All posts by Andrea Gibbons

A saint for every house, Malta and Gozo

Well, almost every house. In Valletta it is also every corner. Streets are full of shrines. Especially in Mdina/ Rabat, even where there is no saint, there is a nature scene, or a thanks to country that has made a family member welcome(ish) and able to send money home. They are amazing.

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My door and doorknocker obsession, Malta and Gozo

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Forgiving the Inquisition, Birgu

We visited the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu (Vittoriosa) — I was curious, was just about to finish Q by Luther Blisset, a splendid telling of the Protestant battle for faith and a revolution of the poor and oppressed which helped give rise to the inquisition in a wave of incredibly violent repression. As Q makes clear, for some this involved faith, but this was as much about maintaining the old order and the jockeying for power between the Pope, the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V and the German princes and their small states. Henry VIII is also up in this mix. It had to do with money as well of course, much of which was confiscated from Jewish and Marrano money lenders along with others who refused to ‘repent’.  None of this complex history is reflected here, but formed the background in my head. There is no acknowledgment of a pervasive atmosphere of fear created by the constant demand to denounce self and neighbour, the burning of books, the treatment of any curiosity as heresy, the absolute power over life and death held by all too human Inquisitors.

You cannot feel the darkness here.

The description on the website, which I confess made me choke just a little.

The Inquisitor’s Palace, situated in the heart of Vittoriosa, is one of the very few surviving palaces of its kind which, in the early modern period could be found all over Europe and South America. Many of these palaces simply succumbed to the ravages of time or were victims of the anti-reactionary power unleashed by the French Revolution. Fortunately, the Maltese Inquisitor’s Palace, throughout its five centuries of history, always hosted high-ranking officials representing the main powers on the island, who therefore ensured its survival.

Mgr Pietro Dusina arrived in Malta in 1574 as the first general inquisitor and apostolic delegate of the Maltese Islands. The Grand Master offered him the unused palace as an official residence. Almost all successive inquisitors sought to transform the palace into a decent mansion.

From the museum itself, the nicest description of the inquisition you will ever read:

Vittoriosa

The building itself is made up of huge rooms, incredible wooden ceilings and bands of frescoes beneath them.

Vittoriosa

The staircase was central, and your rank defined where the Inquisitor met you on it. The absurdities of hierarchy.

Vittoriosa

Like this marble entry that seem better suited to the outside of the building not the inside.

Vittoriosa

There are fascinating things here, exhibits from the archives kept as evidence in the trials, amazing things really. Like a magical hat with spell in Arab script used by Didacus Mifsud against heavy headaches, confiscated by inquisitor Fabrizio Verallo (1600-1605)

Vittoriosa

Magical spell … included as evidence by Inquisitor Lazzaro Pallavicina (1718-1719)

Vittoriosa

This devotional image, originally hanging in the prisons of the Order of St John, was the target of convict Grazio Laura who started throwing stones at it after loss in gambling. Reported by his inmates, the offender tried to defend himself stating that he erroneously hit the image while throwing stones at mice. He later admitted and was whipped in public.

Vittoriosa

There was a great book burning here in 1609, among them Rabelais’ Les Oeuvres.

The description of torture:

Rarely inflicted by Inquisitors, torture was not a sanction in itself, but a means to extract truth during trial. It was generally used when the accused persisted in declaring himself innocent when the Inquisitor was absolutely sure about his guilt. It was applied following strict rules and after considerate guidance.

They have a paper signed by Caravaggio here, witness in a case of bigamy 1607-1608

Vittoriosa

Abjuration (a public solemn confession of repentance, necessary prior to any verdict by French Theologian Michel Moren in from of Inquisitor Paolo Bellardino (1587-1590, 1591-1592)

Vittoriosa

Ominous signs:

Vittoriosa

On Corporal Punishment:

Corporal punishments were generally vindictive, containing an element of shame to make up for the harms committed. This included kneeling or whopping in public, rowing on galleys, nursing in hospital, work on fortifications and imprisonment. Such sanctions were inflicted in less than 10% of cases.

On Confiscation:

Not to be misinterpreted as working towards financial rather than spiritual gain, inflicting fines and confiscation of property and belongings were generally forbidden by the Supreme Congregation in Rome. Inquisitors however did confiscate devotional material on account of their improper use.

Devotional paper with Corona of Spirit confiscated by Inquisitor Paolo Bellardino for inappropriate use.

Vittoriosa

There are some brilliant, incredibly complex Arabic charts. In explanation:

In a complicated case of witchcraft Maltese architect and military engineer Vittorio Cassar appeared before the Tribunal…He produced a lot of evidence in Arabic text…Cassar was warned and absolved.

Vittoriosa

Vittoriosa

But I wonder what they really were. Especially as the Arabs were still more advanced in their knowledge, mathematics, architecture and engineering than the Knights of Malta at this time…

The incredible recounting of a case against 40 witches:

Prisons were probably stretched to the limit when Inquisitor Visconti had to arrest forty witches accused of love witchcraft in 1625. Their trial lasted three years and provides precious insights into Maltese spells. They abjured and were sanctioned with public flogging, perpetual exile and attend [sic] for confession and holy communion four times a year for four years.

‘had to arrest’. A mad sentence.

Two Quakers were held here, Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, arrested in 1658 for spreading Protestantism, they were discharged without sentence — four years after arrest. I wonder how these women arrived here, what their goals were. Why this illustration should accompany their story.

Vittoriosa

The inquisition created a school of Arabic to teach missionaries, to allow them to preach the faith among slaves in Malta and other Muslim lands. Slavery is referred to so off-handedly here, as though it wasn’t really serious.

The Inquisition remained in operation in Malta until the arrival of Napoleon in 1798. Hurrah. But they were already on their way out. They have a brilliant letter in cypher to Inquisitor Antonio Felice Chigi Zondadari (1777-1785) about earlier attempts to get rid of the Inquisition in Naples.

Vittoriosa

We move to descend to the prison cells. Shh.

Vittoriosa

The roles of the prison warden are given here beside his spartan quarters, incredibly contradictory I find, written to be abused to the warden’s own benefit but very much of their time.

Vittoriosa

Just outside, through the bars, you can see a sun dial carved in 1730 by prison warder Leonardo Palombo. I wonder how he arrived here in this position, what he wanted for himself rather than this:

Vittoriosa

The ominous timeline of a trial:

Vittoriosa

The judgment chamber:

Vittoriosa

A description of the purpose of the many edicts:

Every now and then the Inquisitor would feel the need to issue an edict thereby reminding people of their obligations as good Catholics to report any kind of misdeeds against the Catholic faith and the punishment incurred by those who did not do so.

They had 12 days, if they failed to report they were automatically excommunicated, and only the inquisition could lift the excommunication.

Activities that had to be reported:

  • Abuse of sacraments for superstitious remedies
  • Owning or perusing of prohibited books
  • Infringement of abstinence
  • Bigamy
  • Apostasy to Islam
  • Magical activities
  • Solicitation during confession (!)
  • Heretical opinion
  • False witness
  • Hear confession or say Mass without permission
  • Blasphemy
  • Lack of cooperation with the inquisition to eradicate heresy

On the Torture Chamber

This room was used alternatively as a prison cell, the prison warden’s room, and a torture chamber according to the needs of the palace at the time. These ‘secret’ stairs were used to elad prisoners, or those who wanted to denounce someone to the Inquisitor, straight into the Tribunal Room without using the main staircase, thus not exposing himself to others. … Utmost secrecy was of paramount importance for the legal procedure of the Inquisition.

On torture itself:

Vittoriosa

And on to the cells. Small squares like those of Gozo’s Citadel. A view from the prison yard to freedom up above.

Vittoriosa

The happiest thing about this place? A prisoner managed to dig himself free EIGHT TIMES. But there is nothing else happy about this place.

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Għarb to Marsalforn, Gozo

Our last walk on Gozo, it involved no ruins or temples, but we saw more salt pans and we found one stone circle but of nature’s origination. Għarb was definitely one of my favourite villages. We passed the shrine to St Dimitri, who legend has it emerged from his frame in this chapel to rescue a boy stolen away by slavers and returned him to his mother. We passed a tumbled pile of carved stone balustrades. There were wildflowers we had never seen before, more windswept coast — but not quite what we were expecting. I think the beauty of the cliffs all around this island raise expectations a little high. But then we reached the deep gullies carved by ocean, the great window. The sun went setting behind us. Lovely.

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Xlendi Cave

For the first time we heard the sea, it roared through the night with a crashing of waves as the wind picked up. No swimming in the morning, even if we had been up early enough to beat the crowds. This sea that I could not imagine other than placid and still suddenly alive and reaching hungrily far beyond where I had thought it’s boundaries lay. We walked down into town, found the narrow path and the stairs in the rock, had no idea there was a cave to be found. What luck that it should be the day when the sea should pound and sing here.

Xlendi Cave

Xlendi Cave

Xlendi Cave

Xlendi Cave

Lizards scurried over the rocks. There is one here if you can find it.

Xlendi Cave

We climbed back out. We sat for a while staring out to the knight’s tower, to the salt pans, watching the crashing of waves and mocking the German tourists.

Xlendi Cave

Xlendi Cave

Xlendi Cave

Then suddenly, pirates.

Xlendi Cave

Dwejra Bay, Cart Ruts, Phoenician Temple

I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was little, so much. I used to check out books on the Hittites and the Phoenicians, Ancient Egypt and the Sumerians, lug around these hard cover ancient library books probably already out of date when I read them, not understanding the half of it but they were so full of magic in the names I could not pronounce and places I longed to go and puzzles I longed to solve about ancient peoples. Many of them came from Tucson’s beautiful old Central Library before it moved to the new building. They came from the lower level where enormous electric fans kept the air moving and sent a great humming through the metal book shelves. One of my favourite places in the whole world. This is also where I found books on the Amazon rain forest, ornithologies of macaws and botanies of orchids and mythologies of exploration. This was while all of it still filled with innocence, before I knew how colonialism had twisted eager curiosity to understand the world into a way to better control and exploit it. ‘Phoenician’ still remains a word of wonder, lessened slightly by being reduced to the mere ‘Punic’ to signify the loss of Lebanon and the new centre in Carthage. Still, a word of wonder.

To be in a Phoenician Temple. In Ras Il-Wardija, Mark and I, on a high cliff looking out into the Mediterranean where they had built their fortune, the sun just beginning to sink and surrounded by the smell of smoke from farmers burning off the dead remains of old crops. The farmers shared the hilltop with us, staring out over the sea. But not the temple, we were alone there. It sits carved out of the golden globigerina limestone, niches still remaining there in the back of the cliffside. In front of it a deep square cistern, the limestone here strangely twisted and knotted like veins across skin, so sharply cut I felt it through my shoes.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Dwejra Bay Walk

Dwejra Bay Walk

Inside of it the ceiling has been carved into fantastic patterns, I imagine strange winds, the creep of water from above.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Everywhere shells — mussels half emerged from the smooth walls, remains of barnacles clustered in hollows, sand dollars and scallops adding to the strange layerings of limestone here.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Dwejra Bay Walk

Another cistern to the right as you stand staring at it.

Dwejra Bay Walk

This place — a high point. In every sense of the term.

We had started the walk in San Lawrenz.

San Lawrenz

San Lawrenz

We passed quarries that show the courses of stone removed.

 Dwejra Bay walk

Climbed out onto the cliffs above Dwejra Bay to find a bronze age dwelling and cart ruts — these have no mystique of childhood attached, but their mysterious nature makes them almost as wondrous as the temple.

Dwejra Bay walk

Leading up to the dwelling (though likely older? It is only a small pile of rocks now, megaliths having fallen over the edge, fallen apart)

Dwejra Bay walk

But once the people living here enjoyed such a view — Dwejra Bay, Fungus Rock

Dwejra Bay walk

We climbed down, looked over the inland sea

Dewjra Bay Walk

Had a drink, well deserved. Began the climb back up to the Knight’s tower, a clearer view of it here from above (pre-drink, forgive the temporal slip):

Dwejra Bay walk

It guarded the bay and fungus rock both, source of a rare parasitic plant — Cynomorium coccineum which flowers occasionally in the form of what looks like a phallic mushroom they believed to be an aphrodisiac and which they carefully controlled. They built a cable car (ie, a basket on a rope) to run from the rock to the promontory. I found an incredibly, brilliantly detailed article by Guido G. Lanfranco on all of its occurrences in written records, and this drawing which I liked better than that of the article:

I hadn’t realised you could still see the stairs both on the promontory and the rock itself, we did not go out there. Instead we made the steep climb back up the cliffs.

Reaching the top, to our left, the caves of Għajn Abdul, had it been less hot, earlier in the day, we would have climbed up to see these places whose deposits show them to have been occupied 7000 years ago, one of the earliest places settled here.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Looking back towards Dwejra Bay:

Dwejra Bay Walk

We went a bit wrong along teh cliffs, ended on the path closest to the edge. I had a moment of panic, being afraid of heights to some degree, but it was conquered.

Dwejra Bay Walk

And then we reached the temple.

The sun setting, we walked back, again along the path closest to the edge, not knowing we needed to head back up right away to get on the higher one. Poor me.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Finally we came to Ta’Sarraflu Pool, believed to have been built by the Romans, still full of ducks. We saw no frogs or turtles, but it was lovely all the same.

Dwejra Bay Walk

We walked back along the roads in the fading sunlight, racing to Santa Lucija in time to catch the bus.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Dwejra Bay Walk

We made it with three minutes to spare, no time to think about how to adequately capture the beauty of the citadel lit up and rather glorious in the night or the similar glowing of the great church at Xewkija.

I write this as Mark once more sits diligently at the kitchen table working on proof edits.

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The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum and the Tarxien Temples, Malta

The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum — an incredible underground temple built to receive the dead, an estimated seven thousand of them here filling its curved chambers. Entered through the megaliths of a stone circle, probably once monumental in itself, a descent is made through darkness with red ochre spirals writhing in the torchlight, it is thought in places one had to set out across carpets of human remains. Caves made into the images of the great corbelled temples, megaliths cut out of the limestone, one on each side of the entrance, a lintel above. In the depths there is a hole that when spoken into at the right depth of frequency sends the sound reverberating throughout the cave in a great overpowering drone. Its reverberations probably muted in the past, due to the bones piled up to fill the stone wells now empty and resounding.

Easy to imagine this place pooling with religious awe as well as the dead.

It transforms how you see the temples that stand massive and worn above ground.

A map.

The earliest remains found here were from 4000 BC, it was used until about 2500 BC, all of this carved over that period delving ever deeper into the stone. All this carved with antelope horn, used to bore holes to weaken the rock so it could be sheared away. The holes can still be seen in places, but it is hard to believe.

We were in a tour of ten, only two of the eight understood they were sharing a wonder of the world and should allow others the ability to see things too. We held small handsets that spoke to us in our own language (unless we spoke Czech or Polish) about where we were with an astonishing number of adjectives and suppositions. We were not allowed to take pictures. Our feet never touched the earth, I wonder why that matters to me but it does. There is something about standing with your feet on the earth, not some raised walkway.

Still incredible this place.

We left, had lunch so as not to follow the other members of our group straight to the temples of Tarxien. They lingered in the ruins when we got there in spite of all of our efforts.

A plan of the three temples to be found here.

These stones mark the earliest temple, the east temple built between 3600 and 3000 BC on the highest point of the site, they suffered must under the constant ploughing of this field.

Tarxien

The south Temple came next with its four apses, later modified to provide an entrance to the Central temple.

Tarxien

The middle temple, the only one known with six apses, we could not enter most of these, could only wonder at the presence of what looks like a bookshelf, at the smooth megaliths

Tarxien Temples

But it is full of wonders, formed of enormous megaliths that fit so perfectly together, the central walkway paved with enormous slabs of stone.

Tarxien

Tarxien

Tarxien

The spaces between the apses held pottery.

Tarxien

But it is near the entrance that the most beautiful things sit — though here, concrete reconstructions have raised their ugly heads, alongside modern reproductions–in golden limestone–of pieces now sitting in the museum for their protection. These I don’t mind so much, they show what it must have once been like. In the beginning. Here we stare down over a fireplace still showing the mark of ancient ritual.

Tarxien

Tarxien

It is full of niches and specked stone.

Tarxien

Tarxien

Tarxien

This altar from the South Temple

Tarxien

Back to the centre for this wondrous sculptured half of a being:

Tarxien

Niches reminiscent of the hypogeum, beautifully carved swirls.

Tarxien

Tarxien

Tarxien

We walked back through the village to catch the bus, I never tire of these streets and buildings of stone.

Tarxien

Tarxien

Tarxien

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