Roots of the World: Exploring Historic Malta
by SHARON MCDONNELL
In search of Humphrey Bogart's fabled Maltese falcon and a small, silky-haired dog of the non-sporting variety, I found neither on Malta.
Instead, a land of mystery and mythology awaited, encompassing everything from the world's oldest temple ruins to fishing boats adorned with the painted eye of the Egyptian god Osiris. Situated 60 miles south of Sicily and 160 miles east of Tunisia, the Maltese Islands have played a role in historic events stretching back to 3800 b.c. And like Homer's Odysseus, who was lured here by Calypso for seven years, visitors to these idyllic islands find it hard to leave.
Something for Everyone
Traveling with the Florida-based OTS Foundation, a non-profit operator specializing in cultural tours of Malta, our group was for eight days immersed in the archaeology, mythology, religion, and art of the islands. Still considered an off-the-beaten-path destination, Malta continues to surprise scholars and travelers alike.
"Women's study groups are discovering the prehistoric temples of Malta as authentic goddess sites, archaeology buffs find the roots of the Mediterranean's oldest civilizations, and art enthusiasts marvel at collections from the time of the medieval knights," explains Linda Eneix, president of OTS.
Melange of Cultures
At first glance, the cultural influences that shape Malta seem distinctly familiar, though the combination of them is what gives the country its unique flavor. Ornate baroque palaces and churches echo cities like Florence and Venice, particularly in Valletta, the capital city. In rural areas, collections of pastel homes conjure memories of northern Morocco. And lipstick-red telephone booths and fish-and-chips shops remain testament of Britain's rule from 1814 to 1964, when Malta gained its independence.
Britain was not the first country to occupy Malta. Its strategic location in the Mediterranean, ideal as a base for trading and military posts, has over the centuries attracted Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, knights, the French and finally the British.
Older than ... Gaza
Malta's earliest known residents arrived from Sicily in 3,800 b.c. Two centuries after their arrival, the settlers built the megalithic stone Ggantija Temples. Some 1,000 years older than Egypt's earliest pyramids at Giza and much older than Stonehenge, this archaeological site is a mandatory stop for visitors.
Located in a field surrounded by palm trees on the Xaghra plateau, the temples were constructed by rolling boulders, each weighing several tons, into place. Research has connected the site to a fertility cult practicing animal sacrifice. Buttons from the cloth-ing of that period have also been found among the ruins.
Other remnants of Malta's early inhabitants, who mysteriously disappeared about 2,500 b.c., offer a fascinating glimpse into an ancient world. The temples at Haga Qim, located on the big island of Malta and built around 2,500 b.c., contain a stone weighing 40 tons, believed to be the biggest in any megalithic temple in the world. And the Hypogeum, a burial chamber dating back more than 5,000 years, is considered one of the major finds of 20th century archaeology.
Perhaps the next most famous inhabitants of Malta remain the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, aristocrats who ruled Malta for almost 300 years, until 1798. Comprised of the cream of mainly French and Italian nobility, the Roman Catholic order was founded in the 12th century to provide medical care to pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land, though its role ultimately became more militaristic.
A Generous Gift
Originally based on the Greek island of Rhodes for almost 200 years, the knights were expelled by the Ottoman Turks in 1522 and granted the Maltese islands by Hapsburg Emperor Charles V in 1530. To him, the knights paid an annual tribute of a live falcon. (Regrettably, not a jeweled statue, as in the 1941 movie.)
Many great scenes from Malta's history involve the crusading knights. Among these are the Great Siege of 1565, when 40,000 Turks were defeated by only 600 knights, 1,500 soldiers and 7,000 civilians. Afterwards, the knights established Valletta as their impregnable fortress city.
Described by 19th-century author Sir Walter Scott as a city "built by gentlemen for gentlemen," Valletta was laid out in traditional Renaissance style, its steep streets set in a symmetrical grid pattern. Signs of the 16th and 17th century abound with its many ocher-colored limestone buildings, richly adorned with stone carvings, and religious statues in corner niches.
Views of Valletta
Boxy balconies with dark green windows (an 18th-century addition intended to draw more sun in winter) overlook the well-preserved, walled town.
Its beautiful natural harbor, and the medieval "Three Cities" - Vittoriosa and Sen-glea, where the Great Siege was fought, and Cospicua, built afterward - can be seen from the Upper Barraca Gardens. (So can the area where scenes from Gladiator were filmed.) At sunset, the town's golden stone is tinged with a rosy glow.
Reminders of the knights' greatness are evident everywhere in Valletta. At St. John's Cathedral, erected in the late 1500s, a sumptuous interior features a floor of 375 marble mosaic slabs, decorated with skeletons and coats-of-arms honoring deceased knights. The cathedral's star attraction, however, is the Caravaggio masterwork "The Beheading of St. John," honoring the knights' patron saint.
At the Grand Master's Palace, also built in the late 1500s, the wealth and opulence of the knights is reflected in the striking Gobelin tapestries of the New World and an armory housing weapons and armor.
"Each nationality of knights, from Provence, Italy, Spain and so on, had its own palace, where they lived like young princes, dining with silver plates and cups," explained my guide, Roger Cauchio Inglott. "It was a great honor to become a knight. They could not marry, and their families were obliged to give money to support them when they were here."
For those desiring a similar experience, rural Malta is a charming contrast. In the fish-ing village of Marsaxlokk, traditional boats in neon yellow, blue, red and green - each with a painted eye - bob in the harbor, facing pastel houses in pink, yellow and peach. Called "luzzu," the boats' style is of Phoenician origin. On Sundays, a market selling tablecloths, fish, vegetables and clothing runs the length of the harbor.
Mdina, Malta's ancient capital, is also fascinating, entered by a monumental ornamented stone gate - as are most Maltese towns. Beloved by the Romans as "Melita" (a ruined Roman villa is just outside town), Mdina was later fortified by the Arabs. At night, the town is simply magical. Strolling its winding narrow streets lit by lanterns, visitors are carried back in time among aging palaces and tiny shops.
Malta's natural beauty rivals its historical value. The allure of the crystal-clear, ultramarine Mediterranean Sea is never far away. A spectacular view from Calypso's Cave, overlooking rugged cliffs and the red sands of Ramla Bay near Xaghra, is not to be missed, and the rock formations of the Azure Window and Fungus Rock on Gozo offer magnificent Mediterranean views.
With so much mystery and romance at every turn, it's no wonder that my last night in the Maltese islands was filled with dreams of courageous knights, bloody battles, Greek sirens, and falcons. Of course, by that time I knew better than to dream of Bogart. A hunky male nymph seemed much more appropriate.
The OTS Foundation in Sarasota, Florida, runs 8-day tours of Malta year-round. Cost is $1,100 per person, double
occupancy. Tel: 941-918-9215; Fax: 941-918-0265; E-mail: email@example.com; Website:www.otsf. org.
For information on additional programs, see the Geographical Index under "Malta."