Story by Manos and Barbara Angelakis
Photography by Manos Angelakis
Malta is a rather atypical Mediterranean island located South of Sicily in a small archipelago of 3 islands, with a very, very ancient history. For everyday living, the Maltese people are fully engaged in the 21st century; culturally, they are in the 19th to early 20th century British Empire; architecturally it’s a mixed bag! The preponderance of structural forms date to the 17th and 18th century, with many going back to the architecture of the Order of the Knights of St. John Hospitallers, the Renaissance, and even further, to the Moors of Southern Spain and North Africa.
Even the language is curious. Alongside the Queen’s English, Maltese is spoken as a co-official language. This language has Roman/Arabic roots and it was a variety spoken on Sicily, between the beginning of the tenth century and the end of the twelfth. The modern Maltese cultural mosaic is extremely rich for having integrated the diverse influences from cultures such as the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals and Goths, Arabs and Castilians, to the Knights of St John, the French, and finally the British. All have left their mark with monuments and monumental edifices; works of art and religious beliefs; language; agriculture and cuisine.
As guests of the Malta Tourism Authority and the Corinthia Palace Hotel and Spa, we arrived to Malta’s airport on a Lufthansa flight and were driven like royalty to the hotel in a classic Rolls Royce Silver Wraith circa 1951. The Corinthia Palace Hotel is located across the street from the Presidential Palace that features the famous San Anton Gardens, which are open to the public. Mdina (from the Arabic al-madīnah meaning the old town) is the old capital of Malta. Built defensively at the high point of a hill, it has a blend of medieval and baroque buildings in a maze of winding, narrow streets constructed from the honey-colored limestone that most buildings are built in Malta. The city is surrounded by bastions with crenellated parapets and is located at the cultural heart of the island. From behind the parapets, one can see the modern section of the city of Valletta (current capital), and the entrance to the Grand Harbor, which is protected by an artillery row below the parapet, but this is only a very small part of Maltese history.
6,500 years ago, a Neolithic civilization flourished here leaving behind megalithic structures considered by researchers as temples dedicated to the Goddess of Fertility. Curiously, they are vastly dissimilar to the structures built in Sicily within the same time period, even though historians consider the early Maltese as Sicilians that migrated to Malta over 7,000 years ago. They are also very dissimilar to the Neolithic Nuraghi structures built on nearby Sardinia. Located on Gozo, the second island in the archipelago, you will find Ggantija – a local fable alleges a female giant built it – dating from 3,800 BC. It is the oldest megalithic temple site so far discovered and well worth visiting via a short boat trip, which in the calm deep blue waters surrounding Malta is a must-do. You can hire a sailboat or take the ferry; either way not to be missed.
Also not to be missed is the mysterious “temple” site of Hagar Qim that was built on the crest of a ridge overlooking the sea on the island of Malta. It is situated in a defensive position, more suitable for a settlement than solely for a temple. So why would a relatively small population expend so much effort to build such an extensive temple complex? The mystery deepens because not more then 500 meters down the hill to the west is another “temple complex” called Mnajdra. Excavated decorative clay vessels with intricate designs, flint tools, and a representation of a human head fashioned in clay have been unearthed at this site, but so far there is no evidence of habitation leading to the supposition that both were ceremonial sites.
These above-earth structures pale when compared to the underground world of a subterranean structure dating to 3000-2500 BC. The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum of Paola is a prehistoric necropolis and the remains of more than 7,000 individuals have been found deposited there. It is the only known prehistoric underground temple in the world. Bones have been unearthed as well as votive figurines of the Fertility Goddess, but the evidence is that the bones were unceremoniously heaped there, after tissue decomposition was complete, compounding the mystery. It was closed to visitors between 1992 and 1996 for restoration; since it reopened, only 80 people per day (10 individuals per hour) are allowed entry to protect the subterranean structure from the humidity exuded by the visitor’s breath. Malta provides a wealth of rare and outstanding sightseeing opportunities from the aforementioned Mdina, to the Neolithic temples, to the residences and hospital of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (also known as the Order of the Knights of Malta, one of the few Orders created in the Middle Ages that are still active today).
Outstanding is the St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a high Baroque church used by the Knights of Malta, replete with intricately carved gilded designs, frescoed vaulted ceilings and side chapels with scenes from the life of St. John. Since the Knights were members of Europe’s leading aristocratic families, each family had to commit a third of their annual income to the Order; and all of the Knight’s property to the church upon his death. It has eight chapels, each belonging to one of the eight national groups, which made up the Order. The Cathedral houses Europe’s most exquisite collection of Caravaggio’s paintings, the most important being the “Beheading of John the Baptist”.
The Knights of Malta were warriors and medical monks, originally formed to care for injured crusaders and pilgrims in Palestine. After they were defeated and expelled from the Holly Land by Salāh ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (better known in the Western world as Saladin), who was the first Sultan of Syria, the Knights established residence in Cyprus (the site now known as Kolossi Castle) and then Rhodes. In 1530, Emperor Charles V, King of Spain, granted the Maltese Islands to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem in perpetual fief, in exchange for an annual tribute, to indicate the acceptance of the suzerainty of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Contrary to Sydney Greenstreet’s assertions in the 1941 Warner Bros. film “The Maltese Falcon” that the falcon was a jewel encrusted gold bird, the Grand Master of the Order had to actually pay on All Saints day an annual tribute to the Holy Roman Emperor and his mother Queen Joanna of Castile, one live falcon. The order and grand master paid the annual falcon until 1798 when the French Republic expelled the Order from the Maltese islands. Today, Malta has numerous five-star hotels and resorts – the Corinthia Palace Hotel and Spa being a remarkable one – numerous outstanding restaurants where we had exceptional meals, and unrivaled beaches. The antiquities are unequaled, the history astonishing. It is a great place to visit when looking for something off the beaten track.
Corinthia Palace Hotel and Spa
De Paule Avenue, San Anton BZN9023 Malta
Tel: +356 21 440301