
■ Adel: Topically speaking, can you comment on what’s going on now in the Arab world, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya? How do you see it: is it a true democratic drive? Is it likely to change some perceptions?
✧ Wettinger: There seems to be a difference between these movements in the western part of the Islamic world with fundamentalist moves normally. There is more laicism in these movements than in what we have got used to amongst the fundamentalists. Mind you, I know that even in Islam you have had people that were relatively and sometimes surprisingly liberal. I’ve got a book by somebody called Ali, he lived in the 1920s before there was a Pakistan and he was surprisingly liberal. You’ve had the same sorts of people in Tunisia and Egypt was well. But modern fundamentalism is not like that, not liberal, and that makes me a little bit downhearted. I’m not sure how we’re going to end. In Malta we were fundamentalists: not Muslims, but really we were still Muslims.

[1] Himyari. Mohammed Bin Abdul al-Munim, Al-Roudh al-Mitar fi Khbar al-Aqtar. Al-Himyari died 1495 AD.

See also Malta 870-1054 – Al-Himyari’s Account by Joseph M. Brincat. The famous account of Al-Himyari is this:

جزيرة من الجزائر التي تلي جزيرة صقلية، وهي في القبلة من مسينة بينها وبين صقلية مجرى واحد، وكانت قبل هذا للمسلمين، وفيها مراس منشأة للسفن، وأشجارها الصنوبر والعرعر والزيتون، وطولها ثلاثون ميلاً، وفيها مدينة من بنيان الأول وكان يسكنها الروم. وغزاها خلف الخادم مولى زيادة الله بن إبراهيم عند قيام أبي عبد الله محمد بن أحمد ابن أخي زيادة الله على يد أحمد بن عمر بن عبد الله بن الأغلب، فهو الذي شقي في أمرها، وخلف هذا هو المعروف ببناء المساجد والقناطر والمواجل، فحاصرها ومات وهو محاصر لها، فكتبوا إلى أبي عبد الله بوفاته، فكتب أبو عبد الله إلى عامله بجزيرة صقلية، وهو محمد بن خفاجة، أن يبعث إليهم والياً، فبعث إليهم سوادة بن محمد، ففتحوا حصن مالطة، وظفروا بملكها عمروس أسيراً، فهدموا حصنها وغنموا وسبوا ما عجزوا عن حمله، وحمل لأحمد من كنائس مالطة ما بنى به قصره الذي بسوسة داخلاً في البحر، والمسلك إليه على قنطرة وكان ذلك سنة خمس وخمسين ومائتين فبقيت بعد ذلك جزيرة مالطة خربة غير آهلة، وإنما كان يدخلها النشاءون للسفن، فإن العود فيها أمكن ما يكون، والصيادون للحوت لكثرته في سواحلها وطيبه، والشائرون للعسل فإنه أكثر شيء هناك. فلما كان بعد الأربعين والأربعمائة من الهجرة عمرها المسلمون، وبنوا مدينتها، ثم عادت أتم مما كانت عليه، فغزاها الروم سنة خمس وأربعين وأربعمائة في مراكب كثيرة وعدد، فحصروا المسلمين في المدينة واشتد الحصار عليهم وطمعوا فيهم، وسألهم المسلمون الأمان فأبوا إلا على النساء والأموال، فأحصى المسلمون عدد المقاتلة من أنفسهم فوجدوهم نحو أربعمائة، ثم أحصوا عبيدهم فوجدوهم أكثر عدداً منهم، فجمعوهم وقالوا لهم: إنكم إن ناصحتمونا في قتال عدونا وبلغتم من ذلك مبلغاً وانتهيتم حيث انتهينا، فأنتم أحرار، نلحقكم بأنفسنا وننكحكم بناتنا ونشارككم أموالنا، وإن أنتم توانيتم وخذلتمونا لحقكم من السباء والرق ما يلحقنا، وكنتم أشد حالاً منا، لأن أحدنا قد يفاديه حميمه، ويخلصه من الأسر وليه، ويتمالأ على استنقاذه جماعته، فوعد العبيد من أنفسهم بأكثر مما ظنوا بهم، ووجدوهم إلى مناجزة عدوهم أسرع منهم، فلما أصبح القوم من اليوم الثاني غاداهم الروم على عادتهم، وقد طمعوا ذلك اليوم في التغلب عليهم وأسرهم، والمسلمون قد استعدوا في أكمل عدة للقائهم، وأصبحوا على بصيرة في مناجزتم، واستنصروا الله عز وجل عليهم، فزحفوا وثاروا نحوهم دعساً بالرماح وضرباً بالسيوف غير هائبين ولا معرجين، واثقين بإحدى الحسنيين من الظفر العاجل أو الفوز الآجل، فأمدهم الله تعالى بالنصر، وأفرغ عليهم الصبر، وقذف في قلوب أعدائهم الرعب، فولوا منهزمين لا يلوون، واستأصل القتل أكثرهم، واستولى المسلمون على مراكبهم فما أفل

Image credit: Sam B.

About the author

Adel Bishtawi

Adel S (Said) Bishtawi was born in Nazareth, Palestine, 1945. He read English Literature at Damascus University, attended short courses of familiarisation of languages including Latin, German and Russian, and attended a course in Linguistics at the Central London Polytechnic.

Adel published more than 20 books in both English and Arabic. the last of which is Only When Desire Screams co-authored by Selvi Sado. A journalist since the late 1960s, he became Front Page Editor of Al Arab Newspaper (London), the first pan Arab Newspaper launched in Europe. In 1978, he joined Jihad Al Khazin in launching Asharq Al Awsat Newspaper (London) as Business and Supplements Editor. In 1980, he was appointed Central Managing Editor of the Emirates News Agency in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. In 1988, he joined Jamil Mrowa (who later re-launched the Daily Star in Beirut in 1996) in London for the re-launch of Al Hayat Newspaper and continued under the editorship of Jihad Al Khazin until he left in April 2001 to dedicate what is left of his time to literary and historical writing. as well as investigating origins by means of historical and etymological linguistics.

Adel produced and co-produced a number of TV documentaries. He produced, directed and wrote “Muslims along the Silk Road”, a five part-60-minutes-each documentary tracing Muslim culture and heritage and the legacy of Muslim pioneers and merchants along the Silk Road starting from China.

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