Malta: Land of the Knights of St. John

The tiny island nation of Malta sits smack in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, just 100 miles south of Sicily. While it may be small in size, it is second to none with regards to history, architecture, and natural beauty. Malta’s history dates back more than 6000 years, and is home to several prehistoric temples that are the oldest known man-made structures in the world. A walk through Malta’s capital, Valletta, is like going back in time, with most of the buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th century, and much of the streets closed off to vehicle traffic. Finally, for unsurpassed natural beauty, check out Malta’s northernmost island Gozo, with fantastic features such as a towering sea arch called the Azure Window (which was the site of filming for an episode of Game of Thrones). I think it’s safe to say the Malta is one of my favorite countries Europe, and truly has something to offer for everyone.

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View of Valletta from the waterfront of Birgu

 

My week-long visit to Malta began in its capital Valletta, which, at 1/4 of a square mile in area, is the smallest capital city in Europe. Valletta makes a great base for exploring Malta, since there are buses departing to nearly every point on the island — and because the island is so small, you can get nearly anywhere in less than an hour. I recommend buying an unlimited 7-day bus pass, which will set you back around 20 Euros.  While you’re at it, spring for the Heritage Pass as well. While 50 Euros might sound steep, it includes admission to almost all the attractions on Malta and Gozo. I barely had to pay any entrance fees during my entire week-long visit.

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The Valletta peninsula

Valletta has been awarded the European Capital of Culture for 2018, and during my visit, there were signs and preparations all around the city for this event. Valletta was built by the Knights of St. John, a powerful religious order, after their exile from Rhodes in the 16th century. At the behest of the Pope, they were granted the island of Malta by the King of Spain in exchange for a small annual payment. Valletta today still remains much as it was when the Knights inhabited the island hundreds of years ago, with imposing city walls and magnificent Baroque architecture. Almost all of the buildings are very well preserved, yet the city still has a very authentic feel. Wander through the Grand Master’s Palace (former home to the head of the Order of the Knights and current home to the President of Malta), and explore the extravagant St. John’s Co-Cathedral, with marble floors, gold leaf arches, and painted ceilings.

One of Valletta’s most interesting sites is Fort St. Elmo. Built by the Knights of St. John shortly after relocating to Malta, it played a crucial role in defending against a bloody siege by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century. As Malta holds a strategic location on the Mediterranean (it sits at the crossroads of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East), the Ottoman Empire sent about 40,000 soldiers to invade the island. The Maltese had to defend with only a small fraction of troops, and were so short-handed that even wounded soldiers were left at the ramparts to continue fighting. In the end though, the Knights were able to hold off the much larger Turkish army, who never were able to capture Malta. The fort now is now home to the National War Museum, a fascinating museum which documents Malta’s pivotal role in the Second World War. Again, because of its strategic position between Europe and North Africa, it underwent heavy bombing by Italy and Germany, and had to defend itself without much help from the other Allies, who were unable to come to their aid. However, it never fell to the Axis powers, which enabled the Allies to maintain control of crucial supply routes between Europe and North Africa during the War. Because of Malta’s valiant efforts, it was awarded the George Cross by England (who at that point controlled Malta), which is the highest honor awarded by the Commonwealth. The George Cross is now on display at the Museum.

Aside from Valletta, the twin cities of Mdina and Rabat are also well worth a visit. An easy bus ride from Valletta, these cities were originally built by the Arabs when they arrived in the 9th century (long before the Knights of St. John). Mdina is particularly interesting to wander around, with its narrow, labyrinthine streets, and fortress-like walls surrounding the city. However, the real attraction lies underground in nearby Rabat, where you can explore ancient catacombs that date all the way back to the Roman empire. The first of these, St. Paul’s Catacombs (which has no actual association with St. Paul), was used as a burial ground for nearly 500 years, and has separate catacombs for Christians, Jews and Pagans. In many of these, you can spot interesting features such as ancient inscriptions and carvings on the wall (e.g., a menorah denoting a Jewish burial ground). There are dozens of catacombs in St. Pauls, and you could easily spend a couple of hours exploring them all.

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Entrance to the walled city of Mdina

Another fascinating catacomb is St. Agatha’s Crypt. Although much smaller and you need a guide to accompany you, these catacombs actually contain original skeletons from hundreds of years ago! You can also see frescoes that date back more than 1500 years, and are extremely well preserved. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), photographs are not allowed. Finally, check out the Grotto of Saint Paul, a small cave where the apostle is said to have preached during his shipwreck on Malta in the 1st century AD. Pope John Paul paid a visit here in 1990.

Since we’re on the subject of fascinating cities, make sure to pay a visit to the Three Cities (Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua), which are just a 5 minute ferry ride (or a 30 minute bus ride) from Valletta. The most interesting of these is Vittoriosa (referred to by the locals as Birgu, its traditional name). While you’re there, check out Fort St. Angelo, which also played an important part in defending Malta against the Ottoman Siege in the 16th century. Most of the fort was closed for renovations during my visit, but I was still able to take in some awesome views of Valetta from the fort. The renovations were due to be completed shortly though, so the fort should be open to visitors again. Another interesting relic is the Inquisitor’s Palace, which was used to interrogate suspected heretics during the 16th and 17th centuries. The most interesting sections are the prison cells, where you can still see elaborate graffiti from former prisoners, and the torture chamber, with painful instruments on display for extracting “confessions”.

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Fort St. Angelo

Finally, check out the Malta at War Museum, which tells the history of Malta during World War II from the perspective of the people who had to suffer through it. Learn about how they endured the daily air raids and the food shortages, with little or no assistance from their allies. You can even “relive” their experience first-hand, as directly below the museum there is an actual air-raid shelter, which was used for protection during the war. Although this is only one of many shelters that were built in Malta during the war, it is amazing to witness its sheer size (although watch your head on the low ceilings), and the fact that it could accommodate up to hundreds of people at once (and often for days at a time).

I’ve only just scratched the surface of this fascinating country. In the next post, I’ll journey way back in time and explore several temples that are more than 6000 years old (the oldest man-made structures remaining in the world). I’ll also visit the Hypogeum, the only prehistoric underground burial chamber in the world!

 

 

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