Politics & Society

Turning the Key to Maltese Identity

The blue waters surrounding the Maltese archipelago run as deep as the nation’s multicultural roots. Located approximately 60 miles from the southern coast of Sicily and 186 miles from the northern coast of Libya, Malta is commonly referred to as the stepping stone between the European and African continents. While it is the smallest member of the European Union in both population and physical size, the island has an intriguing and turbulent history that has impacted its cultural identity.

Malta, a myriad of multiculturalism

The archipelago reflects a multicultural aesthetic blend of the nations that have influenced it over its 7,000-year history. Due to its position in the heart of the Mediterranean, Malta was viewed as a strategic location by colonial empires seeking to expand their military and economic powers. This led to the establishment of naval bases and trading seaports on the Maltese islands. Throughout the nation’s history, a long list of conquerors battled for control. The extensive list includes the Phoenicians, Romans, Knights of St. John, French, Arabians, Spanish, Italians, and the British. Although the archipelago gained its independence in 1964, Maltese culture remains heavily impacted through linguistics, food, art, music, religion, and even allegiance in European sporting events.

While walking around the quaint streets of Malta’s capital city, Valletta, the multicultural influence can be spotted easily. Cars drive on the left side of the road, which was introduced while Malta was a British colony. Delicious Arabic-inspired pastries filled with almonds and spices can be purchased on every street corner. Perhaps most notably, the nation boasts no less than 359 churches, which were heavily influenced by the Roman Catholics — a legacy that lives to this day with 98% of Maltese citizens identifying as Catholic. The Maltese language itself is a prime example of this blend, belonging to the Semitic language family and made up of Arabic, French, and Italian blended together.

An intriguing identity

When asked about their cultural identity, most Maltese agree that in many ways the small nation is still developing and learning to understand its own independent character. Due to its complicated past shaped by outside influences, it can be difficult for citizens to pinpoint what makes them uniquely Maltese. One exception and commonly described attribute among the Maltese is their willingness to be assertive and to identify with a cause — which often sparks a competitive spirit across the archipelago. There is even a designated Maltese term, “pika”, which means friendly neighborhood rivalry. George Cassar, a tourism and culture professor from the University of Malta, describes pika as “the need to outdo one's rival with an attitude that seems to say this town is not big enough for us both.”

The concept of pika can be seen during political debates between Malta’s two main political groups, the labor and nationalist parties. It is also sparked during international soccer tournaments where citizens will root for either England or Italy. During the 2020 Euro Cup final between the two nations, police were asked to stand by to provide crowd control, and stationed outside of restaurants and pubs broadcasting the game. Perhaps the best example is during the annual summer festival season where local communes compete with one another to light up the sky with the most impressive fireworks display. The celebrations often get rowdy and in 2018 a dispute among rivals even ended in court. The Times of Malta reported that the event got out of hand when a man hit another man from a neighboring town over the head with a flower pot. Another 2018 festival incident included a banner being hung on a street that separated two rival communities. The banner had a picture of the Virgin Mary and read, “Ours it the most beautiful statue. Yours is the ugliest in Malta.”

The origins of “pika” are still widely unknown; it can potentially be traced back to the country’s small geographic size or centuries of colonization with the inability to become independent, or maybe both. What is clear is the intense desire of the Maltese to associate with a cultural group and to identify with its causes. Perhaps it stems from uncertainty around what exactly Maltese identity means.

A local graphic designer and art enthusiast has found a creative way to articulate what being Maltese means to her. Lisa Gwen uses artistic elements found around the islands as a way to showcase Maltese identity.

Due to its complicated past shaped by outside influences, it can be difficult for citizens to pinpoint what makes them uniquely Maltese.

When a door opens…

While meandering around the curved and narrow streets of Malta, one of the first things visitors will notice are the vibrant front doors. The cobblestoned streets feature a panoply of doors which gives them an inviting character. Gwen explains that a front door is an extension of one’s personality. They are generally painted bright colors such as yellow, red, and green. Some doors are ornate and personalized to match their inhabitants’ character and lifestyle traits. Their conditions vary, as some boast fresh coats of paint, while others have been abandoned to chip away over the years. Each one seems to have its own unique story.

Fishermen often paint their doors blue, as a symbol of long days spent floating on the Mediterranean Sea.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in 2017, Gwen was looking through the pictures on her phone when she realized how many of them were images of Maltese front doors she had captured while walking around. She created an Instagram account and has been documenting Malta door by door ever since. On her aesthetically curated page, @MaltaDoors, Gwen has over 23.6K followers and more than 1,900 posts documenting the unique facades. On a sunny day, Gwen enjoys winding down quaint streets and playing tourist in her own city, always ready to snap a photo. When posting pictures, she purposely leaves out the location of each door because she wants to encourage her followers to be curious and to explore the architectural delights of the country. Gwen’s artistic initiative has not only attracted the interest of travel and art enthusiasts from around the world, it has also popularized Maltese doors as a symbol of identity. While the doors are unique to Malta, they feature bits and pieces of the cultures that used to rule the nation, such as Sicilian tiles, North African style balconies, and lumber brought over from England during British rule.

In Gwen’s eyes, Malta is “door proud”. She explains that Maltese people, and humans in general, pride themselves on surface appearances. To present a facade of what we want the world to see. In Malta it is the same with doors. For example, it is common for Maltese people to customize their doors to make them look similar to important government buildings in color and pattern. Another way that this Maltese tradition allows for identity to be present on one’s front door is through the association of door colors with specific professions. For example, fishermen often paint their doors blue, as a symbol of long days spent floating on the Mediterranean Sea.

Apart from the vibrant colors, there is another unique feature on the outside of Maltese doors that holds significant meaning. A “habbata” is the Maltese term for a door knocker. While a door knocker typically serves a practical function, a habbata is multifaceted. A large and extravagant habbata signals that the people living inside the home are prosperous. The intricate design of a habbata is another signifier of identity on the archipelago. The more common styles reflect symbols of importance in Maltese culture, including maritime animals which are a main source of trade and income for the nation, angels which represent the importance of religion, or a lion which is associated with the protection of loved ones and the strength of the Maltese family bond.

Gwen tells me that her own front door is a modernist era style door that was inspired by the famous Maltese architect Richard England. She describes it as a contrast of pinks and blues with bright pink ironwork. A mustard yellow terrazzo mosaic shines from the bottom of the door. Amid all this color, Gwen’s habbata is even more intriguing. It is made of two asymmetrical eyes with lashes that represent a traditional “luzzu”, a Maltese fishing boat. A luzzu typically has the eye of Osiris painted or carved on the bow. For Gwen, the eye provides a superstitious effect to complement her brightly colored door. Gwen’s door represents her quirky, bright, and artistic personality.

Turning the key

According to Gwen, the architecture of Malta is quickly changing. With European investments coming to the archipelago — especially in the IT sector — and special permits being offered to entrepreneurs, the population is steadily increasing. As of 2023, Malta’s population is at an all time high of 535,000 people. High-rises are quickly being constructed to accommodate new residents and businesses. Gwen agrees that the European Union has brought many economic opportunities to Malta, such as the construction of new roads, an uptick of tourism, and opportunities for start-up businesses. However, she highlights that the construction has bulldozed homes with historic doors that many consider the cultural jewel of the small nation. While the Instagram account primarily serves as an artistic outlet, posting doors is Gwen’s way of showing people the need to preserve Malta’s unique beauty. It is Gwen’s hope that the national government of Malta will take action to protect the beloved doors.

Like the country, the doors have been created with British, Arabian, and Sicilian characteristics. Together, the Sicilian tiles, North African balconies, and large British door frames — mixed with Malta’s bright colors and ornate designs — create something new. They are symbolic of Malta’s unique historic and cultural blend and have come to represent the country as a whole, in a way that can be admired and celebrated by locals and visitors alike. One thing is clear, over time Malta’s identity will continue to grow, with its doors as a robust symbol of its cultural evolution.


Originally published
in Transponder Issue 4: Identity
Jun 20, 2023

Sara Leming

Research Analyst
Bertelsmann Foundation