Category Archives: Travel

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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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the Phoenicians, Ancient Egypt and the Sumerians, lug around these hard cover ancient library books probably already out of date when I read them, not understanding the half of it but they were so full of magic in the names I could not pronounce and places I longed to go and puzzles I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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Sunset, Xlendi Bay

We attempted a walk in the morning, beautiful, but the heat sent us stumbling back, though first we got to the oldest of the four surviving Knight’s watchtowers on Gozo, built in 1650 to guard this bay against (other) pirates.

Xlendi Bay

The salt pans:

We retreated, returned in the evening. Found a cat-shaped hole in the hillside, from which its eyes burned.

Xlendi Bay

And the magnificent cliffs.

Xlendi Bay

Xlendi Bay

Xlendi Bay

Xlendi Bay

Xlendi Bay

Down to the Sanap cliffs, where we found a family eating their meal on a fold up table beside their car.

Xlendi Bay

and then a race back home against darkness…

Xlendi Bay

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St Paul’s Catacombs, Rabat

More catacombs, the largest of them here in Rabat, constructed just outside the ditch surrounding the Roman city of Melita. They are believed to have begun as simple Punic hypogea, tombs dug straight down into the earth but later further dug out, added to, connected in the late Roman period to form catacombs, in medieval times to have become the site of a church.

First you enter the main section, then emerging you plunge back down into multiple small subsections to see a Menorah here, a ship there, endless stibadium that still fascinate, just as the darkness does and the vistas across tombs and through small arched windows carved into walls — Bonnano is right, there is so little obvious Christian iconography to be found anywhere.

Some myths on display — the pig that fell into a hole here, and emerged in a village 4 km away. The class of children that entered, never to be seen again. The giants who delved here.

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The Rabat Domvs Romanus

Rabat’s Domvs Romanus was discovered in 1881 by gardeners planting trees in Howard Garden. Excavated by Dr A. A. Caruana in 1881. They found a number of Islamic graves and some of the mosaics — the mosaics are extraordinary and allow the fairly precise dating of their placement with a span of 50 years at the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 1st century BC. Sadly the British went ahead and destroyed a big chunk of it, cutting the road to Mtarfa railway through the north end in 1899. It was excavated anew by Temmi Zammit in 1922. Which, well, it was early days in archaeology, so loads of interesting things have been lost. We both remember a reference to the cartloads of pottery that were catalogued and then destroyed — but can’t remember where we read this. It wasn’t here. Ah well.

There is a little museum here, containing finds both from the site as well as a few donated from elsewhere. They had these amazing figurines from between the 1st and 3rd Century AD, the middle one is, of course, my favourite. The accompanying notice describes the figure as Eegemone (il cadottiero) — though I imagine this may be Egemone, il condottiero — and the one on the right Ermanio (il vecchio recalvostro). This is the only one for whom provenance is known, found in St Paul’s Square, Mdina. There is nothing about the significance of the names.

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Then there is this wonderful glass drinking vessel known as a Rython, with this amazing snail’s head, found in a tomb (but which? no one knows) in Rabat, c 1st Century AD. The glass chalice to the right is also lovely:

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Bonnano in Malta: Phoenician, Punic, and Roman gives two wonderful maps. One is of the site as a whole, with a look at the system of cisterns providing water to the house.

The second shows just the villa itself, with the areas where the mosaics were found:

There was the Triclinium, where dining happened, where the pater familias conducted all of his business — where once there were amazing mosaics, mostly gone but what remains of them are so beautiful with their tiny pieces and fine shadings:

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Such extraordinary mosaics. They were later repaired with coarse tiles.

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

I am rather in awe of these floors. There is a display about the cocciopesto floor — believed to have originated in Carthage (those Phoenicians again) around the 4th Century BC, sometimes referred to as Pavimentum Punicum. Crushed pottery was mixed with lime to form a cheap, resistant material — their red colour came from from crushed pottery. This was often combined with white marble tesserae to create simple designs, then called opus signinum. Opus sculatum is the lozenge shaped tiles, put together to form a perspective cube. Such floors were found in almost all Roman sites in Malta, and still found today in fact. Those found here are considered some of the finest in the Mediterranean. No question why (I am just sad glass had to come between us):

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Masks lined these floors. Signage states they probably drew on Greek New Comedy — they almost certainly represent a story but no way to know now what that may have been. I find them very eerie with their open mouths, can’t quite imagine wanting them to gape at me from the floors of my home. .

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

The floors were built over buried amphora, to control the damp…

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

There are quotations from Vitruvius here from his book on architecture, which has re-entered my list of things to read.

The mosaics, surely, would be enough to demonstrate this was the villa of someone very high status, but in addition very fine Imperial sculptures were also found here — of Claudius and his family probably. A rare thing to have the emperor and his family in your home. Like the masks, I don’t think I would have much appreciated that either.

The museum also holds this statue, found elsewhere in Mdina, which gets much more mention in the books. A goddess, unknown, with an ‘Isis knot’ under her breast, a ‘Lybian’ style to her hair, an eastern necklace.

Rabat - Domus Romana

Outside, staring at the ruins of other poorer homes aligned along a long-buried street

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

A jumble of bits and pieces here

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

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St Agatha’s Catacombs and Museum, Rabat

St Agatha’s Catacombs in Rabat are locked away behind a great iron door down the bottom of a flight of steps, available to see on a guided tour only. I was somehow first down the steps and first into a tall arching space with frescoes all around it. An extraordinary, evocative space that deserved more time, more darkness, no reminders of modern tours. We needed time to piece together ancient faces. We were not so lucky. This is the picture I might have taken had there been photography allowed, but it was darker.

There is a battle of interpretations being waged here, from the leaflet produced by the Missionary Society of St Paul:

Strong tradition holds that the young virgin, Agatha, sought refuge on the island of Malta, so as to escape the persecution of the Emperor Decius (249-251 AD) and the Governor of Sicily, Quintinius, who had fallen in love with her.

Agatha is said to have lived in the city [Melita], but used to come to pray at this place. A few months later, she returned to her native country, where she was tortured and killed because of her faith on 5th February 251 AD.

These dates ever so exact. The story from the guide and from elsewhere was that she had hidden in the crypt itself. One place describes how she taught children here. The leaflet says the crypt was maintained thereafter as sacred to her honour. One set of frescoes was painted in 1200, and the second set in 1480, attributed to Salvatore D’Antonio from Messina. Anthony Bonanno dates the catacombs to late 3rd and 4th Centuries, gives a wider range of dates for the frescoes and names no names. And across the road, a set of boards in the St Paul catacombs ‘debunking’ some quite fabulous myths (more on them later) has the following entry:

Christians did not hide in catacombs not least because they were terrible hiding places, and there is no evidence for Christianity until the 4th Century AD.

I gather up all interpretations of the past to enjoy the catacombs, they are beautiful, if slightly back-breaking. Many of the tombs are decorated, many of them carved so people could lie side by side, some of them still contain bones. You come at the end to the ‘Holy of Holies’, ‘believed to be the earliest rock-cut church in Malta.’ The leaflet states there was once an agape table set here, which was later destroyed when the church outlawed their use — of all the interpretations swirling about this place, this is the one I buy the least:

Distinctions between the rich and the poorer members of the congregation during these banquets became customary, and so they were stopped.

The whole catacomb distinguishes between rich and poor — those with central tombs custom-cut into rock, surrounded by four pillars and passageways to be freestanding. The poor left to shelves in passageways, pits in floors, graves used over and over.

But the fresco here is lovely, one of the best preserved.

Definitely Christian with the Chi Rho and the vases and the doves — unlike the mutilated stibadium (Bonanno’s preferred term, he mentions mensae and triclinia), which have been found more widely in Libya and Petra and probably tie back to a longer lineage of pagan worship. Many of those here in Malta are not associated with Christian iconography at all (though that doesn’t mean necessarily that they weren’t Christian), and several come with with carved menorahs making them fairly necessarily Jewish. Bonanno does not mention this as an early rock-cut church, nor this as the niche above an altar, either. But these spaces are still very full of an awe closely related to religious feeling, even in modern-day electric lighting rather than flickering oil lamps. How to differentiate between church and religious space holding believers? A map here, from Bonanno.

cof

There is a museum here also, which reminds me of Victorian days of glory, full of finds from the catacombs but also multiple donations, unprovenanced, uncertain.

Rabat - St Agatha's

They range from pottery to fragments of scupture, Egyptian shabtis, bits of glass and beads. The connection to a Hellenized Egypt feels quite strong here.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

My favourite things were the votive slabs taken from the old church built here in 1504, some of them found in the walls of the church rebuilt in 1670. I love these scenes of everyday life:

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Animals — including the legend of the pelican who causes her own breast to bleed to feed her young. This is everywhere in Medieval English carvings as well as in one of the frescoes decorating a grave in the catacombs below.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Two architectural/ city scenes, at the very end of the row:

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Though of course, the most amazing thing had to be the 4000 year-old mummified crocodile identified with Sobek, Lord of the Nile.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

A graffitied cherub

Rabat -- St Agatha's

There was also some truly extraordinary Catholic kitsch, which I also loved. I think I am going to collect all of that together for one glorious post of sacred hearts and severed heads…

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