A small rock set in the southern Mediterranean between Sicily and NorthAfrica, only 18 miles long, with a population of more than 300,000, the island of Malta is a palimpsest of cultures, developed over thousands of years of successive invasions by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans and the Spanish, French and British. For nearly 300 years, from 1530 to 1814, it was the sovereign domain of the crusading order of the Knights of Malta, who built many of its most enduring monuments.
Today Malta is a sleepy island resort, heavily dependent on mostly elderly British tourists. If the landscape seems North African, with its rough, arid terrain and low, whitewashed houses, the towns maintain the air of a British colony, which Malta was, from 1814 to 1964. Most street and shop-window signsare in English; there are still red wooden phone booths capped with the royal crown, and the roads are filled with English cars from the 1940’s and 50’s –Hillmans, Vauxhalls, Bedfords, Austins and Morrises — adding to the sense of a time warp.
Almost all the citizens of Malta speak English with some degree of proficiency, and it is one of the island’s official languages; the other, Maltese, is a Semitic language based largely on Arabic but written in the Roman alphabet. Inside a Maltese Roman Catholic church — with its elaborate Baroque decoration, its Mass with candles and incense — you might think you were in Rome or Naples, until you realize that the faithful are praying to Alla — the Maltese word for God. In Malta, the strange and the familiar are in constant juxtaposition.
The Maltese are an ancient people. They trace their ancestry to theCarthaginians and Phoenicians. Culturally they consider themselves European: their administration and legal system are English, and they watch mainly Italian television.
Malta can have a disorienting effect on one’s perception of time and distance. It seems a much larger place than it really is, because it is so densely packed with both people and history. With an average of more than 1,000 inhabitants a square mile, Malta is at least six times more crowded than Italy, itself one of Europe’s most densely populated countries. Driving through one town after another, you can easily take two hours to cross the tiny island, which gives you the feeling of having traveled much farther than 18 miles. Thesense of chronological distance is even greater. Within a few miles of each other, there are prehistoric temples built around 3000 B.C., the remains of a Roman villa, early Christian catacombs, medieval Norman palaces, Renaissance fortresses and Baroque facades — not to mention examples of late 20th-century resort architecture in the style of Miami Beach.
That life on Malta was flourishing more than 5,000 years ago is clear from the remains of prehistoric tombs and temples found all over the island. Constructed of monolithic blocks of stone, some of these temples are reminiscent of Stonehenge, but they are thought to be older. Advances in carbon-dating techniques have pushed back the earliest provenance to 3000 or 3500 B.C., making them among the oldest known examples of monumental stone architecture, older than the buildings of ancient Egypt. Since nothing similar has been found in Sicily or North Africa, the temples constitute something of a mystery: why did this advanced civilization sprout up on such an isolated and comparatively inhospitable island? And why, after about 2500 B.C., did it fall into decline?
Most of the more than 20 temple sites on Malta and the adjacent island of Gozo contain several different buildings: the temples are built in clusters, each temple shaped like a rounded apse, and the overall pattern resembles cogs turning around a central wheel. The huge monolithic stones — generally about six or seven feet high — were placed next to one another sideways and carefully fitted together so that they curve around to form a circle. The roofs, which might have been made of wood or some other perishable material, have long since disintegrated so that most of the structures stand open to the sky. Archeologists have established that the sites were used exclusively for ritual purposes, since they have found stone-cult statues, ritual knives and animal bones, but no remains of daily life.
The most famous temple complex is in the inland town of Tarxien, but there is a shabby modern housing development next to it, which detracts from its impact. Far more suggestive are the temples on the southern coast, at Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, which sit in a rough heath on a rocky ledge.
At Hagar Qim the stone monoliths are pockmarked and withered from the wind and the rain, but the temples at Mnajdra, a few hundred feet down toward the water are in almost perfect condition. The Hagar Qim complex was built with globigerina limestone, which is extremely soft, while Mnajdra was made with the coralline limestone that people on the island call simply “Maltese stone.” In the ground, this warm, honey-colored stone is soft and easy to quarry, but out in the air it hardens over time, becoming a sturdy building material. Almost everything on Malta is made of it, so that, like a golden thread, it knits together the island from the prehistoric temples to the latest split-levelhouses.
Imposing walls of corraline limestone are the first things you see at Mdina, a fortified city that encapsulates much of Malta’s later history. Although its name is Arab, Mdina was made the island’s capital by the Romans. Like many Roman towns, it was built for defensive purposes, on a commanding promontory in the middle of the island, from which you can see all the way to the sea. Just outside Mdina, in the adjacent town of Rabat (which means suburb in Arabic) are the remains of a Roman villa, withhandsome floor mosaics, including a Jepiction of autumn as a bird plucking the fruits of the harvest from the arms of a young, wild-haired boy. There is also a small museum with a handful of beautiful pieces, chief among them a finely sculptured, translucent marble head of a maenad. A short walk away, there are two sets of early Christian catacombs, on of which,the Catacombs of St. Paul, was built near the grotto where the saint, who was shipwrecked on Malta in A.D. 60 and introduced Christianity to the island, is thought to have stayed.
The Saracens, who conquered Malta in 870, reduced the size of Mdina to its current dimensions, barely 500 yards in diameter, and built the moat that surrounds the town. The Normans took the island in 1090, and a palace in Mdina testifies to their influence. Know simply as the Morman House, and now a museum, it is a buiding of spare proportions, with a few elegant touches like its small double windows divided by delicately sculptured columns.
Mdina’s decline began in 1530 with the arrival of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, later known as the Knights of Malta, who moved the island’s capital to Birgu, on the east coast. Founded in 11th century, the Order of the Knights of St.John was originally a hospital order, dedicated to taking care of Christians coming to the Holy Land, but it quickly evolved into a military organization. After more than a century of fighting the Muslims, the knights were forced toleave the Holy Land in 1291; they went first to Cyprus and then to Rhodes.
In 1522 the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent besieged Rhodes., and the Knights of St. John were driven to further retreat. The Emperor Charles V gave them the island of Malta in 1530, requiring — as Sydney Greenstreet correctly explains to Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon” — that they, as a sign of gratitude and loyalty, send him a falcon each year. The knights accepted his gift with considerable reluctance: this rock in the Mediterranean seemed a highly unsatisfactory home for such a rich and powerful order. Small, poorly fortified and arid, it was heavily dependent on Sicily for everything from food to raw materials.
Expecting Suleiman to invade, the knights worked to shore up the defenses of their new capital and other towns around the Grand Harbor, building the stout fortifications that dominate the area even today. Steep battlements run for miles, wrapping the towns of Birgu and Senglea in a shell of coralline limestone, further protected by ramparts, bastions and moats. When the Turks finally attacked in May 1565, the harbor became the center of a ferocious four-month battle that was a turning point in the struggle between Islam and Christianity for control of the western Mediterranean.
The Turks, by some estimates 40,000 strong, established their camp on the high ground of the Grand Harbor’s northern arm, from which they could train their artillery on Birgu and Senglea, just across the water. But the first bastion to be attacked was the star-shaped fort of St. Elmo, directly to the east of the Turks’ encampment. It held out courageously for more than a month; rather than surrender, the garrison fought until the last man in order to buy time for the rest of the knights.
The major battles of the siege were waged in Birgu and Senglea, which commanded the twin peninsulas on the south of the harbor. At this point, there were about 400 knights and fewer than 10,000 soldiers defending Malta. In Birgu,the Turks finally broke through the knights’ defenses on Aug. 18, 1565. Although many counseled a retreat, Jean de la Vallette, the 71-year-old Grand Master of the order, took up arms and personally led a counterattack, retaking the bastion, which had been assigned to knights from the Langue of Castille. (The order was organized into national groups called Langues, and the knights of each Langue lived and fought together.) The bastion still stands, and a plaque marks the spot of the decisive encounter.
On Sept. 6, 1565, a relief force dispatched by the Viceroy of Sicily finally arrived at Malta, and on Sept. 8 the Turks abandoned the siege. Birgu was renamed Vittoriosa, and the town of Valletta was quickly constructed on the site of the Turkish encampment.
Designed by the Italian architect Francesco Laparelli (in consultation with Jean de la Vallette himself), Valletta is a completely planned city, an example of a new ideal that began to flourish during the Renaissance. The city plan follows a rational grid, but the builders did not have the time or the money to level the hilly ground, so Valletta’s perfectly parallel streets are on different levels, connected by steep staircases. For the most part palaces were not allowed to have outside staircases or other projections that would mar the linear perspectives of the streets.
Initially, defense was the primary concern of Valletta’s builders, and its starkly simple palaces reflect the austerity of the times in which they were constructed — one-third of Malta’s population had been killed during the siege, much of the island was still in shambles, and the knights feared a vengefulreturn of the enemy. But during the 17th century, after the threat of the Turks had receded, rich ornamentation and decorative experimentation flourished. The knights and the Maltese carvers who worked for them discovered the sculptural possibilities of the soft native limestone, which seems to have been meant for the chisel, and developed a peculiar Maltese variation on Baroque architecture. Over the doorways and on the cornices of many buildings are profusions of sculptured detail in the form of military paraphernalia — swords, shields, armor, helmets, trumpets, flags — which climb up the walls of the palaces like riotously blooming vines.
The interior of Valletta’s Cathedral of St. John — known as the”Co-Cathedral,” the other cathedral being in Mdina — is one of the most remarkable explosions of Baroque invention to be found anywhere. In 1661, the knights brought the Italian painter Mattia Preti to Malta to decorate theCo-Cathedral in a manner befitting the wealth and importance of their order. Preti was a highly accomplished painter (who combined the realism of Caravaggio with the softer manner of such Venetian artists as Veronese and Titian), and his designs for St. John’s Cathedral are the triumph of his career. With a kind of horror vacui, he covered virtually every inch of floor, wall and ceiling with finely wrought decoration.
The floor, from door to apse, is paved with some 400 slabs, each the tomb of a knight of Malta. The artists who executed the slabs used various shades ofinlaid colored marble like wood intarsia to create elaborate scenes showing people, coats of arms, weapons, skeletons and death’s-heads. The walls are made of the ubiquitous coralline limestone, and Preti had his craftsmen cut the decoration directly into the walls themselves. From floor to ceiling, the 14 chapels of the Co-Cathedral are carved in undulating reliefs that metamorphose into an endless variety of angels, gargoyles, eagles, crowns, fish, roaring lions, trumpets, flags and fallen Turkish soldiers. The chapels were built by individual Langues, who sought to outdo each other in lavish decoration. Perhaps the most elaborate of all is the chapel of Aragon, Catalonia and Navarre, which contains, among other things, an enormous funeral monument to the Grand Master Nicolas Cotoner. He sits in triumph several feet above the ground, held aloft by two life-size figures of Turkish slaves, while an angel and a putto float above him, fully 10 or 15 feet in the air.
Also in the Co-Cathedral is one of the greatest paintings of the Italian Baroque — Caravaggio’s “Beheading of St. John the Baptist.” Caravaggio came to Malta in 1607, a fugitive from justice after having killed a man in Rome. He would eventually flee Malta after another violent quarrel, but before he did, he became an honorary Knight of St. John and painted some of his most important late works. Two have remained in the Valletta cathedral: a painting of St. Jerome (in theItalian chapel) and the astonishing St. John. It is Caravaggio’s largest painting and fills the entire wall of the oratory. Rather than depicting the more theatrical scenes of St. John the Baptist’s martyrdom — the bloody execution or Salome’s triumphant presentation of his head on a platter –Caravaggio chose the moment between the two: St. John is dead, and lies pale and motionless as the executioner pauses after finishing his job. The participants in this ghastly deed are dwarfed by a vast, dark and largely empty backgroundthat creates an overwhelming sense of desolation and somber beauty. Almost imperceptibly, in the trail of blood running along the bottom of the picture, Caravaggio signed his name.
Leaving the Co-Cathedral from its northern side, you pass the handsomely arcaded National Library, with its collection of the archives of the Knights of St. John, stretching back to the order’s days in the Holy Land. Beyond the library, across Queen’s Square, is the Grand Master’s Palace – perhaps the most important secular building in Valleta – now the office of the President of the Republic of Malta and the seat of the Maltese Parliament. It contains a series of fresco paintings by matteo da Lecce, a pupil of Michelangeio, that chronicle the important events of the great seige of 1565. Just across from the palace is the former residence of the Grand Master’s bodyguards; it was for a time the Libyan Cultural Center and now houses the Italian Cultural Center and now houses the Italian Cultural Institute. In its brief history as an independent republic, Malta has maintained a complex diplomatic balancing act between Europe and Africa, establishing close ties with both Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya and such NATO member as Italy and Britain.
VALLETTA, NOW the capital of Malta, has a population of 10,000 and is a commercial as well as an administrative center. Its streets are lined with shops and open markets, selling everything from clothing and souvenirs to bootleg audio and video tapes. Like Vittoriosa and Senglea, the old towns of the knights, it is well preserved, in part because there is little space for modern development. The majority of tourist hotels are concentrated around the coastal towns of Shema and St. Julian’s. Shema seems to cater mostly to British retirees on vacation; in the geriatric discotheques along the Shema strip, elderly British couples circle the dance floor to the music of Perry Como and Lawrence Welk. In St. Julian’s, which attracts a younger crowd, clubs blast rap and disco music late into the night. As unappealing as Shema and St. Julian’s are, it is in many ways a blessing that so much of the resort development has been confined to a relatively small part of the island.
Today the knights are known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and make their headquarters on the Via Condotti in downtown Rome. But Malta remains a place that has been touched by greatness to a disproportionate degree, and an astonishing amount of its rich and complex past is still in evidence today.
IN THE MALTESE MANNER
The MALTA MISSION TO THE UNITED NATIONS (249 East 35th Street, New York,N.Y. 10016; telephone: 212-725-2345) can provide brochures on the major sites inMalta, as well as a comprehensive listing of accommodations. Many of the mostcomfortable hotels are located in St. Julian’s and Sliema, a few miles west ofValletta. The following prices are computed at a rate of $3.25 to one Maltesepound. Rates given are for the high season, which starts in April and ends in October or November. Hotels listed are full-service establishments; all offerhalf- or full-board supplements. Hotel fare tends toward British and Italian, with some local Maltese dishes (often grilled deep-sea fish like bream or alocal white fish called lampuki). All the establishments on this highly selective list have such amenities as swimming pools and gyms or water sports facilities.
CAVALIERI HOTEL (Spinola Road, St. Julian’s, Malta; telephone: 336255) has 160 rooms, all with views of the sea. Double rooms are about $80, including breakfast. Half-board (breakfast and dinner) supplements cost an additional $13 a person.
PRELUNA HOTEL AND TOWERS (Tower Road, Sliema; 334001) has 289 rooms; doubles range from about $80 to $120 for a room with a sea view. English breakfast is included. Half board is an additional $8 a person.
JERMA PALACE HOTEL (Dawret It-Torri, Marsaskala; 823222), in the fishing village of Marsaskala east of Valletta, has 350 rooms ranging from $70 for adouble room with an inland view to $75 for a sea view (note: high-season ratesare not yet available; expect these prices to go up slightly in April). Breakfast is included. Half board is an additional $15 a person.
Some of the more luxurious accommodations are provided by members of international chains. Among them, the MALTA HILTON (St. Julian’s; 336201) has 201 guest rooms; doubles range from about $155 to $185, depending on view. Many rooms have terraces, and there is a private beach, as well as three pools, tennis courts and four restaurants. Half-board supplements are available at $22 a person.
– March 1, 1992
As published in The New York Times