Marvellous Malta

217 Our week in Malta is almost at an end. Tomorrow we fly home – probably to grey skies and rain – and normality will resume. We’ve been ‘out and about’ every day and taken hundreds of photos of a variety of sites on both Malta and Gozo. I hope to do a few posts when I get home. I had intended to do a post on Valletta –  Malta’s capital city –  earlier this week, but we’ve been quite late getting back to the apartment to do a great deal. But before I do focus on Valletta, I think it would be a good idea to say a little bit about the Maltese  Islands in general. Here are a couple of maps to start with to show where they are located:

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Map showing countries in the European Union (light green) and the location of Malta. Author: Nuclear Vacuum. Commons.

shutterstock_105899297The Maltese archipelago (group of islands) is situated in the Mediterranean Sea, 90km (56 miles) south of the Italian island of Sicily. The three main islands that make up the group are Malta, Gozo and Comino. There are also three small, uninhabited islands. The many rocky coves around its coast form deep, natural harbours, which have featured In Malta’s history since it was first inhabited. Today the island group forms the most densely populated country in Europe.

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Flag of Malta. Licensed under CCO via Commons. Public Domain

(I put this picture in especially for fellow blogger Prateek Kohli. He told me he loved learning about Malta at school because the Maltese flag was so easy to draw. You know… I think he’s right!)

The first people arrived in Malta around 4000 BC – Stone-age farmers from Sicily, who brought their animals, pottery, bags of seed and flint with them. Many hundreds of years later, around 1800 BC, they built wonderful temples on the islands, the remains of which can still be seen today, along with many examples of their sculpture and carved wall decorations: 120 Soon after this time, new invaders arrived and the temple builders disappeared – either through extermination or slavery. And so Malta’s story continues, with a number of different invasions over the years – through the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the Phoenician (800 BC) and Roman invasions. It was the Romans who named the island we call Malta today, ‘Melita’. The name is remembered on the little blue buses, occasionally seen today. The photo of the one above was taken last year when we were in Sliema. The name ‘Melita’ means ‘honey’, and there has been much discussion as to why this name was given to the island. My first though was that it was because of the wonderful honey-coloured rock which comprises most of Malta. 146 Very few buildings are constructed of any other stone, and from the air the island looks decidedly yellow – especially after the dry summers, when vegetation is well parched. Another theory regarding the name is probably more likely. The island was covered in wild thyme – and bees just love thyme. Being the enterprising people they were, the Romans made good use of that fact and kept lots of bees. There is evidence for their hives in various locations, and they probably considered this fertile and beautiful island their little ‘honey-pot’. The Romans built their capital city where the modern Rabat/Mdina are situated. They called that city, Melita, too.

Since Roman times, Malta has seen Byzantine rule, followed by that of the Arabs who invaded in 870. Arab rule continued until the Normans arrived, and in about 1298, the then homeless Knights of St. John (also known as the Knights Hospitallers) made the island their new home – a home that was to last until the 18th century.  They made improvements in Malta’s defences, but it was not until the attacks by the Ottoman Turks started in 1547 that defences were strengthened in earnest.

The ‘Great Siege’ of 1565 is so well documented, and I won’t go into it now. But eventually, the Turks were driven back and the Knights of St. John continued to improve the island. It was Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette who ordered the building of the new capital city of Valletta. (And yes, Valette’s name does only have only one ‘l’ and isn’t another of my typos). Here is a picture of him:

Malta: Valletta - the Great Master Palace portrait of the Grand Master Jean de la Vallette-Parisot (1557-1568), founder of Valletta Photo by Giulio Andreini
Malta: Valletta – the Great Master Palace
portrait of the Grand Master Jean de la Vallette-Parisot (1557-1568), founder of Valletta
Photo by Giulio Andreini, edited by Clive Gerada. Public Domain

Life was not easy for the people under the Order of St. John; rules were strict and punishments extreme. But by the latter part of the 18th century, the Order started to deteriorate and when Napoleon invaded, the last Grand Master surrendered without resistance. French rule lasted until the British took command in 1814. Complete independence for Malta came in 1964, although self-government had already been granted in 1921.

I couldn’t write about Malta’s history without saying a little about the island’s amazing bravery during WW2, for which it was awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian honour for bravery.  As it had done throughout history, Malta’s location again meant it played central stage – and, as such, the Islands ended the war completely devastated. Malta holds the record for the heaviest, sustained bombing attack:154 days and nights and 6,700 tons of bombs.  In 1947, the Islands were granted £30 million to help rebuild. But it took many years and further restructuring once the British forces left Malta completely in 1979, to rebuild the economy.

Bomb damaged Kingsway (now Republic Street) during the Siege of Malta in 1942.. Author: Russell J.E. (Lt.) Royal Navy, official photographer. Public Domain.
Bomb damaged Kingsway (now Republic Street) during the Siege of Malta in 1942. Author: Russell J.E. (Lt.) Royal Navy, official photographer. Public Domain.

The Maltese islands offer so much to holidaymakers. They have everything from delightful coves and fishing villages to wonderful archaeological sites and bustling cities and towns. There are many museums that focus on the various historical periods, many cafes, restaurants and bars. The beaches are not striking in some areas, being narrow and rocky, but there are sandy beaches to be found – the most notable and largest at Mellieha Bay in the north of Malta. It has been described as one of the best beaches in the Mediterranean.

The Maltese language is fascinating, with words stemming from the many past invaders’ languages. The Arabic sounds are prevalent, with some words being more like Italian. ‘Thank you’ for example is ‘Grazie’. Most people on the islands also speak English, which is taught in all the schools. This is definitely a bonus for us, as neither of us speak Maltese!

This last image is of the famous Maltese Falcon set against the Maltese Cross:

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Malta: A Slice Through History

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The Maltese Falcon set against the Maltese Cross

The Maltese archipelago – a group of several islands, the largest of which are Malta, Gozo and Comino – lies in the Mediterranean Sea, as far south as to be on the same latitudes as Tunisia in North Africa.  It enjoys an enviable climate of hot, dry summers and mild, wetter winters. To anyone from more northerly latitudes, like my fellow Brits, the French and the Germans, the island has a magnetic attraction, summer and winter alike. It also attracts visitors from across the globe, many of whom come to visit the wonderful historic sites.

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The three main islands of the Maltese archipelago

The history of Malta dates back to the very dawn of civilisation, covering some 7000 years and so many different cultural periods – from the earliest appearance of Neolithic man, through the Bronze Age and the Phoenician and the Greek, Carthaginian, and Roman periods. All made their mark on Malta.

From the Roman occupation to the present time, the island underwent such changes as nation after nation fought for supremacy of its soils. As the very earliest settlers and invaders, these newer peoples came from the sea. The strategic position of the Maltese islands – at the crossroads of shipping routes across the Mediterranean Sea – made the islands highly desirable to warmongering nations wanting control of the seas.

The earliest known inhabitants on Malta (Neolithic times) arrived around 5,200 BC, likely after a perilous journey from Sicily on their primitive sea craft. They were a farming community, who brought bags of seed and flint and their tools with them.

Ruins and relics of the Temple Period on Malta, give insight into the associated rites and rituals (animal, but not human sacrifice), skills and crafts of the stoneworkers and so on of the culture. Those at Tarxien and Hagar Qim, date from 4,100-3000 are particularly well known. Here are some of the incredible designs on display at the Tarxien Temples site and the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta. The spiral patterns are a particular feature of all the temples, as are the female figurines.

In  AD 60, St. Paul the apostle was shipwrecked on the north-east coast of the island (in a bay now aptly called St. Paul’s Bay, where Bugibba stands on the map above). Here there are catacombs to visit, in which the early Christians held their services. Paul’s time on the island had long-lasting effects on the religion of the Maltese people, and there is much to be learned about his stay around Malta.

The Roman occupation of the island is interesting, although the museums tend to dwell a lot on their extreme cruelty to the native people.

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Torture and pain administered by the Romans consisted mostly of flogging, hanging, beheading or crucifying. St, Agatha, who is reputed to have lived in the catacombs, was punished by having her breasts cut off.

Unfortunately, on Malta there is little left to show of Roman times, other than at one particular site and museum in Rabat. Again, here are a few photos we took of the remains of a villa and ruins of smaller dwellings and other buildings around it.

There is much in evidence of the Middle Ages on Malta in the architecture (although a great deal of all periods was destroyed in World War 11, and what we see is rebuilt / repaired structures). The Medieval Times museum in Mdina givess us with an excellent glimpse at the period.

Perhaps the best known period on Malta is that of the Knights of St. John. In both Valletta, Malta’s  capital city, and in Mdina, the older capital set inland, there are museums devoted to this vivid Maltese period. Here are a few photos of Mdina:

The coming of the Knights of St. John to Malta after they had been driven out of Sicily by Suleiman is ingrained into the Maltese culture. The name of Valletta itself is derived from the name of the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de la Valette. The fortress grew up on the rock of the Mount Sceberras peninsula, which rises steeply from between two deep harbours.

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Statue of Jean Parisot de la Valette in Valletta

Some of the presentations of events at this period are extremely impressive, with moving seats, water sprays and so on. The Great Siege of 1565 by the Ottoman Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent really comes alive in these presentations and displays. One of the best collections of artefacts can be seen in the former Palace of the Grand Masters in Valletta. Here are a few of the exhibits:

St. John’s Co.Cathedral, also in Valletta, another place full of information about the Grand Masters. It is a particularly beautiful, awe-inspiring building. Here are just two of the many photos we took at these two sites:

The walls and ceilings of the cathedral are covered in paintings by two particularly well-known artists. One is  Mattia Preti, who spent much of his adult like devoted to ornamenting the cathedral. Preti began his career as an apprentice under Michelangelo Mensi da la Caravaggio, whose most admired work in the cathedral is The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. See here for a link the painting. Caravaggio  led a tumultuous life and is known widely for his brawling, and the killing of a young man in 1606, sudden death at the age of 35.

 In 1798 the island was seized from the rule of the Knights of St. John by the Napoleon,  who was ousted by the British in 1800. British rule continued until Maltese independence on September 21 1964.

The people of Malta’s heroic efforts during World War 11 earned them the George Cross in 1942 – the greatest award for gallantry that can be awarded to civilians. Today a monument stands in Valletta to commemorate this:

Who  can fail to admire the Maltese spirit and enterprise? There is still much building work going on everywhere as the people strive to make their island an even more desirable place to live – and to visit. Their long and colourful history is amazing.

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Old bus in Sliema showing the old name of Malta from Roman times
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Me – enjoying the gardens in the Maltese sunshine

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