For many travellers the name Maldives conjures images of tropical islands, clear turquoise water and luxurious overwater villas. But beyond the resorts lies a country rich in history, language and culture.

Documented contact with the outside world began with Arab sailors in the 10th Century AD, who recognised the island’s potential as a trading post, able to offer pearls, spices, coconuts and dried fish and, most importantly, cowry shells (which were used as currency from Africa to China until the 16th Century). These early visitors profoundly influenced both the society and religion of the Maldives, and today Islamic culture pervades throughout the country.

The island nation’s economy is largely service-based with tourism the largest contributor, accounting for around 15% of GDP and employing 30% of the workforce. In addition, fishing and agriculture remain important activities.

The official language is Dhivehi, but English is widely spoken. The national flag is red with a large green rectangle in the centre bearing a white crescent.

The Maldivian society places great value on family and community with strong ties between immediate and extended families. The legal age for marriage is 18, and women enjoy a respectable role within the society, maintaining their maiden names after marrying. Respect for elders is a cornerstone of the culture and religious observance is a high priority. The population is predominantly Hindu but there are Muslim communities with significant numbers of Christians and Buddhists also present. This diversity is reflected in the food, music and art of the islands.

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