Saturday, May 8, 2010

Malta Retrospective (December 2009)

I didn't do Malta much justice on this blog when I went there in December, so I'll try to elaborate the single paragraph I wrote at the time.

Joanne and I flew Air Malta to get from Italy to Libya in December, and on the way back to Italy we took a four-day stopover in Malta, a place neither of us had ever visited. I had heard of Malta: I knew that the Knights of St. John had made it their island fortress, that it had withstood a long siege and constant aerial bombardment by the Germans in World War II, and that lots of Brits head to Malta for their holiday. I was keen to flesh out this very bare-bones portrait when I arrived in my 90th country.

Our first view of Malta came as we rode the bus into Valetta town from the airport. The main island of Malta is small (maybe 30 km in length) and very densely populated. Most houses are made of limestone, making for an attractive colour to the small towns. Valetta itself, the main city and capital, looked scruffier and didn't impress ut at first. We walked through the old town, found a cheap guesthouse and set off to explore the town.

The Maltese language, closely related to Arabic but written in Roman, looks daunting, full of Qs and Xs. Luckily, almost everyone speaks great English too. Malta's position, between Sicily and Tunisia, means that it has been a crossroads of cultures and languages for millenia. While most tourists come to Malta for the nightclubs of Sliema or the diving and rocky coastline of Gozo, we decided that ancient history should be the theme of our brief visit.

Our first day, it wasn't until late afternoon that we got out into the hilly stone streets of old Valetta. We walked around the seafront, shivering slightly in the brisk wind and watching other tourists walking around looking bemused, trying to figure out what there was to see in Valetta. There wasn't much, so we wandered around and watched the sunset over the Grand Harbour, the reason for Malta's strategic importance to the British Royal Navy.

The next day, after an early-morning rush to get tickets to see the Hypogeum, Malta's premier pre-historic sight (only 10 people can get tickets the day before; the other 60 tickets sell out months in advance), we got on the bus and trundled the 25 kilometres northwest to the Gozo ferry. All the way, we were hardly ever out of the built-up suburbia that covers so much of the green countryside, and it took forever to get anywhere. Gozo, a half-hour ride across a lovely blue strait, was quite different, with only 10,000 inhabitants rather than the quarter-million on Malta island. We caught a bus up to Ggantija, the largest and oldest of the large megalithic temples that are scattered all over the islands.

Built in 3600 BC, the temple consists of two oval enclosures with stone altars inside. The stones forming the walls are massive, a couple of metres high and with a mass of several tons. The Maltese claim that this is the oldest surviving free-standing structure in the world, and it certainly predates the Pyramids by about 900 years. There were almost no interpretive signs at the site, so the culture and architecture were perhaps less impressive than if we had known more about them. We did draw a few inferences from what we could see. The limestone temple stones seemed to have been carved with obsidian or some harder stone, and we could see the remnants of decorative swirls, raised dots and spirals on some of them. We could also see traces of red ochre that once coloured the walls. There were holes in the stones that seemed to have been for liquid offerings, and others that seemed to have been for wooden barriers. There were even a few small holes carved in the uprights that reminded me of the astronomical sighting holes I had seen in Karahundj, in Armenia, a few months earlier. Joanne was less taken with the place than I was ("No good for taking pictures!"), and was glad to head off to the Gozo Archaeological Museum as soon as decently possible.

At the small museum, we saw some of the small finds from Ggantija and other sites on Gozo: little statuettes, both life-like and also with the exaggerated hips, thighs and breasts of the Earth Mother Goddess who seems to have been worshipped by the early Maltese. We saw better-preserved examples of the decorative carving in the temples, and saw models of what the temples would have looked like in their heyday. A long trek back, by bus, ferry and bus again, brought us to Valetta for a great dinner of rabbit (a Maltese specialty) and an early night.

The next day we tackled the main archaeological museum in Valetta, full of more carvings and sarcophagi and full of the historical interpretation lacking at the temples themselves. I was particularly taken by the exquisite small carving known as The Sleeping Lady, and the similar Venus de Malta;I bought a replica of The Sleeping Lady for my mother. The Maltese islands have no fewer than 23 Neolithic sites scattered across their small land area, a testament to the vitality of the early agricultural society that blossomed there 6000 years ago, and the museum does a good job of putting it into the wider Mediterranean context.

After this educational visit, we got on another of the ubiquitous old yellow buses and headed southeast to Tarxien temple and the Hypogeum. Along the way, we passed the neighbourhood where hundreds of African migrants and asylum seekers live for years in limbo, waiting for their refugee claims to be processed. They pay thousands of dollars to be smuggled into Europe and cross from Libya in rickety fishing boats such as we had seen near Sabratha a week earlier. The Maltese press is full of stories and letters about the migrants; Malta, like Ireland and Italy, has discovered that while it has been happy to export thousands of emigrants around the world over the centuries, it is less keen on other people immigrating to its crowded shores. The Africans sit in the sunshine, forbidden to work, waiting day after day, year after year, for something to change.

Tarxien is more elaborate than Ggantija, and dates from 4 centuries later, around 3200 BC. It has been pretty extensively reconstructed, and we had seen the originals of most of the good carved stones in the museum, but it was still easier to visualize the temple in its glory days than it had been at Ggantija.

We hustled off down the street to the Hypogeum to make it in time for our tour. The Hypogeum is the most atmospheric and eerie of the Neolithic sites on Malta, and also its most fragile. It lies completely underground, and was discovered a century ago by someone digging a water cistern. It seems to have been both a mass tomb and also a temple. Only ten people an hour can visit, in order to avoid the growth of bacteria and mold on the walls that would destroy the fragile wall paintings, and photography and any sort of bags are prohibited to avoid people bumping into the walls. The surviving paintings are a bit reminiscent of the earlier cave paintings I saw years ago in Lascaux, France, with depictions of the deer that the early Maltese must have hunted. The ceilings are decorated with swirls of red ochre. There are three levels of rooms carved into the rock, forming a slightly confusing maze of intersecting spaces. The walls on the second level are carved in brilliant imitation of the construction techniques of the aboveground temples we had just seen. The Central Chamber and the so-called Holy of Holies, dimly lit and seen from a distance, seemed to exude pre-historic mystery and romance. Our allotted 30 minutes was over all too soon, and we were back on the street, blinking in the bright sunlight and wondering if it had all been a dream. It was very Indiana Jones-esque, and well worth the early-morning queueing the previous morning.

Not yet satiated with megalithic temples, we hopped onto another bus and rolled off to the southern coast to see Hagar Qim, the best situated of the temples. For the first time, the surrounding countryside, consisting of fields and cliffs sloping down to the sparkling Mediterranean, could be considered lovely. The two temples seem to rise organically from the stony ground, although the protective canopies that UNESCO and Heritage Malta have constructed over them do nothing for their appearance. These temples had the highest, most massive walls we had seen, and had all the features we had come to expect: massive doorframes, carved decorations on the stones, altars and rounded niches within the temples. The setting reminded me of the wonderful cliff-top ruins of Kourion that Joanne and I had visited in Cyprus in 2008.

That evening, as we walked around Valetta in search of cheap eats (a tough task, given the high prices of everything on Malta), Joanne pointed out the prevalence among the teenage boys of jeans worn so low that they were belted below the buttocks, showing a good 20 centimetres of designer boxer shorts. Joanne spent a half hour trying to photograph the best examples of Maltese Teenager Butt, but it was a tough task to undertake discreetly, and the results were mixed. We had better luck photographing our third successive beautiful sunset.

Our last day on Malta was pretty low-key, with a visit to the baroque St. John's Co-Cathedral, the centrepiece of the Order of the Knights of St. John, also known as the Hospitallers. We had seen their castles and fortifications all over the Mediterranean over the years: Jerusalem, Krak des Chevaliers and Tartus in Syria, Bodrum in Turkey, Rhodes in Greece, Cyprus. They had been pushed westward relentlessly by generations of Turks until they made their last stand on Malta, where they withstood The Great Siege by the mighty Ottoman fleet in 1565. Their flag, dominated by the Maltese Cross, flies everywhere on Malta, and Malta is still one of the most staunchly Catholic countries in the world, an enduring legacy of the crusading Knights. The cathedral itself was excessively baroque and gave Joanne the heebie-jeebies and left her angry at the ostentatious wealth that the church flaunted. I enjoyed the historical atmosphere, but I was glad to get out of the gilt (and guilt?)-laden interior and the huge hordes of cruise-ship passengers that packed the church.

That evening, our last in Malta, was also the last evening of the decade: December 31st, 2009. We had an early flight the next morning, so we celebrated the end of the Noughties early with a bottle of prosecco at sunset in a park overlooking the Grand Harbour, composing haiku. Mine read:

Burma, Canada, Silk Road
Stillness and motion

Dozens of countries
Years flashing past like snowflakes
The Noughties depart

Overall, Malta was a bit disappointing, with too much traffic and suburban sprawl and not enough scenery, but the megalithic historical sites made up for that. I'm not sure I would choose Malta for a beach holiday, although perhaps the scuba diving on Gozo would be enough to hold my interest. It was certainly a worthwhile stopover, but three days was about as much time as I wanted to spend there. I was glad to fly off early on New Year's Day, 2010 to Catania, on Sicily, in search of Greek and Roman ruins.