Malta, Where the West Was Born - New York Times Magazine
MALTA’S CENTER UNTIL the 16th century, the golden-walled city of Mdina, sits on a hill with a view over its thick ramparts and across scrubby plains to Valletta, the current capital, and the glittering sea. My family and I had arrived there — having flown in from London the night before — by public bus from the busy terminal outside Valletta’s gates, along with a few taciturn locals bearing bouquets of flowers, presumably heading to Sunday lunch with relatives in the adjacent modern town of Rabat, and a gaggle of chatty Italians, keen, like ourselves, to visit the so-called “silent city.” And indeed, on this July afternoon, as the black-clad priest and his caretaker padlocked the vast doors of St. Paul’s Cathedral, passed us with their heads bowed and scurried away into the tiny city’s sun-washed maze, the streets were silent except for us, the tourists. The occasional decorated horse clopped by, pulling British or Italians upon a painted cart. Our own footsteps echoed in the silent canyons between cloistered monasteries, convents and private houses, until we rounded a corner into a square near the Carmelite Priory and were suddenly surrounded by young visitors buying trinkets and postcards, taking photographs, swigging, in the heat, from sweating plastic water bottles. A block farther on, all was quiet again. This small, perfect town felt as if I’d dreamed it, a hermetic Mediterranean fantasy, a curious and singular combination of Arab influence and profound Catholicism, the stretching vista of sandy earth and olive trees descending to the impeccable azure sea, punctuated by an occasional British red postbox.
All my life I’d wanted to visit Malta. My interest stemmed in part from family lore: My French grandfather’s grandfather was a Maltese immigrant to French Algeria, born in 1820 in Rabat, just outside Mdina’s walls; our name, Messud, is a distortion of Mifsud, to this day common in Malta. (I recently, and surprisingly, encountered the name in relation to the Mueller investigation: It was Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese national, who had allegedly offered to put the Trump campaign foreign policy adviser in contact with the Kremlin.) Then, too, I’d been intrigued by the few details passed on to me along with my ancestor’s birth certificate: details of the island’s particular, rich history from prehistoric times to the present. My interest was inevitably writerly: My ancestors crisscrossed the Mediterranean from France, Italy and Spain to Algeria and back to France, thence to Beirut, from Salonica to Istanbul to Morocco. Malta sits like a jewel in the middle of that storied sea, 100 miles south of Sicily and 240 miles northeast of Tunisia.
We started with Mdina because in Malta, on Sundays, most of the shops are still closed, and we’d been warned by our hotel that Valletta would be dozy. Religion and history are Mdina’s raison d’être, however, and the museums were open. In addition to visiting churches, we stopped at the Palazzo Falson, the former home of a prosperous local artist and collector named Olof Frederick Gollcher (whose Swedish ancestry made him no less passionately Maltese). Here, we could glimpse what lay behind Mdina’s millennium-old walled streets: the elegantly proportioned rooms of a typical townhouse, of course; but also the haven of its essential leafy courtyard, shaded from the midday sun and further calmed by its gently trickling fountain. The museum cafe was closed for renovations, and we ended up instead buying burgers from a stand outside the city walls, beyond the stately but unpeopled Howard Gardens (fashioned from the city’s former moat) in a municipal park of a kind familiar to me from my childhood in Sydney, Australia: It’s a British convention, the manicured open space with a green kiosk selling snacks and a separate structure housing well-kept public loos. Along its rim stood a row of Victorian-era terraced houses, looking for all the world as though they were in Margate or Brighton, each villa bearing a nameplate like “Winchester” or “Windward-ho.” If I hadn’t already known that Malta belonged to Britain for over 150 years, I would have deduced it then — we could only have been in a former British colony.
BUT MALTA IS by no means trapped in its past. Named one of the two European Capitals of Culture for 2018, Valletta has been exhilaratingly revitalized by the architect Renzo Piano’s 2015 reconstruction and re-envisioning of its city gate, parliament building and opera house (badly bombed in World War II). The tourists on the city’s streets and at the island’s beautiful beaches — around 2 million visitors a year — are notably young: The nation is progressive on LGBTQ rights, has a lively party reputation and is justly famous for its scuba diving. In the past few years, it has become a trendy, readily accessible, less overrun alternative to Ibiza or Crete, and one where almost everyone speaks English. But the island has been in the news for darker reasons, too, most recently on Oct. 16, when the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated near her home by a car bomb. She had been investigating government corruption in her home country, and in recent years had focused her attention on the infamous Panama Papers, drawing links to those surrounding Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat.
Although only 122 square miles (with an additional 26 square miles if you count its neighbor, Gozo), and a population of just 400,000 people, Malta’s strategic location has made it a prized territory for millennia — Mediterranean culture, past and present, has always had it at its center. Gozo is said to be Calypso’s island of Ogygia, where Odysseus spent seven happy years, which would mean the country has been a desirable destination since the 12th century B.C. Nearby is the smallest island, Comino, where tourists now splash in the beautiful Blue Lagoon. Rather like Cuba in the Caribbean, in recent centuries Malta’s position has afforded it a geopolitical importance far greater than its size alone might warrant. As a result, it has evolved into a culturally distinct palimpsest; repeatedly pillaged and colonized, now an independent nation (and stalwart EU member) it has aspects of culture, language, architecture and landscape familiar to Bulgarians and Britons, to Israelis and Italians.
In the course of our visit, we encountered Spaniards, Serbs and British expatriates, all of whom have made their way to the island by circuitous, highly personal routes. More dramatically, in recent years Malta has been a first port for numerous migrant refugees arriving by boat from the Middle East and North Africa or, in some instances, plucked from the ocean after shipwrecks by passing vessels. Their most celebrated antecedent is the apostle St. Paul, shipwrecked on Malta in A.D. 60, according to the Book of Acts, and who converted the Roman governor and the local population to Christianity, making the Maltese among the earliest Christians and the island a profoundly Christian state.
St. Paul, however, was already a latecomer. Little is known about Malta’s earliest inhabitants, who have left their traces in the island’s extraordinary megalithic temples at numerous sites around the island, some erected as early as 4000 B.C., which makes them older than Stonehenge, and approximately 1,400 years older than the Egyptian pyramids. Discovered at the sites are a number of obese clay and limestone figures, colloquially deemed the Fat Ladies of Malta or the Venuses of Malta, which have led people to speculate about a goddess-worshiping or matriarchal culture on the island in prehistoric times.
By the eighth century B.C., the Phoenicians, that great seafaring people (whose home was in what is now Lebanon and Syria), had established a colony on the island. In subsequent centuries, Malta was conquered by the Carthaginians, who were of course originally Phoenicians, too (in the fifth century B.C.), and, during the Second Punic War (between Carthage and Rome), by the Romans (in 218 B.C.), at which point Malta was placed under the governorship of Sicily.
When St. Paul arrived in A.D. 60, the island’s populace had already been shaped and reshaped by diverse cultures, but the legacy of their early Christian conversion is strongly in evidence 2,000 years later: The tiny nation has around 360 churches, many of them beautiful. The most remarkable is the spectacular St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a grandiose Baroque insanity with abundant gilded ornamentation, frescoes and friezes, marble statuary and elaborately inlaid tombs in the floor, decorated with, among other images, unsettlingly animated skeletons. It is famous, in part, for two extraordinary late Caravaggio paintings, “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist” and “Saint Jerome Writing.” (A murder charge forced the painter to flee to Rome, and he eventually landed in Malta in 1607.) For some, these paintings and the church are the island’s primary attractions. Additionally, there’s the 16th-century Church of the Shipwreck of St. Paul, its famed relic the saint’s right wrist bone; the minute, jewel-like Chapel of St. Agatha in Mdina, which improbably served as home for two displaced families during World War II; and the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in Mosta, with its vast, beautiful dome, one of the largest rotundas in the world.
After the Romans came the Vandals, then the Goths, then the Romans again. The Arabs took it over in the ninth century; the Normans in the 11th (a period during which two of the rulers were amusingly named Roger). After a stretch of several centuries when the fortunes of the Maltese were entwined with those of the Sicilians, the island was given in the mid-16th century by Charles V (Holy Roman emperor and leader of the Spanish Empire) to the Knights of St. John Hospitaller.
These men were to become known as the Knights of Malta. Theirs was the Maltese cross, and theirs, too, the Maltese falcon — the bird being, in fact, the Knights’ annual tribute to the Emperor in return for tenure on the islands of Malta and Gozo. An international monastic order dating from 1048, and ministering medically to all comers, the Knights of St. John had previously made their base in Rhodes, until its invasion by the Turks left them homeless. They had not long been settled in Malta when the Ottomans (under Suleiman the Magnificent) came calling, resulting in the fabled Siege of Malta of 1565, which remains one of the great military stories of Western civilization. “If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta,” Queen Elizabeth I is reported to have said, “it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom.”
Malta remained under the jurisdiction of the Knights until Napoleon claimed the island on his way to Egypt in 1798; but Nelson, on his path back from Egypt, ousted the French (to the delight of the Maltese), naming it a colony of Great Britain, which it remained until 1964. The island holds a place in a surprising number of Britons’ family lore: Many were born there or, like the late critic Christopher Hitchens, spent time there in childhood, while their fathers, serving in the British navy, were posted to the island. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip lived in Malta in the early days of their marriage, and made an emotional return visit in 2015.
The strategic placement of this British colony made it a target of ferocious attacks during World War II. This is no longer obvious as you traverse the island, but much of its attraction for divers involves its numerous sunken wrecks. Malta today will offer as much or as little history as a visitor cares to explore. But for those who are interested, it provides a crash course in Western civilization — and in the evolution and struggles of Christianity from its earliest days.
VALLETTA ITSELF — THE first planned city of Europe, built by the Knights of St. John in the late 16th century — unites echoes of Cordoba, Jerusalem and Aix-en-Provence, a miniaturized amalgamation of a millennium of Mediterranean history. Perched on a promontory surrounded by water, the city was designed in such a way that the streets are shaded from summer’s heat by the terraced buildings themselves. Glimpses of the blue sea abound, as do shrines and religious statues, peeking chipped and tarnished out of raised niches at random street corners. Even the tiny cabs that circulate in the old city (baptized with names like “Barbie”) carry a portrait of J.C. himself propped on the dashboard. A few blocks beyond the teeming tourist hubbub (where brightly lit Hilfiger and Levi’s shops glimmer between jewelers selling Maltese crosses and fantastically old-fashioned pharmacies), the storefronts remain unchanged from 50 years ago, their antiquated signs dusty, their wares (glass cases of Zippo lighters; uneven stacks of soda bottles and beer cans; rows of lead Maltese knights in armor) modest and disparate. One billboard advertises a defunct cinema, complete with air-conditioning and shows at 2, 4, 6 and 8; across the road dangles a long-forgotten sign for “His Master’s Voice,” the black-and-white drawing of dog and gramophone that I haven’t seen since my childhood. Another abandoned shop, the Piccinino Corset House, wonderfully still announces at its upstairs window, in ’70s Letraset, “Oversize Section.”
Late on Sunday afternoon, we crossed Valletta’s harbor, aiming for Malta’s Three Cities: Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua (the trio, old and small, are easy to visit on the same day) — opting to travel by luzzu, a brightly painted traditional fishing boat with a red checkered awning and, in keeping with ancient Phoenician tradition, a pair of eyes painted on the bow. Our boatman silent at the tiller as we traversed the wide channel, we rode low in the water, putting sedately between larger boats, past a vast cruise ship docked nearby. There, as we wandered Vittoriosa’s beautiful residential streets, untended children kicked balls back and forth and danced to crackling transistor radios while young men tinkered with their cars in the late afternoon light. On the heights of Vittoriosa, we happened upon a terraced square looking back toward the glinting buildings of Valletta and, to our right, to the breakwater and beyond, the open sea. The plaza was lined with benches, at dusk each occupied by a row of elderly residents: small, solid, dark Mediterraneans sitting silently side by side, the women perspiring in nylon dresses, dark hose and stout black shoes, the men in dress shirts and trousers, their shining faces impassive as they gazed past us out to the horizon. At the back of the square, two stories up, a pair of middle-aged women perched on adjoining balconies, bent toward one another, deep in conversation, a small bird in a white cage suspended between them, each with a small dog sleeping at her feet, their broad backs turned to the beautiful view, their faces visible only in profile. The murmur of their voices was the only audible sound. This life, it felt, had remained unchanged for generations.
On our last evening, we ate supper at our hotel, the magnificent Phoenicia, on its beautiful stone terrace with its view of the old city of Valletta, and glimpses of the cerulean harbor. Our meal was delicious — burrata with heirloom tomatoes and a fresh piece of swordfish — but it was made all the more special by the repeated eruption of fireworks, not once, not twice, but three separate times during the course of our meal. It wasn’t an anomaly — there’d been fireworks each evening, and the first night we’d thought it was a military exercise — but it was by far the most extensive and diverse display. They burst from different directions, at first audible and then visible, glittering, colorful explosions in the distance, garishly illuminating the dusk. Surprised, even a bit alarmed, we asked our apparently sober waitress what was going on: She had to restrain her mirth. Each Maltese and Gozoan village or town has its festival day, she explained, and they occur chiefly in the summertime. Sometimes, more than one town is celebrating at once. She gave in to her laughter: “It’s a big deal. We Maltese love a party,” she explained, “and we love our fireworks. We’re a small country, but we have four fireworks factories on this island alone.” In reality, the island has some 35 fireworks factories, a number exponentially more extravagant.
But of course: Although tiny, they have more of everything — more history, more religious devotion, more invaders, more dropped bombs, more resilience, more jokes, more parties, more life. Malta is unique: Whether or not the world pays heed, its citizens celebrate the fact.