Malta: Knights’ Treasure

FROM my restaurant terrace, I can look out over Grand Harbour towards the fortifications of Valletta. Intimidating even now, in the age of aerial assault and cruise missiles, the massive walls must have seemed impregnable when they were first built. Made of the same honeyed sandstone as the island of Malta itself, they grow organically out of the rock. It is hard to believe they are the work of mere men and best not to think of the suffering endured by the slaves who built them here under the searing Mediterranean sun.

“After the Great Seige of 1565, the knights swore that Malta would be impregnable and lost no time in building the walls,” says military historian Russell Malone, a regular visitor to the island. “For four months, the future of Christian Europe had hung in the balance as 500 Knights of St. John and 5,000 soldiers – including around 3,000 Maltese – fought off some 30,000 Turks. The Ottoman Empire had been repulsed, but threatened to come back, bigger and stronger.”

As I eat my lunch, fish fresh from the Mediterranean, a loud bang bursts from a cannon high on Valletta’s walls. The sound echoes around the harbor, drawing all eyes toward a puff of smoke that disperses languidly in the still air. I am sitting at the foot of Fort St. Angelo, where the defenders had faced daily attacks from the Turkish cannon in a similar position on what was then called Mount Sciberras. No wonder that afterwards they threw themselves into making sure this rock would never be a threat to them again, and indeed would be the keystone of their defense.

This Saluting Battery gun sounds every day at noon and 4pm, a tradition that allowed shipmasters to set their chronometers at mid-day and warn citizens the gates were about to close at sunset. The gates and the walls must have been a welcoming haven for the people of Malta, who knew how fortunate was their escape. “In 1551, Ottoman pirates raided the island of Gozo and carried off every man, woman and child into slavery,” says Russell. “It was decades before the population recovered and 1637 before a curfew order was lifted that sent every inhabitant into the citadel at night.

“The Knights’ Grand Master, Jean de Valette – who led the defense during the Great Siege at the age of 70 and after whom the new city was later named – had spent a year as a Turkish galley slave. His soldiers were willing to fight to the death, because they knew what the alternative was. On Gozo, one nobleman killed his wife and daughters before dying himself fighting against the pirates.”

To cross back to Valletta, I take one of the traditional Dghajsa boats, whose lines recall that of the Venetian gondola. “We used to take tours into the Number One Dock, but since they built the new footbridge we cannot go under it because of the high prows,” says boatman Walter Ahar. “One tiny touch and they break. I do not know why we have them. It came from the Arabs.” He suggests it may be to help handle the low craft when landing against a high dock wall.

Walter is in his early 70s and has spent most of his life at sea, working for various shipping lines. “I went to England when I was 14 and came back in 1984. I love the sea,” he says. “I started rowing these boats when I was about eight with my uncle. There is now a cooperative and we can take a coachload of 60 people off a cruise ship with our ten boats.”

He is a campaigner to preserve this slice of Malta’s history, encouraging young people to learn the skills of handling the boats. “There used to be 3,000 of them carrying sailors and there are between 50 and 100 left – the oldest is 130 years old,” he says. “We are trying to bring them back to life again. There are only three men still building and repairing them, but they are very good as their skills go back several generations.”

While the Dghajsas now use outboard motors, they also still have two oars, which Walter uses skilfully to come alongside the dock at Valletta. Out in the harbor, two teenage men are rowing one, tossed by the wake of a gigantic cruise ship leaving port. “They are training for a race, held every March and September,” he says. “They race down the harbor, from near the container port to the Customs House. The prize is not a great deal – the parishes play bingo to raise some money – and the government gives a shield or a cup. Anyone can take part, and every parish sends someone to compete.”

From the dock, I climb the steep streets of Valletta toward the city center. Tall houses on each side throw deep shade across the street, a welcome relief from the sun, while the roads themselves run straight and true to the edge of the island, catching every sea breeze. The center is crowded with cruise ship passengers, snaking in and out of historic buildings and churches, enjoying a snack at pavement cafés, or risking their credit cards in sleek shops offering international designer labels.

The side streets are much quieter, with an intriguing sight on almost every corner: religious statues, carved coats of arms, more churches and shops that look unchanged for decades. I look into a few and their interiors seem similarly unaffected by the passing of time.

“Visitors love the old-fashioned look,” says haberdasher Jean Galea, whose family shop sells buttons, bolts of cloth, lace and a bewildering assortment of trimmings. “A Swiss woman came in the other day and bought lots of things for the carnival in Venice. She said that, in Switzerland, this kind of shop no longer exists. Nobody makes clothes anymore, but people want detailing for costumes for carnival, theater or film. We have a lot of film productions on Malta and they all come and buy stuff from us.”

Tiny Malta – waterless, rocky and with few natural resources – has always relied on trade to survive. Its strategic position in the Mediterranean made it an important crossroads between Europe and North Africa. Under British rule, from 1802 to 1964, it was a major naval base and shipyard. It withstood another great siege in 1942, this time from Nazi Germany as Rommel’s army pushed into North Africa. The island suffered more than 3,000 air raids, including one period of 154 days and nights of continuous bombing. After the war, the suffering and stoicism was recognized with the award of the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian honor, to the entire population.

The British legacy remains, in the red phone and post boxes, the familiar pubs that once catered to the Royal Navy, and the near-universal use of English, the second official language after Maltese. Surrounded by other Mediterranean islands where Italian, French or Greek is spoken, it is another trading advantage in a business world where English dominates.

The knights were split into seven divisions, predominantly based on language but also region, called langues. With the English langue in abeyance after King Henry VIII’s Reformation of the late 1530s, the Catholic French, Spanish and Italian knights dominated. They have left their mark in the grand buildings and rich religious art, commissioned as grateful European kings showered them with wealth after the Great Siege.

Perhaps the most magnificent of these latter works is the painting of The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio. “It is the largest painting he ever did and the only one he signed,” says historian Anna Grech Sant. “He was a thug who committed a murder in Rome and went on the run. He stowed away on a galley and came to Malta, the island of the knights. The two prisoners you see in the painting, looking out through a barred window, are a personification of his life as he was imprisoned twice.”

A masterpiece of chiaroscuro, contrasting light and dark, the work still stands in the building for which it was commissioned, the baroque St John’s Co-Cathedral. “This is the only church I know where even visitors from Italy are impressed,” says Anna. The co-cathedral has seven side chapels, each dedicated to the patron saint of one of the langues, who have vied with each other in the splendor of the decoration. Above hangs a vaulted ceiling by Mattia Preti, a disciple of Caravaggio and himself a knight of Malta. It is supported on ornate pillars covered in 24-carat gold, recently restored.

“Some of the gold is from Florence, some from Germany or Morocco,” says Italian restorer Daniela d’Angelo. “We need different sources to match the different colors. Some is more yellow, some is shinier.” I watch her applying a wafer of gold leaf to a detail and she then shows me a large plastic box, filled with flakes. “We save these remnants and roll them into a pill we can use for repairs or touch ups,” she says.

“I am not religious – (it’s OK, they know),” she says. “I have been working here seven years and I know every corner, every ghost. I love some of the beautiful details, the places where the original paint still exists or a face, and the lunettes by Mattia Preti.”

The Knights of St. John were eventually driven from Malta by Napoleon in 1798 but the order stills exists. The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta – known for obvious reasons as merely the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) – is now based in Rome. It is recognized by more than 100 countries and the United Nations, allowing it to continue its humanitarian work around the world. Behind a modest doorway in Valletta near the prime minister’s lavish house, built for the Langue of Castille, is the office of SMOM’s president in Malta, Dr Philip Randon. He is a “Knight of Magistral Grace in Obedience”, as well as a poet and businessman.

“A lot of people mix us up with the Templars, who ended in the 1300s,” says Philip. “In 2013, we celebrated our 900th anniversary. We started as hospitaliers and I am proud to say we still are. It is mainly a Christian call to help people, no matter their creed, color or nationality. Even though the fighting arm has finished, we are always faithful to that first calling and still refer to the sick as ‘My Lord’. They are the lords and we are the serfs. We operate in over 100 countries and have more than 13,000 knights and dames, and 80,000 volunteers. I always say our future is our past and our calling is to help the sick and the poor.

“The Maltese love the Order because the island is swimming in its history and as the source of so much beautiful art, but it was not Maltese. It was an occupying power. Many are very much unaware of what the Order does nowadays. But how much should you publicise your good deeds?”

Malta’s history, and particularly the legacy of the knights, drew Dominic Micallef into studying the past. He is now responsible for history and culture with the local tourism authority. “As a child, when I walked into Valletta I was always intrigued by the high walls,” he says. “That made me curious about history. Here in Malta we are at the center of the Mediterranean, with three important harbors, and whoever controlled Malta controlled the central Mediterranean. So they sought to build fortifications. We tend to think about the knights because their work is so evident but the fortifications go back into prehistory. It is a deep, completely natural, navigable harbor. It brought the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, one occupation after another.”

You are never far from the sea here, with lots of coves offering glimpses of the azure blue of the Mediterranean, seen at its brightest against a sandy or rocky bottom. The Blue Grotto on the south coast is a must-see series of caves, where the morning sunlight reflects off the water to produce a spectrum of blue. I take one of the brightly-painted Luzzu boats to cruise slowly through.

These boats are a feature of the village of Marsaxlokk on this southeast coast, whose natural harbor is Malta’s second largest. They bob in the water, and are painted in red, yellow and blue, with an eye on each bow to ward off evil. The fishermen sell their catch every Sunday morning on the quayside and this has now expanded into a busy general market, offering everything from squid to shoes.

Stopping for coffee, I start chatting to the server, Kelly Zammit, a student of secretarial studies. I ask her what Malta is like for younger people, especially in such a quiet village. “If you want to go out, there are plenty of places,” she says. “I might go to a club in St. Julian’s but I work too much and go to school, so do not have much time. I go to ZAK (Youth Catholic Action, a non-profit, parish-based, youth organization), which is not about religion but activities. We have a lot of fun but it also helps you to grow up.”

She says she believes in God but does not go to church regularly. I have seen the churches packed on a Sunday but noticed that, as with many places, it is the older generation who dominate. “I do not go to church every Sunday, but I do like it when I do,” she says. “My father moans about me not going but my mother does not go herself, so she cannot say anything. Most of my friends, most young people, do not go.”

The community feeling seems to be one of Malta’s greatest strengths, perhaps not surprising in such a small place. “Everybody knows everybody, although that can be a bad thing as you have no real privacy,” says Kelly. “Wherever you go, there is someone you know. If you want to do something stupid, you have to go abroad.”

That community spirit is also seen in the attitude to Valletta’s position as European Capital of Culture 2018, with all of the island offering sights and activities linked to the year. I drive to see the four temples at Tarxien, the oldest of which date to 3600BCE. I have them almost to myself after a coach of cruise passengers leaves and enjoy walking around the site in the afternoon sun. The temples were heavily restored in the 1950s but a guide points out what is original and the skill of the builders is evident in the size and fit of the stone blocks making up the extensive walls.

“It is a mistake to think our cultural history is confined to the time of the knights,” says Dominic. “Our prehistoric temples are recognized as a World Heritage Site. The Hypogeum is also a World Heritage Site, as is Valletta. People also come just to visit the British legacy. Having so much history to see in such a relatively small area is what makes Malta so different from other Mediterranean islands of its size.”

Published by Kieran

Travel writer

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