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….
Ancient inhabitants of Malta built an incredible number of elaborate stone temples that are considered the oldest free-standing structures in the world — they’re older than the pyramids of Egypt! This photo shows a section of one temple at the Tarxien complex, where four temples were built over 1,000 years, from 3,600 – 2,500 B.C.
Beneath the Maltese city of Rabat lies a necropolis that covers almost half an acre (2,000 sq. m.) You could spend a full day exploring the graves of Pagan Romans, Christians, and Jews. In the foreground of this image is a triclinium — a dining table for mourners who partook in a ritual last meal with their dead relatives, a common custom at the time, no matter the religion.
Looking across from Malta’s capital city of Valletta, you can see Fort St. Angelo. It was originally built as a castle during the 13th century and was later refurbished by the Knights Hospitallers. Fort St. Angelo played a vital role during the 1565 Great Siege of Malta, when the Ottoman Empire tried to reclaim the country as a Muslim colony. Malta is littered with forts and ramparts built by the Hospitallers, a Catholic military order created during the Crusades.
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….
The coastline of Malta is dotted with beaches for those wanting to explore the extraordinary greenish-blue waters surrounding the island. Behind us is Ghar Lapsi, a natural “swimmin’ hole” for hard-core water enthusiasts like the divers seen here, or just plain toe-dippers.
Pictured is the gorgeous stretch of coastline where once stood the famous Azure Window — an enormous natural arch featured most recently in “Game of Thrones.” It collapsed during a storm in March of this year, a few weeks before we arrived. But there are plenty of other amazing grottoes and rock formations to explore in Malta, as you’ll see in my upcoming posts.
Matthew perches atop the gravity-defying Dingli Cliffs. You can hike along the escarpment for a bird’s-eye view of the Mediterranean and the tiny, uninhabited island of Fifla, barely visible in the distance.
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.
A tour of the island of Gozo will introduce you to the Maltese handicraft of weaving lace using bobbins. By the mid-1800s, the Maltese tradition of hand-stitched lace had disappeared and the islands were undergoing an economic depression. So an English noblewoman imported lace makers from Italy to start up a bobbin-lace cottage industry. Today, the Maltese government still sponsors trade schools that teach lace-making and other artisan skills, and the work is absolutely beautiful.
The British took over Malta in 1800, occupying the country until it gained its independence in 1964. But the Brits left behind their culinary tradition of the Welsh pasty, called a “pastizz” in Maltese. It’s filled with smooshy peas, ricotta cheese, sardines, or mushrooms and onions, all stuffed into a pastry envelope made of phyllo dough (a nod to Malta’s Mediterranean heritage). Our favorite place to get pastizz was at the Crystal Palace, close to St. Paul’s catacombs. We went back five times so that we could try every flavor. Fun fact: “pastizz” is also slang for a woman’s nether parts. Yep, brings a whole new meaning to the term “hot pocket.”
The ancient Phoenicians also made their mark in Malta. These water taxis called “dghajsa” retain their traditional Phoenician shape, color, and guardian “evil-eye” motif on the bow of the boat.
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!
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.
In keeping with today’s theme, it’s somehow fitting that our trip to Malta began quite late on the eve of 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.
Paul, the patron saint of Malta, bestows his blessing on the street corner nearest his namesake church.
St. Paul’s Shipwreck Church commemorates that fateful event that changed the course of Malta’s history. Acts Chapters 27-28 records the story: The Roman prison ship carrying St. Paul got caught in a terrible storm. After washing ashore along with his prison mates and Roman captors, Paul began gathering firewood to help everyone dry out and warm up. But a viper crawled out of the woodpile and bit Paul in the hand, convincing the locals that, “this dude must be a murderer. The gods are clearly intent on executing him for his crime, and since the storm didn’t get the job done, now they’ve sent a snake.” But when Paul survived the bite, and later went on to heal the father of the island’s Roman governor, the locals became convinced that Paul himself was a god. Paul gave credit where it was due, however, and spent the next three months preaching to the Maltese. And that’s how the island became an enclave of Christianity.
Not far away from St. Paul’s, an Easter tree held pagan symbols of the season — Easter eggs, emblems of the Babylonian sex goddess Ishtar, who inspired the holiday’s name (Easter = Ishtar). No matter the religion, the spring equinox is all about birth and rebirth, baby.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1724, the Knights Hospitallers built the fancy Main Gate still used today to enter Mdina. But if you look closely, on the right side you’ll see the much older Medieval gate, which was walled up when the new gate was built. P.S. If the gate looks familiar, it might be because you’re a “Game of Thrones” fan.
From the walls surrounding Mdina, you can get a good idea of it’s defensive position. Legend says that during the 1565 Siege of Malta, the Ottoman Vizier sent a smaller force to Mdina, assuming it would be easy to take, as most of the Knights Hospitallers were busy defending their new capital city. But the knight in charge of Mdina came up with a brilliant plan: he dressed the women and servants in armor and had them stand atop the walls, set off the cannons, and bang their swords against their shields in a noisy show of force that convinced the Turks to retreat.
Mdina’s nickname is the “Silent City.” It’s apt for lots of reasons. Cars aren’t allowed into the old walled town, just horse-drawn carriages. And although the old town is quite large, only about 300 people live inside its walls. Everyone else lives in the neighboring suburb of Rabat.
Walking the streets of the walled city, you feel as if you’ve stepped back into the Middle Ages. The place displays an unusual mixture of Norman and Baroque architecture. We kept expecting to run into a Medieval knight — and a one point, we did. Mdina has a group of folks who do regular reenactments of life in old Mdina.
While the Knights Hospitallers eventually made Valletta their capital city, the noble families of Malta preferred Mdina. Inside the city walls, you’ll find some of Malta’s oldest palaces, including Palazzo Falson, also known as the Norman House. It’s considered the best preserved Medieval building in Malta, and this is its interior courtyard. You can tour several rooms, which contain the Medieval collections of the Swedish captain who restored it.
Also within the walled city is St. Paul’s Cathedral, which shares the title of “co-cathedral” with St. John’s in Valletta. Built in the 12th century, it’s supposedly sitting on the spot where Publius, Malta’s Roman governor, met Paul after his shipwreck. Paul took the opportunity to heal Publius’s father of a bad case of dysentery, which greatly impressed the townspeople. Many either converted entirely (or more likely, simply incorporate the Christian god into their pantheon.)
The interior of St. Paul’s contains fabulous Baroque frescoes, including the one in the apse above the alter, which shows St. Paul’s shipwreck.
Prowling down Mdina’s quiet alleys, we peeked into the workshop of Joe Farrugia & Son, traditional gilders who repair and restore Malta’s many saintly statues.
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.
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.)
Looking across from Birgu, you can see the small town of Senglea and its ancient Il-Macina bastion. The name means “machine,” referring to the sheer crane once strapped to the bastion to help load the Hospitallers’ ships.
Since ancient times, Malta’s Mediterranean location — as well as its natural harbors and the entrepreneurial and maritime skills of its people — have made the country an international center for shipping services. Tax breaks and other advantages mean that Malta has its fair share of super yachts, too.
The fortress walls surrounding Birgu were rebuilt after the Great Siege of 1565, and many remain intact today. Pictured is the Couvre Porte gate, which leads into the old city. Inside the gate, you’ll find the Malta at War Museum, dedicated to Malta’s role during World War II. (The breaks in the wall are mostly due to this war.)
Birgu’s picturesque town center holds a statue of St. Lawrence (seen here) and a monument to the 1565 Great Siege of Malta. The numbers are somewhat debated, but it’s estimated that around 9,000 knights, their slaves, and conscripted locals managed to fend off Ottoman forces totaling between 28,000 and 40,000 men. By the end of the epically bloody battle, Malta had lost one third of its inhabitants as well as one third of its Knights, but the win was the first European victory against the Ottomans in over 100 years. Although Birgu lay in ruins, Grand Master Jean de Valette changed its name to Vittoriosa to honor the decimated but valiant city.
St. Lawrence’s Oratory is adjacent to St. Lawrence’s Cathedral, which served as the Hospitallers’ conventual church until they relocated their capital to Valletta. However, the Knights’ Inquisitors (think Spanish Inquisition) continued to be based in Birgu and attended services here. Is it me, or is it kinda weird that the Inquisitors went to a church dedicated to a saint who was tortured and supposedly grilled alive on a gridiron for his faith?
Speaking of the Inquisition, this is the Inquisitor’s Palace — one of the few remaining in Europe, and the only one that is open to the public. (Most were destroyed during the French Revolution, as the church was seen as the bulwark of the abusive nobles.) This palace was the seat of the Maltese Inquisition from 1574 to 1798, and as such it was the site where heretics (Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and witches) were tried and punished.
Despite the vow of poverty that most Catholic orders took, the Inquisitors spent lavishly on their palace over the years, turning it into a typical Roman Renaissance palazzo with touches of Baroque artistry.
The palace not only held the personal quarters of the Inquisitor, but also the tribunal and prisons. Various signage throughout the palace tells the fate of those judged in this room. For example, one label noted that Paolo, a 60-year-old neo-Christian slave, was treated so badly by his master that once, in a moment of despair, he said “it would have been better to have remained Muslim, as Islamic slaves are in much better condition.” He was tried and found guilty of heresy and imprisoned for three months in the palace dungeons until a doctor from the Holy Office found him so ill that he had him removed to the infirmary, from which he was eventually released.
Uh, yeah. The KKK’s outfits bear an uncanny resemblance to Catholic capirote — the conical headdress with eyeholes that evolved during the 16th century, when the Spanish Inquisition reached its zenith. During Easter week, penitents still don these hooded capes and often engage in self flagellation to atone for the previous year’s sins. It’s thought that William J. Simmons of Atlanta, the guy who came up with the KKK uniform, was obsessed with fraternal societies and modeled his designs on the capirote. Seems only fitting that he took his inspiration from an outfit conceived during an era of religiously sanctioned torture and terrorism against anyone who was different.
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:
Across from Valletta, along Marsamxett Harbor, sits one of the traditional star-shaped forts of the Knights Hospitallers. Called Fort Manoel, it was built in the mid 1700s. The arched structure down near the water is Lazzaretto, a stone replacement for the wooden quarantine hospital built during the 1592-3 outbreak of the Black Plague. The Knights Hospitallers got their name because the monastic order, formed in 1023, was originally supposed to provide care for sick, poor, or injured pilgrims visiting the Holy Lands. (Back then, Christians made pilgrimages to Jerusalem like Muslims made a Hajj to Mecca). After the First Crusade and the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the Knights’ charter was expanded to a militaristic one, licensing them to defend the Holy Lands. Lovely. They got to practice both how to put people in the hospital, and how to get them out.
When the Knights Hospitallers landed in Malta in 1530, they found that, on the promontory where Valletta would eventually be built, the local militia had already constructed a small 14th-century watchtower and church dedicated to St. Elmo, the patron saint of seafarers. Although the Knights hastily erected a beefier fort, it still fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1565 during the Great Siege. Afterwards, Grand Master Jean de Valette recognized the strategic importance of the peninsula and decided to relocate his capital city to this promontory. Behind us you can just barely see the tip of Fort St. Elmo, which guarded the approach to both the Grand and Marsamxett Harbors.
Having eventually prevailed against the Ottomans in the Great Siege, Jean de Valette appealed to Rome for help rebuilding. Pope Pius V sent his military architect, Francesco Laparelli, to design the new city. He gave it a true Italian feel, with piazzas and grand buildings all laid out along a grid axis. These piazzas are still great spots for people-watching and checking out the most important buildings of the Knights Hospitallers. In the background, you can see the Library for the Order of St. John and a statue erected in 1877 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s 50th birthday. By the way, the knights are still in existence and have an office in Malta but are headquartered in Rome nowadays.
Malta has little tree cover, but lots of limestone, so Valletta is constructed of the yellow stuff. When the sun hits it, the whole city glows like gold — an event that happens pretty regularly, since Malta has an average of 300+ days of sunshine per year.
Our Lady of Victories (the church on the right side of the photo) was the first building completed in the new city of Valletta. Jean de Valette himself laid the foundation stone. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see the entire city built. He had a stroke while he was out hunting with his falcons, after having received word that his love-child, a teenaged daughter, had been murdered by her husband. No, the knights did not take their vows of chastity seriously. In fact, Maltese citizens were so tired of having their women abused that they tried to revolt against the Hospitallers more than once.
As I said, Malta is pretty hilly, so be prepared to climb a fair number of steps. But the views are so stupendous, you won’t even notice the extra exercise.
Little bits of architecture like this Moorish florist hut are a reminder of Valletta’s past with the Ottomans.
So as legend goes, Valletta’s balconies take their influence from the North African tradition of the Arabic “muxrabija” (meaning “look-out place”), where Muslim women of the house could get a view out over the street life without being seen by men. This same custom of shielding delicate ladies from being viewed by riffraff was continued by Europeans. Funny how warring cultures can end up resembling each other in their customs. By the way, over Matthew’s left shoulder you can see a typical Maltese “gallarija” balcony that wraps around a street corner to provide a more commanding view.
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.