After a somewhat rough passage through the Straits of Messina (passing between the legendary twin dangers of Scylla and Charybdis, as you may remember from my post about Segesta, Sicily), our next stop was the island of Malta. Having dreamed of visiting this spot for many years, I was hoping that it would prove a highlight of the voyage, and I was not disappointed!
Malta, which became a Republic in 1974 after securing its independence from the UK 10 years prior, is a relatively small spot in the middle of the Mediterranean, measuring a mere 232 square miles. It is fairly crowded, however, with about 3,400 people per each of those miles(!), making it the seventh most densely populated country in the world. Its citizens speak two official languages: English and Maltese, in which Semitic (70%) and Latin (30%) roots are mixed, reflecting the history of this small country lying midway between North Africa and Europe.
The nation is actually an archipelago composed of 21 islands, only three of which are inhabited. The main island, Malta, hosts just over 400,000 people, while the next largest of the group, Gozo, is home to approximately 30,000. The third inhabited island, Comino, boasts a population of only four: 1 policeman, 1 priest, and the 2 citizens they serve, who both must feel fairly well-protected in every sense of the word!
The number of people on the island has recently swelled, as Malta has generously volunteered to serve as a staging point for the evacuation of refugees fleeing the violence in Libya. China, India and other nations have sent planes to retrieve their citizens, and many of the operations have been run from airfields on Malta. This provision of assistance to those in need seems a fitting continuation of the work of the well-known Knights of Malta (see more below).
Our focus was primarily on the ancient and medieval history of the island. Settled as early as 1500 BC, and boasting impressive prehistoric megalithic temple remains that I will discuss in a later entry, the island had been established as a Phoenician trading post by the 6th century B.C. The Romans took possession in 218 B.C. and gave the island the name Melita, from the Latin for “honey” (mel), perhaps in reference to the rich golden color of the stone quarried here, which is still used as the primary building material for most structures. The Romans considered Melita a part of their province of Sicily until it became its own municipium (along with the smaller island of Gozo) in the second century A.D, a status that gave its citizens greater rights and responsibilities. According to the Bible, Paul was shipwrecked on Malta and remained here for three months, during which time he healed many sick individuals (Acts 27:27-28:10); as a result, the population was converted to Christianity as early as 60 A.D.
As was the case with many of the islands in the Mediterranean, Malta has long held great strategic importance. Despite its lack of important resources such as fresh water, it was therefore a desirable piece of property in many historical periods. The Byzantines owned it for awhile, but it was eventually taken by the Arabs in the 9th century. Most famously, the island was later home to the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. The Knights of Malta, as the group is more commonly known, grew out of the Order of the Knights Hospitallers, a religious order that ran a hospital in Jerusalem dedicated to helping the poor, sick and injured among the pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land. The Knights of Malta became a military order after the First Crusade and, following the loss of Christian holdings in the Holy Land, moved their base of operations to the island of Rhodes in 1310, and eventually to Malta in 1530. Napoleon expelled the Order from the island in 1798, and it is now headquartered in Rome. Although the Knights of Malta no longer hold their own territory, and hence have no claims to statehood, they are still viewed under international law as a sovereign body, and as such have been granted permanent Observer Status by the United Nations (an honor they share with the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the International Criminal Court, and the International Olympic Committee). The Order in its current form is made up largely of lay members numbering approximately 13,000, a membership that now includes women as well as men. They are aided by about 80,000 permanent volunteers. The Knights of Malta provide emergency medical relief around the world to victims of natural disasters, war and epidemics, as well as long-term care for those suffering from terminal conditions such as leprosy.
Our first stop on Malta was the old city of Mdina, which occupies a high point on the island. It takes its name from the Arabic word medina, literally, “the city.” Most of the structures visible now date to the 13th century and later. Here are a few of the highlights:
The building that is now the Natural History Museum was constructed in 1722 as the summer palace of the Grand Master of the Maltese order.
The Cathedral, not surprisingly dedicated to St. Paul, was constructed in 1697. While we were visiting, preparations were underway for the upcoming Feast of Corpus Christi (June 23 this year), which is why the interior is draped in red damask curtains. The church boasts Murano glass chandeliers and an altar painting by Mattia Preti (1613-1699).
One of the most striking visual aspects of Mdina is the use of color in the decoration of buildings. The color palette is overseen by local authorities, and is limited to red, green and blue, all in rich tones that beautifully accent the glowing native stone. The result is a very cohesive and attractive face for the city.
Mdina is a gorgeous and evocative, if somewhat sleepy, walled city that has been largely spared the bustling crowds of the capital of Valletta, about which I will be writing in my next post.