Malta: The Oldest of Old, the Bluest of Blue
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MAY 2018
Time has a way of collapsing into itself on Malta. The country is a group of four islands – Malta, the largest; Gozo, also inhabited; and then the tiny, uninhabited Comino and Filfia – that remain of an ancient land bridge between the Italian boot and the Carthaginian peninsula of Tunisia. The geological reflects the cultural, as everyone who ever sailed a boat across the Mediterranean seems to have stopped in Malta and built something. The evidence begins in 3600 BCE on Gozo, and carries through to the ultramodern art-space interior of the Saint James Cavalier building in Valletta.
Neolithic temples on Gozo and Malta are highlights of tourist activity, fascinating in their design, intriguing in the questions they raise as well as the answers we lack. The temples are among the oldest man-made structures on the planet. Then tourist attention is directed, fast-forward please, to the Renaissance era of the Knights Hospitaller and their forts, completed in 1565 just in time to resist a major Ottoman siege. In between there was occupation by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Byzantine Greeks, Arabs of the Aghlabid caliphate, and Normans. They came, they saw, they conquered.
What this shifting hegemony did to the language, Maltese, is give it an Arabic foundation of expression, written in Latin letters. Throw in a silent Q and a couple of XXs where needed to render it unpronounceable to the uninitiated. And then speak it loudly, everyone does! But Malta was submitted to British colonialism for a little more than 150 years, and as such, English is a widely used second language.
The Knights of Saint John provide Malta’s enduring image, and dramatic costumes for re-enactment ceremonies. Their regime under various European crowns came to an end when Bonaparte stopped in Malta on his way to conquer Egypt. He left a revolutionary regime in place that abolished slavery and the inquisition, and installed a republican form of government. The Maltese hated it, rebelled, and let the British bring back monarchy in 1800. Malta became a crown colony shortly afterward and remained so until independence was voted by referendum in 1964, followed by adoption of a republican government in 1974. Some things take a while to get used to.
Today Malta, along with Cyprus, is poised to take up the strategic position of being a member of both the European Union and the British Commonwealth. After Brexit, these two islands may find their trade status increasingly interesting. Malta has suffered from trouble with that position, as the European Union has been investigating money laundering, citizenship marketing, and the car-bomb murder of a Maltese journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, in October 2017. Journalists from around the world have begun The Daphne Project in her stead, to ensure that investigations she began would not end with her death. If Malta cannot clean up its act, it could lose largely.
As tourists, we found the Maltese to be warmly welcoming. We rented a great AirBnB apartment in Valletta and a scooter, and toured all over both islands. The roads are good (if poorly marked), the ferries are excellent and inexpensive. We were surprised at how inexpensive food and drink were, given that everything is imported – except perhaps the rabbit (fenek), the local specialty. While there were large groups of tourists disembarking from enormous cruise ships, we never felt crowded by them at any of the sites. The bluest of blue, in the sky and the sea, against the glow of golden limestone, brought warmth to body and soul. Winter may be coming, but it feels far away, in Malta.