Malta and Tunisia, shared histories and common heritage

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If we go back in time, ancient writers say that a King of Malta called Battus was on good terms with Queen Elyssa of Carthage. When she died in a fire, her sister, Anna found refuge in Malta, sheltered by this king.

St Joseph Church in Houmt el-Souk, in Djerba.

In fact, it is as a Phoenician colony that Malta appears in written history. Diodorus of Sicily is the first to mention the islands of Malta and Gozo. They offered Phoenician traders an ideal stopover on the road to Carthage, Djerba or Motyé, well away from eastern Sicily then colonized by the Greeks.

This explains how Malta later passed into the hands of Carthage, before submitting to Roman rule.

Children playing in a typical local street.Children playing in a typical local street.

Malta, Djerba, Kerkennah … island stories

Malta has a lot in common with the large Tunisian islands, starting with its old name, Melita, which we find in our two Mellita from Djerba and Kerkennah but also in other Mediterranean islands like Mljet (or Meleda) in Croatia . The medieval history of these islands has often crossed. Malta and Djerba have long had the reputation of being “haunts of pirates”.

The islands remained, for many centuries, the stake of battles between rival powers: Aragonese against Hafsids, then Spaniards against Ottomans.

Social and cultural dynamics in Tunisia

A considerable human and cultural mixing took place in the first half of the 20th century in Tunisia and the Maltese community in Tunisia actively contributed to the material and immaterial enrichment of the country.

Old Carthage CurrencyOld Carthage Currency

From Tunis to Djerba via Cap Bon, Sousse and Sfax, we could easily identify some Maltese family names: Abelto, Barbara, Bartolo, Bastianini, Bondin, Borg, Briffa, Cacchia, Caruana Damato, Debono, Ellul, Farrugia , Fenech, Gili, Gutilla, Lupo, Micallef, Montalano, Muniglia, Phillipi, Spiteri, Vella, Vitale, Xuereb, Zammit and Zarb.

They were doctors, lawyers, teachers, architects, traders, entrepreneurs, bar owners, breeders, fishermen … Between 1926 and 1936, nearly 3.7% of the Maltese population in Tunis consisted of doctors, architects, pharmacists and lawyers. .

It is as a Phoenician colony that Malta appears in written history

JG Ellul, architect of the famous Villa Boublil, designed in an art deco style in the heart of the Tunis-Belvédère district, was the grandson of a Maltese immigrant who arrived in Tunisia around 1850.

The Maltese first landed at Ghar El Melah (Porto Farina) located in the north of the country and Djerba in the south to gradually and calmly devote themselves to breeding and sponge fishing activities.

The traditional Maltese boats or luzzi, which today characterize the Phoenician port of Marsaxlokk, are reminiscent of the feluccas or flûka found in Tunisian fishing villages.

Local fishermenLocal fishermen

The fishermen are called sayeda or bahara in the Tunisian language or sajjieda in Maltese and the marine know-how and the ancestral fishing techniques are practically the same.

In Djerba, the Maltese, more numerous than the other Europeans, gathered around Fondouk al-Malti. They built the Saint-Joseph church in Houmt el-Souk, in the beautiful baroque style which characterizes their own Catholic churches, then very appreciated by the community.

A local man wearing a traditional hat.A local man wearing a traditional hat.

The Maltese represented more than half of the Christians settled in Tunisia and up to three quarters in some coastal towns. They easily mingled with the Tunisians thanks to their linguistic proximity. Presumably, the Maltese language is originally a Tunisian dialect.

In Malta, as in Djerba, water is scarce and precious, so much so that seawater desalination plants are needed. And, in the traditional farms called razzett, the upstairs rooms are called għorfa – as in the menzels of Djerba – a family house or an agricultural space including all agricultural and livestock activities and the houch or the house of the family who lives and works there.

Abdellatif Taboubi is an expert in Mediterranean heritage and cultural tourism. He contributed to the implementation of projects funded by the Euromed Heritage IV program, mainly on approaches related to shared heritage as well as to the formulation of the EU Tounes Wejhatouna 2019-2025 program, a support program for the diversification of tourism, the development of crafts. and the enhancement of cultural heritage.

Thanks

The article was written in collaboration with Ray Bondin, whom the author met in 2009 at the University of Florence during the launch meeting of the Euromed Heritage program – Mare Nostrum project.

A panoramic view of CarthageA panoramic view of Carthage
Handcrafted jewelry from TunisiaHandcrafted jewelry from Tunisia

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