Remote Mediterranean island Malta steeped in history
"We are an island nation. We are fighters," Narcy Calamatta, actor and sometimes tour guide, tells me over lunch.
My cruise ended this morning in Malta, so before I head home, I decide to spend a day getting to know this little-known speck on the globe and am lucky to have Calamatta show me around. A familiar face in local TV, film and theater, he's a bit of a character. Charming but forthright, he embodies the Maltese fighting spirit.
It's a spirit that's been called upon through centuries of invasions.
Located in the middle of the Mediterranean, about 50 miles south of Sicily, 200 north of Libya, Malta was a plateau on a land bridge linking Europe and Africa before the sea rose at the end of the last Ice Age. Just 122 square miles, this archipelago of five islands -- three inhabited -- sits in a strategic spot for any country seeking to rule the region. The Phoenicians made their claim, then came the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Turks, the Arabs, the Normans and Aragonese, the French and the British before Malta formed a republic in 1974. In 2004 it joined the European Union -- its smallest country.
Perhaps its greatest fighters, at least the most colorful ones, were the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem.
Oh, the Crusaders, I say. No, Calamatta swiftly corrects me, the Knights came later. The pope asked the nobility of Europe to give him their firstborn sons to form an army to drive the Muslims from the Holy Land, he explains. They were the Crusaders. He then asked for the nobles' second-born sons to form an order that would build hospitals and care for pilgrims in Jerusalem.
Dedicating themselves to St. John the Baptist, these doctor monks soon became warriors, too, joining the fight for control of the Holy Land, a fight they lost. They were chased across the Eastern Mediterranean to Cyprus, then Rhodes and finally Malta. In 1530, the pope persuaded the Holy Roman Emperor to give the islands to the Knights in return for the payment of one peregrine falcon each year. The legend of the Maltese falcon was born.
Calamatta shows me evidence of the Knights' good work when we stop at the Mediterranean Conference Center in Valletta, Malta's capital city. Inside what is now a venue for meetings, banquets and concerts, is the Sacra Infermeria, or Holy Infirmary, where the Knights treated the sick of all faiths. The main ward of this hospital extends more than 500 feet in length, the longest hall in Europe at the time. Niches in the walls mark where beds once stood and the ill were served the finest food on silver platters.
The building also houses the Malta Experience, a 45-minute audiovisual show on Maltese history. I skip it. With Calamatta at my elbow, I'm being schooled firsthand.
In the Knights' Grand Master's Palace, priceless Gobelin tapestries depict the continents, exotic animals and flowers. At 200 stitches per inch, they're incredibly detailed, showing the seeds and shape of the insides of fruits and vegetables. Remember, Calamatta says, the Knights were doctors who studied plants as a source of medicines.
In the throne room, paintings tell the story of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. The Ottoman Empire sought control of the Mediterranean and planned to invade Italy and overthrow the pope. Malta stood in the way. Though the numbers are in dispute, Calamatta says an armada of ships with as many as 40,000 Ottomans fought 700 Knights joined by European mercenaries and Maltese farmers. After laying siege for four months, the Ottomans left with just 10,000 men. If not for the great bravery of the Knights and the Maltese, "Europe would be Turkish today," says Calamatta. He concedes, though, that most of the Ottomans perished not from battle, but from drinking polluted swamp water.
I see the cannons, shields and swords used on both sides of the battle in the Palace Armoury. A crucifix is inscribed on the chest plate of a Knight. The Grand Master's armor is inlaid with gold.
Bearing two crosses
The Palace is now Malta's presidential residence and parliament building. As we walk outside, I point to a Maltese Cross on the national flag. Wrong, says Calamatta. That's the George Cross awarded to the people of Malta by British King George VI after they endured a second siege by German and Italian forces during World War II.
The Maltese Cross, he tells me, is the symbol of the Knights of St. John, its four arms with eight points representing the eight Beatitudes from the New Testament, as well as the eight lands of origin of the Knights during the Middle Ages.
I see plenty of Maltese Crosses on the floor of St. John's Co-Cathedral. They are part of the mosaics covering the tombs of more than 300 Knights of St. John buried below my feet.
Perhaps the most visited site in Malta, the cathedral was the home church of the princely Knights who spared no expense in transforming its interior into a dazzling display of Baroque art. "They were trying to keep up with the Medicis," jokes Calamatta, referring to the power family of Florence at the time. A hundred years after the Reformation, the Catholic Church was hanging onto its influence and the Knights made sure their cathedral sent a message of prestige, he says. When peasants walked inside they were bowled over by the gold ornamentation on the walls and barrel vaulted ceiling.
The cathedral's most famous artwork, by Caravaggio, hangs in the Oratory. A ruffian who moved around southern Europe ahead of trouble, Caravaggio came to Malta and was briefly one of the Knights. Imprisoned for fighting, he escaped and fled to Italy where he died at age 39. Of his 65 known works, two are displayed here, "Saint Jerome Writing" and, what some consider his masterpiece, "The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist." Noted for its composition, realism and use of light, it captivated viewers when it was unveiled in 1608, and still does today. "Everyone is crazy about Caravaggio because he is so cinematic," says Calamatta.
As we depart, I ask why this church is called a co-cathedral. Because the cathedral of the archbishop of Malta is in the old capital city of Mdina, says Calamatta. He uses the co-cathedral when he is in Valletta.
We climb in a car and head across the island to this old city. Perched on a ridge, Mdina's honey-colored limestone fortifications glow in the afternoon light. Most of the oldest buildings in Malta are built of this stone, says Calamatta. "It cuts like cheese, then hardens" making it durable but easy to work with.
A walled city, surrounded by a moat, Mdina was the capital of Malta under Roman rule. Walking along its silent streets, where vehicles are banned, I sense the ghosts of the past. According to the New Testament's Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in A.D. 60, though the island was then known by its Greek name, Melite. Legend has it that the apostle converted the Roman governor to Christianity on the spot where Mdina's St. Paul's Cathedral now stands.
Malta remains staunchly Catholic, thanks to St. Paul and the Knights. Catholicism is the state religion practiced by 98 percent of the population. Churches, one for every 1,000 people, are the focal point of most communities.
But civilization on Malta dates back much further than Roman times. Millennia, in fact.
Scientific evidence shows humans came to Malta around 5200 B.C., probably Stone Age hunters migrating from what is now Sicily. Around 3600 B.C. they began building megalithic temples, massive structures made from the same limestone used to build the ramparts of Mdina and Valletta. Think of Stonehenge, Calamatta tells me, but while England has just one such megalith, Malta has 11. They are also much older, he says, "the oldest free-standing stone monuments in the world."
We have time to visit just one, Hagar Qim that sits on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean. Its largest stone soars 17 feet with a weight estimated at more than 22 tons. We enter the temple through a porthole doorway leading to a series of C-shaped rooms where altars and statues of fertility goddesses were found during excavation and removed to the archaeology museum in the capital.
The wall of one room has an elliptical hole. At dawn on the first day of summer, the summer solstice, the sun's first rays line up perfectly with the opening, illuminating a stone slab on the opposite wall. "This is a calendar," says Calamatta. The advanced civilization that built this temple had mathematicians, engineers, politicians, artists, astronomers and possibly psychoanalysts, he says. "The person who put these stones here was an aesthetician, not a monkey eating a banana."
• Information for this article was gathered during a research trip sponsored by the Malta Tourism Authority.
MaltaGetting there: All flights to Malta require a stop in Europe, often in Germany, Belgium or Austria.
When to go: The primary tourist season is April through November. The warmest month is August with highs ranging from 82 to 93 degrees and the coldest is January, 54 to 68.
Where to stay: Grand Hotel Excelsior, Great Siege Road, Floriana; five-star hotel on the outskirts of Valletta; from about $140, double; excelsior.com.mt
Where to eat:
Ÿ Crianza, 33 Archbishop St., Valletta, on a side street near the Grand Master's Palace; pizza, pasta and grilled meats.
Ÿ Caliente Tapas, Vault 16, Pinto Wharf, Valletta, one of a string of busy restaurants opposite the cruise ship dock; tapas, paella and other Spanish dishes.
For more information: Malta Tourism Authority, visitmalta.com; Heritage Malta, heritagemalta.org