Malta: Easter in a Christian Enclave

April 22, 2017.  Yep, that’s right, it’s still Easter in my Newbie In Norway timeline.  And I’m still behind on my blogging due to that pesky thing called my day job.  So prepare to be bombarded with posts in the next couple of weeks as I take some time off my regular paying gig to catch up on life here in Norway.  That being said, I can’t pass up the opportunity to tell you about our Easter Week in Malta — the tenth smallest country in the world.  Never heard of it?  Sure you have.  Think Humphrey Bogart in the classic film-noire hit, The Maltese Falcon.  But more about that storyline later.

So why’d we spend our spring break in Malta?  Cuz it’s got a little somethin’ for everybody.   For history and architecture buffs, Malta boasts gargantuan temples built during the Stone Age, lavish townhouses and catacombs constructed by the Romans, and walled ramparts and fortresses erected by an order of knights created during the Crusader era….

For nature lovers, Malta offers eye-poppingly azure waters, breathtaking seaside cliffs, and soothingly quiet coves just perfect for swimming, sunbathing, snorkeling, fishing, daydreaming, and sloughing off the aches and pains inflicted by daily life….

And for fans of the exotic, Malta dishes out an alluring mashup of Italian, Middle Eastern, English, and French culture that’s reflected in the richness of the country’s artworks and in its cuisine, which is sure to please even the most finicky foodie’s palate.

Malta’s strategic location in heart of the Mediterranean has made it a favorite layover during long sea journeys for both ancients and moderns.  It sits smack dab in the middle of the waterway connecting Christianized Western Europe with Islamic Asia Minor and North Africa. (Click for a bigger view.)

Still wondering where the heck is Malta?  Okay, here’s my primer, for those of you who might feel a bit geographically challenged.  Malta’s in the Mediterranean, tucked between Sicily and Tunisia.  Technically speaking, the country is a seven-island archipelago that includes Malta, its smaller, more rural neighbor Gozo, and the tiny Comino, inhabited year-round by just a single family of three (two brothers and a cousin, who supposedly don’t always get along so well.)  Altogether, these three inhabited islands measure a scant 122 square miles (316 sq. km) but are home to a dense population of 450,000 people!

Malta’s capital city of Valletta contains hundreds of architectural masterpieces and historical monuments. The “Knot” sculpture in front of the fabulous Baroque post office is dedicated to the 2015 Valletta Summit on Migration and symbolizes Malta’s position as the link between the continents of Europe and Africa.

Despite its small size, Malta has far more to offer than can be visited over a few days, or even a full week.  We tried to squeeze in as much as possible, but I think you could probably spend a month here and still feel like you’ve barely scratched the surface.  The place is simply chockablock with must-see UNESCO World Heritage Sites — one of the big reasons that the capital city of Valletta has been declared the European Capital of Culture for 2018.  And on that note, I’ll admit that I’m feeling daunted by the task of organizing and adequately describing Malta’s many charms in just one short post.  So I think I’ll split up the topics and today tackle just the stuff that dates from the A.D. Crusaders-vs.-Ottomans era, while saving the B.C. prehistoric, pagan, and other storylines for my next few blog entries.

Statues of saints adorn most major intersections in Valletta. Supposedly Jean de Vallette, the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitallers, decreed that every corner of his capital city should hold heavenly reminders to pray.

In keeping with today’s theme, it’s somehow fitting that our trip to Malta began quite late on the eve before Easter Sunday.  Maybe it was the scent of incense drifting in the air from the many holy-week masses held all over town, or maybe it was the dramatic uplighting on the statues of saints that seem to grace every corner, but the somber Catholicism of the place reigned supreme on that dark night.

Palm leaves and purple banners outside most churches emphasized the sacredness of the coming dawn, reminding me that Malta claims a special honor in the Christian faith.  It’s purportedly the spot where St. Paul washed ashore after a shipwreck and personally converted the island’s inhabitants.  By the way, the Book of Acts spells the island’s name as Melita, which some say was off the coast of Greece, but the Maltese claim that the event occurred on their home turf, and they take great pride in their early Christian antecedents.

The spire of St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral is one of Valletta’s skyline landmarks. It was built on the site of the old Auberge (inn) for the German branch of the Knights Hospitallers.  There were eight branches in all, based on the languages and lineages of the Knights.

The light of day brought a different impression, one still biblically charged, yet a bit less solemn.  While cataloguing the street scene with our cameras, we stumbled upon an outdoor Easter service at the stately Saint Paul’s Anglican Cathedral.  Eavesdropping from afar, we enjoyed (in English) our favorite portion of an Episcopal pascal celebration — the ritual firing up of the barbie.

Looks like these statues are just as concerned about the priests tending the Weber grill as we were. (Actually, the sculpture commemorates a group of Maltese who revolted against Napoleon.)

The parish priest and his flock, the ladies suitably adorned in British fascinators and Easter bonnets, had gathered around a Weber grill.  After dousing the briquets with lighter fluid, the vicar set the pyre aflame with the words, “sanctify this new fire, and grant that by these festivities we may so inflame the world with heavenly desire.”  I’m not sure about my religious fervor, but my appetite for some roasted meat definitely got dialed up a few notches.  So off we went for grilled octopus at Cockneys, a great seaside eatery with a view that can’t be beat.  More about that in my upcoming posts….

The limestone streets and spired skyline of Valletta remind me of Israel, where I once spent a summer on an archaeological excavation.

And speaking of views, pretty much everywhere you go on Malta, you’ll be confronted with scenery straight out of an epic biblical movie.  Looking across Valletta’s rooftops from our hotel balcony, I’d swear we’d been transported to Jerusalem.  The golden limestone ramparts with their Crusader-fortress feel, the many Moorish balconies bearing latticed windows, and the towering church steeples that could double as minarets, all helped tell the story that Malta was once considered to be on the front lines in the war between Islam and Christianity.

Beyond Malta’s fortifications, its second-most distinctive feature is its “peekaboo porches,” which have Moorish origins. Like barnacles on a boat dock, these fanciful balconies coat most every building on Malta.

To give you the short version of the story:  Malta’s strategic trading position between the continents of Europe and Africa — plus its deep natural harbors, which provide shelter in a notoriously rough section of the Mediterranean Sea — have long made it a juicy bone in territorial tug-o-wars.  First between Byzantines and Arabs, then between Europeans and Ottomans (and eventually between Nazis and the Allies, but that’s another tale).  Political boundaries shifted back and forth over the centuries, with each side taking turns kicking out the other in mass deportations of Muslims, Christians, or Jews, depending on who came into power.

Maltese falcons aren’t a separate breed; they’re simply Peregrine Falcons that, since Crusader times, have been raised on Malta for the sport of falconry.

Finally in 1530, Charles V (King of Spain, Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire) decided to stabilize the situation by giving Malta as a perpetual fiefdom to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem.  Quite a mouthful, right?  You might better recognize their foreshortened name: the Knights Hospitallers.  (They were contemporaries — and often competitors — of the Knights Templar, the Order associated with the Holy Grail and “The Davinci Code.”)

The Hospitallers themselves were a band of ennobled military monks that had been pushed out of their strongholds first in Jerusalem, and later in Crete and Rhodes, and had eventually ended up roaming Europe for seven years, hoping to find a new home.  In return for his gift of Malta, Charles V demanded that the Hospitallers pay him an annual tribute of one Maltese falcon, trained by the knights themselves, who were master falconers.  Yep, that’s where the legend of the Maltese Falcon comes from.  Told ya I’d circle back around to that story eventually.  By the way, the knights did NOT craft a priceless statue of a falcon as a gift for the king — that part of the story was pulp-fiction writer Dashiell Hammett’s invention.  Sorry to disappoint you.

Dwejra Tower is one of many surviving coastal towers built by the Knights Hospitallers to help defend Malta against the Barbary pirates, whose primary goal was to capture Christian slaves for the Ottoman Empire. To be fair, the Knights themselves attacked a number of Ottoman ships.  Just during Jean de Valette’s tenure as Grandmaster, the knights managed to capture 3,000 Muslim and Jewish slaves.

Anyway, the Hospitallers went on a massive building campaign and within 15 years had erected a number of stone watchtowers, bastions, ramparts, and palaces that still bristle on practically every promontory in Malta.  It was these fortifications that enabled the Order to fend off the Ottomans during the 1565 Great Siege of Malta and maintain control over the country for 268 years, until Napoleon kicked the knights out in 1798…and then himself was booted out two years later by the British, who ruled Malta until 1964.

Although everyone speaks perfect English (it’s the official language), Maltese is the national language. Look closely at the signage (click for a bigger view), and you’ll notice the language’s origins. It’s Siculo-Arabic (Sicilian Arabic), which evolved between the 9th through the 14th centuries. About half the words are derived from Sicilian/Italian, and a third are Arabic, spelled with Latin letters. The remaining bits are a mixture of French and English.

Beyond the architecture, artwork, and food, even the street signs and place names hint at the nation’s mixed religious and cultural heritage.  Roaming around Malta’s cities will bring you face-to-face with remnants from the country’s past as a Muslim stronghold turned Crusader enclave and help you understand why the island nation is an architectural Mecca today.  Browse the galleries below to soak up Malta’s historic vibe and learn more about its colorful past.

Malta is nicknamed “The Fortress Island” because of the incredible number of bastions, batteries, and other defensive structures that blanket the place. Cresting the hill, you can see Mdina, the old walled capital.

Located on the Maltese island of Gozo, the city of Mdina served as Malta’s capital from ancient times until the arrival of the Knights Hospitallers in 1530.  The Phoenicians had initially settled the city, followed by the Byzantines, who’d beefed up its natural defenses as a hilltop town with a double city wall and trench that remain perfectly intact today.  Eventually Mdina fell into Arab hands and was later claimed by Norman knights, then captured by the Spanish, and then reclaimed by the Ottomans, before the Knights Hospitallers took over for good.  Whew.  Confused yet?  Just imagine how the poor citizens felt, switching alliances and religions so often.  Although Catholicism still rules today, the city’s Islamic legacy includes the town’s layout and its name, derived from medinah, which means “walled city” in Arabic.  It’s an unbelievably atmospheric place, and one well worth the ferry ride to Gozo.

From the 16th-century gun battery in Valletta, you can look across the Grand Harbor to Birgu (Vittoriosa), bracketed on the left by Fort St. Angelo and on the right by the Il-Gardiola Watchtower and bastion.  (Click for a bigger view)

Birgu (Vittoriosa)
When the Hospitallers arrived in Malta, they first settled in Mdina, but declined to make it the capital city because it was too far inland to be a good naval port.  (After all, shutting down Ottoman shipping — and ostensibly the spread of Islam — was a big part of the Hospitallers’ mission.)  Instead, they initially selected the town of Birgu, later renamed Vittoriosa, as their new capital due to its prime waterfront location along what is today known as the Grand Harbor.

Ancient and modern rub elbows easily in Birgu. You’ve got your Phoenician-style dghajsa in the foreground, and in the background, you’ve got your luxury yachts moored alongside Fort St. Angelo, the Hospitallers’ headquarters during the 1565 Siege of Malta.

Like Mdina, Birgu had Medieval roots and a pretty spiffy castle, which the Hospitallers enlarged and turned into Fort St. Angelo.  But during the notoriously bloody, five-month-long Siege of Malta, Birgu took a big hit, so Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette decided once more to move the capital, this time to the more defensible promontory of Mount Sciberras (a.k.a. Valetta), which overlooks both the Marsamxett and Grand Harbors.  Today, Birgu is a curious mix of uber-modern boats, Medieval alleyways, and ancient bastions, well worth the atmospheric trip in a dghajsa or ferry.  (Or by regular taxi, if you don’t mind a longer, winding route around the harbor.)

Valletta — the southernmost capital in Europe — sits on the Sciberras Peninsula, which is surrounded by Marsamxett Harbor and Grand Harbor.

Although Valletta wasn’t Malta’s original capital, the Knights Hospitallers turned it into a “city built by gentlemen for gentlemen” (so said Benjamin Disraeli, Britain’s Prime Minister under Queen Victoria.  Guess he really liked the place.)  A spin around the top of the city’s ramparts will present you with a spectacular view of the two harbors that have made the country worth fighting for, as well as the many fortresses that have given the nation its nickname “The Fortress Island.”  And a walk up and down the city’s stair-stepped streets will introduce you to its incredible late Renaissance and Baroque architecture, as well as the knights who are responsible for the city’s grand, golden image.  Check out just a handful of Valletta’s 320 monuments, jammed into a mere 135 acres (55 ha), below:

Okay, that about sums it up for today’s history lesson.  I’ve touched on just a few of the spectacular sites associated with the Knights Hospitallers.  There’s plenty more that we didn’t get to see (due to holiday hours and our limited time), such as the Grand Master’s Palace, St. John’s Co-Cathedral, and more.  But stay tuned, as we hope to go back in March of next year to watch the vernal equinox mark its passage in one of Malta’s prehistoric temples.  And that teaser takes us on towards tomorrow’s topic — prehistoric temples and pagan tombs.



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