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04/06/2006 Archived Entry: "Malta"

Valetta bus station, with fountain

Valetta Bus Station with central fountain

Today's Diary note comes from Malta where I have just spent a few days. It is the largest of six small islands in the Mediterranean, but is only about sixteen miles long by eight miles wide, and its population is in the region of 350,000. Much of the island, therefore, is built-up, the stone being a beautiful honey-coloured local limestone. In fact, the entire island is really one mighty big rock which has been colonised by people, plants and wild life, but its location off the tip of Sicily and not far from the north African coast, has made it highly strategic despite its small size. For that reason, it has suffered during many of the world's greatest power struggles, being subjected to constant invasion throughout its turbulent history.
Not surprisingly, Malta is a fascinating mixture of cultures. It has its own language which is a mixture of Arabic, Latin, French, Italian and probably others, but it is the only Arabic-based tongue which is written in Roman letters. That makes it most difficult to read, although it is widely spoken. However the British influence is strong: the Maltese speak fluent English as their second language; the local newspapers are printed in English; motor vehicles are driven on the left and bear English-style number plates; the place is full of red telephone kiosks and pillar boxes; one can buy pints and half-pints of beer and the speedometers of cars are calibrated in miles per hour, even if distances are measured in kilometres!
The islands are independent, being declared a republic in 1964, and they joined the European Union in 2004. Currency is the Maltese lire, though many local people refer to it as the pound and much of the merchandise in the shops is marked with the £' sterling sign. This is a bit disconcerting for British tourists when they realise that an item marked at £10 is actually 10 Maltese lire which converts to something like £16 sterling!
The most common mode of travel is by omnibus as fares are so cheap. Many of these famous yellow buses are over fifty years old and it is an adventure to ride in them as they chug through the country lanes or negotiate potholed narrow streets in town. The buses depart every ten minutes or so from the circular bus station in Valetta, which is a marvel in itself, with its huge central fountain.
It is difficult to research the ancient history of Malta due to a lack of written records. It is thought that settlers from Sicily arrived as early as 5300 BC and certainly, well-built stone temples dating to 4,000 BC can still be seen. These were constructed before either Stonehenge or the pyramids, but over the centuries Malta, sometimes known as Melita, has been invaded by the Phoenicians, ancient Greeks, Romans, Turks, Arabs, French, British and, notoriously in 1942 during World War II, the Germans. For its bravery in the face of that attack, the island was awarded the George Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry by civilians.
Its most famous settlers were the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, otherwise known as the Knights Hospitallers, who were granted the island of Malta by the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V. They arrived in Malta in 1530 and their rent was one falcon a year. Under their Grand Master, who was answerable only to the Pope, the Knights set about building the fortifications which still exist today and which have been used down the centuries in its defence. The knights built their hospitals and cared for the sick whilst also undertaking a military role and remained in Malta, bringing massive benefits to the island, until they were evicted by Napoleon in 1798. Napoleon's navy gained access to the heavily fortified harbour on the pretext of acquiring provisions.
Two years of dreadful and chaotic French rule followed, with the Knights' hospitals being destroyed through both inefficiency and disease. At the time the English were at war with France and Admiral Horatio Nelson set sail for Malta with his troops and the French surrendered. On September 5, 1800, Malta became a British colony.
The visitor who made the single greatest impact on Malta was probably St Paul, known as the Apostle of the Gentiles. Initially a vigorous opponent of Christianity, Paul experienced his famous conversion on the road to Damascus when, in a vision, Christ told him to preach the faith to the non-Jews. Paul set about his missionary journeys but got arrested in Jerusalem and was sent to pagan Rome for trial. On his way, however, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Malta. He stayed for three months, sheltering in a cave which, a thousand years earlier, had been hand-hewn from rock by the Romans, then to be used as a place of burial and that cave now lies beneath the Church of St Paul in Rabat. We visited it and marvelled that this link with the birth of Christianity has survived.
Malta's churches are both historic and stunning, often with elaborate decorations and massive domes. The awe-inspiring Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Mosta is said to have the fourth largest dome in Europe, and it was completed without the aid of interior scaffolding. During World War II, whilst Mass was being celebrated, a German bomb fell through the dome and landed in front of the altar among a congregation of 300. Miraculously, it failed to explode and no-one was injured. The stunning Co-Cathedral of St John in Valletta is equally breathtaking. Constructed between 1573-77 by the Knights of St John, it contains Caravaggio's masterpiece The Beheading of St John the Baptist.
There is much evidence of religious observance in Malta; statues of saints adorn street corners; crosses occupy hilltops; chapels sit in remote places and bus drivers hang rosary beads in their cabs in an open display of their faith. Patronal festivals are a big feature of life when everyone comes out to witness massive religious statues being carried along the streets.
When touring the island on its famous buses, there is much to see and admire but very little agricultural land; cows and sheep are scarce but the available farmland is beautifully tended with crops including potatoes, broad beans, leeks and vines. At this time of year, the landscape is rich with wild flowers but we were disheartened to see men trapping wild song birds only yards from a nature reserve. I believe the practice is due to be outlawed now that Malta has joined the EEC.
And finally - there are no rivers on Malta!

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