Malta is one of those sun-drenched Mediterranean islands that time will never forget. The tiny island republic relives its turbulent history daily because the scars of war are etched in the limestone of its citadels and permanently embedded in the memories of its citizens. The Capital city Valetta is named after Jean de Valette, the courageous commander who defended the island against the military might of the Ottoman Turks in 1565. It now withstands the summer invasion of European tourists who flock to its ancient streets to absorb the sun, easy lifestyle, and culture.
According to Acts 27:28, St.Paul's ship ran aground at Malta. Where was Paul's ship headed to be so far off course? If the ship had not run aground in Malta and kept on its course, it could have sailed west past Gibraltar and found the New World 1,500 years before Columbus. The account about Malta by Luke in Acts 28:10 notes: "They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed." What's clear is that the visitors, even those unfortunately shipwrecked, were like unwanted relatives and not asked to stay and join the happy inhabitants. They were resupplied and sent on their way.
Unlike most of Europe, Malta drips with contemporary religious devotion. It is a thoroughly Roman Catholic country and has numerous churches or life-sized statues of saints on nearly every street corner.The churches not only have tourists to observe the abundance of religious art, but also devout attendees, testifying to the island's orthodoxy and allegiance. Over the roof of St.John's cathedral, built by the Knights, fluttering as the light wind lives or dies, is the half-white, half-yellow flag of the papacy. The sovereignty of the Holy See takes precedence over the nationality of the country.
St.John's cathedral, that baroque extravaganza of a religious shrine to the dedication of the Knights of St.John, immortalizes the lives of the more renowned. The entire floor is adorned with elaborate, memorial, colorful marble of the Grand Masters of the Order. The cathedral's exterior resembles a fortress, perhaps symbolizing its military origin, the massive door flanked by Doric columns seems inappropriate to the setting. Twin bell towers face the small square. The nostrum Salva Nos is emblazoned into the pediment above a huge bust of Jesus.
In the oratorio of the cathedral hangs Caravaggio's enormous wall-sized painting of The Beheading of John the Baptist.Caravaggio signed it in 1606—one of his rare signatures—in the blood leaking from John's head. The Knights had commissioned Caravaggio, a knight, until they discovered his lascivious and violent behaviors and defrocked him a year later in front of his own painting.
Malta is home to the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, Rhodes, and Malta, founded in Jerusalem in 1048 prior to the crusades, to provide hospital services to pilgrims. It no longer has a military function. But its religious leadership is prominent. The Knights have 13,000 members worldwide. Its history is a chronicle of the wars, invasions, and battles of the Middle East over the past thousand years.Driven from Acre in Palestine with the last of the crusaders in 1291, the Knights made Rhodes their home until the Turks invaded in 1522 and gave them safe passage to leave. They took up residence in Malta, but were unhappy on such a small piece of territory. They had to defend their island property again in 1565, when the Ottoman hordes invaded and occupied Fort St.Elmo at the entrance to the harbor. The Turks were unable to seize the whole island and eventually retreated. In war, some battles are labeled victorious when the invaders withdraw for lack of logistics and discouragement at a land that lacks a water supply.
The formidable limestone and rock fortresses on Malta did not deter the cannon balls of Turkish, French, or English invaders, or German Stuka dive bombers during World War II. The stout defenses of bygone eras are tourist attractions. Modern modes of defense are more imperceptible—to keep an economy from becoming overwhelmed by the new invader, national and personal debt. Not even the Knights can defeat this modern implacable enemy.
Napoleon routed the Knights before he invaded Egypt in 1802. They settled temporarily in Sicily, returning to Malta after France's downfall. The British colonized Malta in the middle of the 19th century, another gem in the jewels of Queen Victoria.British landmarks and influence are still visible in the colonial architecture and in the dual language of the Maltese who have their own native language, a hybrid of former occupants, and English, which is prevalent.
Valetta's architecture is enchanting because of its age, and the nostalgia of walking the streets as if you were in a previous century.The majority of residences—houses linked in block-long stone buildings—were built in the 18th century. Remodeling and new coats of paint are rare. Two-foot long, second-story balconies hang over the narrow, mostly pedestrian streets, serving as drying racks for laundry and perches for small dogs to bark at feral cats. "For Sale" signs are the newest additions to abandoned houses. The antiquity of the side-to-side residences compete with the harshness of the economic realities for some residents.
Not only is the island aloof, so are a majority of its people. They lack the hospitality of the Arab, although they are literally next door to Libya and Tunisia. They lack the animation of Italians, although some of their mannerisms are similar. They are generally small in stature, unsmiling, and diffident. They tend to be taciturn, and so are like some northern neighbors like Eastern Europeans, Scandinavians, or Poles. The lifestyle is as casual as Mediterranean summer dress, loose-fitting and uncumbersome, as relaxed as a singing waiter at Café Caravaggio.
The Mediterranean culture and lifestyle are inviting for its climate, as long as visitors bring their pounds, dollars, kroner, zlotys, and euros. But its hospitality does not extend to social graciousness. The national population is less than a half million. The population does not seem as bold as the aggressive male pigeons in the outdoor cafes that preen and fluff their feathers in a circle dance for the females, who remain oblivious and inattentive as they search for table scraps.
Because it was a British supply depot and threatened and interdicted German shipping lanes to maintain Rommel's troops in North Africa, Malta was attacked daily by German Stuka dive bombers and Italian aircraft during World War II. This occurred prior to the Casablanca meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt, at which they agreed to attack what Churchill called "the soft underbelly" of Germany's Europe.
The allied military plan for retaking Europe began here in the Lascaris War Rooms underground in Valetta in the limestone cliffs under an old fortress. Eisenhower spent five weeks here in 1943 (with Patton and Montgomery) helping to plan the allied strategy, a combined British and American venture. The secret rooms still have the same wall-sized maps where flags were placed to show advances of troops. A ship's engine mounted on the high ground 200 feet above provided ventilation. Small offices of British and American commanders from the army and navy overlooked the wall map updated every 15 minutes.
The British and Americans attacked Sicily simultaneously, landing in different parts of the south beginning in 1943. Americans under Patton took Palermo first, then landed in Salerno south of Naples to begin the retaking of Italy.On a personal note, I had an uncle who had a grenade explode at his feet in the Palermo campaign filling him with unrecovered bits of shrapnel the rest of his life. When Germans threw a second grenade, he retrieved it and hurled in back into their foxhole killing several Germans.
Lastly, I have had Chicken Kiev in Kiev, Black Forest Cake in the Black Forest, and a Singapore Sling in the Raffles Hotel where it originated. But I didn't have the White Truffles Pizza in Margo's in Valetta.White truffles may be the most expensive food item in the world, exceeding the price of caviar. The cost of this pizza is 1,800 euros, about US $2,300. I asked the hostess how many had actually ordered this pricey pizza. She said "two".There are some culinary delights that are possible to enjoy once in a lifetime. This is not one of them.
© Donald Sharpes
Don is a member of the Emeritus College at Arizona State University, a former research associate at Stanford University, and Director in the US Department of Education in Washington DC. He is Senior Visiting Fellow, Wolfson College, Cambridge University. He has taught at the universities of Maryland, Maine, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Utah State, Weber State, and Arizona State. He did postdoctoral studies at the University of Sussex, was a Visiting Scholar at Oxford University, and has lived and worked in the Middle East. He has authored 18 books and over 240 articles in the social and behavioral sciences, humanities, and teacher education.