The modern name of “Malta” derives from “Malitah” which was the Arabic corruption of the classic Graeco-Roman “Melita”. Melita was the name of both the island and its city: names which eventually changed to “Malta” for the island and “Mdina” for the ancient Punico-Roman city which originally covered not only present day Mdina but almost one half of its suburb of Rabat too, all the way to St.Paul’s Church. The name “Mdina” itself derives from the Arabic word “Medina” which simply means “the City”.
Given that humanity’s presence in Malta extended to at least three thousand years before the era of Graeco-Roman influence, it is only natural to speculate on what the island’s name was in such earlier times. What the historic and prehistoric evidence tells us is that Malta was first inhabited by the prehistoric migrants from Sicily who eventually developed the highly sophisticated megalithic temple culture which gave the world its first complex monuments built in stone. After these people mysteriously and inexplicably died out, they were replaced by a Bronze-Age prehistoric people, also migrating from Sicily, who were more warlike and defensive in nature as evidenced by the fortified remains of the Bronze Age Village at Borg in-Nadur in Birzebbuga.
Maltese prehistory (ie that period of human existence before writing was invented), gave way to historical times and their written records with the arrival of the Phoenicians; those great traders who originated from modern-day Lebanon and whose trading network extended beyond the Straits of Gibraltar to Britain in the north and West Africa in the south. The Phoenicians’ most important contribution to global civilisation was the alphabet which used letters representing sounds instead of the more cumbersome symbols and pictograms to denote writing used previously by more ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians with their hieroglyphics and the Sumerians with their cuneiform. The Phoenicians wrote from right to left as in modern day Arabic.
The Phoenician alphabet revolutionised writing and from it evolved all the major alphabets of the ancient and classical world: Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and eventually Cyrillic. Quite an achievement for a small people who achieved fame by establishing themselves as the used-car salesmen of the Mediterranean!
But lets get back to Malta. So the Phoenicians arrived here with their trade and their alphabet around 800BC and eventually Malta’s lot fell under the influence of their great colony of Carthage in modern day Tunisia. By this time, coins were introduced for the first time in Malta and the historical findings suggest that these coins were the same as the ones used within the Phoenician colonies. The Phoenicians populated the Maltese Islands and ruled for some 600 years and such was their influence that the Maltese continued to speak their language for hundreds of years after the Roman conquest of 218BC, so much so that the Apostle Luke, writing about St. Paul’s shipwreck in Malta in the Bible’s Acts of the Apostles in 60AD describes the Maltese as “barbarians”: a description not because of their savagery but merely to highlight the fact that they spoke neither Latin nor Greek.
And here comes the subject of this story, which, you will recollect, deals with Malta’s original name as told by an ancient coin. While all of the first coins used in Malta were imported varieties, there was a very short period of about 200 years between 212BC and 15BC, when Malta and Gozo were allowed by the Romans to mint their own bronze coins: a privilege given to Roman municipia in Sicily under whose administrative control the Maltese Islands lay.
During this period around twelve different types of coins were minted, including one specifically by the Island of Gozo suggesting that the smaller island possessed a level of autonomy from Malta. Eventually this practice was discontinued as the evolution of Rome from a Republic to an Empire under the Caesars led to a single, uniform coinage throughout the whole Empire. The different types of coins feature the name of Malta or Gozo either in Greek or Latin but there are also a few which feature Malta’s name in Punic, the language of the Phoenicians.
The pictures in this post, of a Maltese triens coin from 85BC, show a sacrificial tripod on the reverse side, and, most importantly, Malta’s original Phoenician name as represented by the three characters; which represent the Phoenician letters (from right to left) aleph, nun and nun or A, N and N. The letters are reasonably visible in the photos.
The sound of the three letters, which signify Malta’s original and older name from the time of the Phoenicians, has been differently interpreted as “Ann” or “Ghonan” given that the Phoenician alphabet did not have vowels but merely consonants like the modern Arabic alphabet. The best way to represent the word would be ‘nn. This word best translates into “ship” or “vessel” and has been tentatively attributed to the ship-like profile of the Maltese Islands as viewed from the distance by an approaching ship. The Hebrew word for ship which also features a similar root is oni.
Malta and Melita but also ‘nn or Ghonan. One wonders what other names this little island had before writing was invented when the temple builders and their Bronze-age successors lived here. A question which will probably go unresolved forever given that there are no more fantastic coins inscribed with ancient alphabets waiting to be discovered
Malta Numismatic Society