Steven Plaut: The Maltese Yad — Jewish Slaves in 12th Century Malta

Source: Jewish Press, 4-28-11

It was the last slave prison and slave market in Europe. The United States was already an independent country and France was in the tumult of revolution. The Mediterranean island of Malta was the destination for the slaves snatched off of merchant ships by an order of Crusader Knights that had first been set up in Jerusalem in the 12th century.

And the slaves in question were Jews.

The slaves were unloaded at the Valletta Quay even today still known as “Jews’ Sally Port.” The city was the headquarters built after the Great Siege by the Order of the Knights of St. John, better known as the Hospitallers. For the more than two centuries its slave market operated, the main purpose was to extort ransom money from Jewish communities in Europe in exchange for the release of the hostages. Some captives were used as galley slaves. For some fortunate others it was really “slavery lite,” as they were allowed to leave prison during daylight hours to hold jobs or even engage in commerce.

Malta is one of the more remarkable places on earth. It contains antiquities a thousand years older than the pyramids of Egypt. Long before humans discovered metal, its earliest inhabitants were carving massive structures out of solid rock, some displaying amazingly modern thinking about architecture. Its vegetation and landscape look like the Galilee, while its architecture is simply breathtaking. Its 16th century fortifications were so powerful that they later served to defend British and Maltese forces from German and Italian assaults during World War II.

Malta’s devoutly Catholic population speaks a dialect of Tunisian Arabic (with Phoenician, Italian, French and English words mixed in). The Maltese like to think of themselves as the world’s last surviving Phoenicians, kin of Hannibal and King Hiram of Tyre. Speakers of Hebrew and Arabic can make sense of many Maltese words. Malta is never mentioned by name in the Bible. The word “Malta” is Phoenician but is from the same root as the Hebrew cognate word for “taking refuge.” The Apostle Paul found himself shipwrecked there, making Malta long a center of interest for the Christian world.

Jews first lived in Malta in the days when it was still a Carthaginian colony. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Sicilians all came and left. Eventually the islands fell under Spanish rule. The Jews of Malta then met the same fate as the Jews of Spain, expelled the year Columbus reached the Americas.

One of the most famous Jewish residents of Malta was Avraham ben Shmuel Abulafia, a 13th-century Spanish kabbalist rabbi. A bizarre character, he dreamed of forging a monotheistic unification of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He managed to arrange for an audience with the pope to lay out the merits of his plan. The pope was horrified and ordered Abulafia burned at the stake. But the pope died suddenly just before the sentence was to be carried out, and the condemned man was released.

Abulafia spent the last two decades of his life as a hermit, evidently living in caves on the barren and still all-but-deserted island of Comino, just off the coast of the main Maltese island. There he wrote several books on Kabbalah, philosophy and grammar.

Abulafia’s career is of surprising contemporary relevance. The newest addition to the Maltese Jewish community is an old man known by all simply as “The Admor.” He claims to be a direct personal descendent of the hermit kabbalist of Malta. He plans to convert Abulafia’s “home” on Comino into a site for world Jewish pilgrimage….READ MORE

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1 Comment

  1. Josette Briffa

     /  March 10, 2012

    As a Maltese, I found the above extremely interesting and highly informative. There is so much evidence in Malta to it’s Jewish ancestry, this is found is Maltese surnames, street names, and also villages. Thank you for sharing the above information!

    Reply

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