A steadfast rock in the currents of history: first impressions of Malta
Happy Easter! Since my husband confidently assures me that Easter lasts for fifty days by the Church’s reckoning, I can get away with saying it a week late. I hope you had a lovely one, and I look forward to catching up with comments and other blogs as soon as I can. We have had a memorable week away, but there is the inevitable mountain of catching up to do on the domestic and paperwork front before I can justify settling down to read.
Having ‘bravely run away’ from the hail and snow last week (as my friend Heather pointed out!), we have now slunk back home to find that April in Scotland is, once again, fresh and beautiful and as astonishingly green as I have ever seen. It looks more like May here: our ancient gean, our Queen of the May, came into blossom on the last day of March, while the sycamores are in full leaf and even the oaks, almost the last to catch up with spring, are soft-outlined with fresh growth. The daffodils are a cheerful shout of yellow, the bluebells – astonishingly – are beginning to flower, the oyster-catchers are nesting and the pied wagtails and curlews are here again. So it is a great pleasure to be home (despite the odd snow shower). But my goodness, what a pleasure it was to have a holiday too!
We spent Easter somewhere whose beauty is entirely different to that of green Scotland: Malta, the doughty little island state which is a dot in the centre of the Mediterranean. We went there in search of history, religion and sunshine, and found all three in abundance. Malta is a welcoming, warm-hearted Mediterranean holiday spot, but it is so much more than that, as I’m sure many of you know far better than I. (I know that there are some Maltese who read Dancing Beastie, and I beg your indulgence as I try to recount my first gleanings of your home country.)
A stepping-stone between Sicily and Tunisia, Europe and Africa, Christendom and Islam, Malta has always been coveted for its strategic significance. So many peoples have left their mark there over the millennia that the island is as layered in history as sedimentary rock. Neolithic men built temples on Malta, and the Phoenicians from Tyre left their language. The Romans governed it; St. Paul was shipwrecked on its shore in A.D. 60 and began the conversion of the inhabitants to the new Christian faith. Later came Normans, Angevins, Saracens, Barbary corsairs and the Knights Hospitallers, the intrepid fighting monks of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. The Knights of St. John were eventually kicked out by Napoleon, whose troops were in turn evicted by the Maltese and the British. Malta finally gained its independence (by civilised – naturally! – agreement with Britain) only in 1964, so in some ways its spirit is as young as it is ancient.
In the course of its stormy history, Malta has endured and defeated two great sieges: one in 1565 from the Ottoman Turks, who wanted to drive the Christians from this vital toehold in the Mediterranean, and another in the Second World War, when the Axis powers tried to do the same to the British. Victory in the first siege led arguably to the end of the the Ottoman threat to Christendom, and led directly to the building of Malta’s beautiful new capital city of Valletta under the Knights of St. John. Steadfast resistance in the second siege led to Malta’s being the first of only two collective recipients of the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian award for courage. The medal is shown on the flag of Malta.
It is an island of palm trees and orange trees and yellow mimosa blossom. Its old cities are built of honey-coloured stone, with cool colonnades for shelter from the blazing sun, and with the most tremendous fortifications I have ever seen as defence from sea-borne enemies. On seemingly every street corner there is a saint. At noon, the bells of the Angelus ring out above the bustle of the streets, filling the air where flags flutter and furl in the sea breeze.
On Good Friday, all the flags on the island flew at half mast. We found it enormously inspiring to spend Holy Week and Easter in a country where faith is an overt and unself-conscious part of life, just as it was inspiring to discover the continuing significance to the island of the Knights of St. John. We were cheered, too, by the warmth of the welcome given us by all Maltese and by their particular kindness to children, ensuring that the boys enjoyed their holiday as much as their parents. And really, with that friendly reception plus boat trips, pageants, Italian ice cream and vivid true stories of knights, saints, pirates and wartime heroism, what’s not to like – for little boys as much as for their parents?
I feel as if our first visit to Malta has planted a seed in us. I don’t know what it will grow into yet, but I hope that we will be able to nourish it with return visits to the island in the future. (And we didn’t even get to the neighbouring island of Gozo, about which I heard so much good.) There is much I’d like to share, but we are still in the school holidays with all their pressing calls on my time. I’ll leave you with a few more first impressions, this time in pictures. Do you know Malta? If so, what are your own memories of the island?
I shared my introduction to a more northerly set of islands here: In Orkney, there are seals at the bottom of the garden.