Malta, consisting of three islands, is in the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily. Until 1798 Malta was part of Sicily. It is one of the world's smallest and most densely populated countries, a 27km by 14km land, with about 475,000 inhabitants. It has two official languages, Maltese, and English
Malta has a very long and colorful history. Prehistorical artifacts unearthed show the existence of a golden Neolithic period. Intricate and elaborate structures, underground burial sites, and temples are indicative of that period. Ġgantija Temples in Gozo predate the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Some of the sites are designated as the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Malta went through extended periods of foreign occupation. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans (an ethnic group from Normandy in France), the medieval Kingdom of Aragon. and other conquerors ruled the island for centuries. Christianity came to the island in 60 AD when shipwrecked St. Paul landed on the island.
The Moors (Arabs) came to occupy the island in 870 AD. Then, in 1500 to the 1700-time period the Knights of Malta ruled the island followed by Napoleon Bonaparte. The French and the British rule lasted until 1964. All of them left their indelible marks on the Maltese society. World War II brought mayhem to Malta.
Malta became independent in 1964, became a Republic in 1974 and joined the European Union in May 2004. The artistic and cultural lives of the Maltese Islands were influenced by many outside cultures. Malta is full of historic sites, megalithic temples, underground burial chambers, beaches, churches, and other interesting locales.
Malta is a Mecca for tourists. Warm sunny days, sandy beaches, historic sites, natural beauty, splendid cuisine, and a large English-speaking community attracts millions of visitors. Relics of the old-world glory are all over the island: fortifications, architectural marvels, etc. all drenched in history.
City of Valletta, the fortress city
Valletta is the port city and the capital of Malta. It was built on Mount Sceberras peninsula that rises out of the harbor. It is a fortified city due to its strategic importance. The city took up extensive renovation after the WWII bombings. It is Europe’s first planned city and now a UNESCO World Heritage.
Valletta, the smallest capital of the European Union, is the island’s major commercial and financial center.
It is a city bustling with tourists and commercial activities. Visitors enjoy the cathedrals, churches, palaces, statues, fountains, baroque architecture, and the rich Maltese history. Her narrow streets are filled with all sorts of shops, cafes, and antiquity stores. There are many other large shopping areas with major stores carrying international brands. Then there are many parks, and gardens wander around and relax.
Valletta offers many interesting sights to tourists. The Grand Master’s Palace is a 16th-century palace used as a residence by the Knights of St. John. Later it became the parliament house. The National Museum of Archaeology has artifacts, and prehistoric figurines dating from 5200 BC. The St. John’s Cathedral, built between 1573 and 1578, has a giant painting of John the Baptist by artist Caravaggio.
Our first stop was the Mosta Rotunda or simply known as the Mosta. It is the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady, a Roman Catholic parish church/basilica in Mosta. The church was built in the mid-1800s to neoclassical designs of Giorgio Grognet de Vassé.
The Mosta is a circular domed building that replicates the classical architectural style of the Pantheon in Rome. The portico front is adorned with six large columns with detailed architectural work and bordered by two bell towers. The main door opens into a huge rotunda covered with an unsupported dome. It is one of the largest unsupported domes in the world. It took over 28 years to build and rebuild to its current state and was completed in 1871.
The interior is massive with ornate decorations, artworks, sculptures, and paintings. It is an active Basilica and accommodates hundreds of worshippers.
More than the historical/religious backgrounds, more than the awe-inspiring physical attributes, the story of the unexploded WWII bomb that pierced the dome and fell into the rotunda amazed me. On April 9, 1942 during the WWII bombardment, a 500 kg high explosive bomb pierced the dome and fell into the church during the service. Miraculously, it did not explode thus saving the congregation of about 300 people. The church also survived the bombardment.
On the way to Rabat, we stopped at the original Glass of Malta, a glassworks factory. It was interesting to see specialized artisans diligently working with molten glass and bring to life their creativity. They make vases, bowls, bottles of all shapes and colors, colorful etched glasses, figurines, and other objects. Their products are available for purchase at their on-location retail store.
Rabat: Home to the catacombs
We drove about half an hour through tree-lined, and wide thoroughfares, and byways to reach Rabat, a city that existed from the Roman period. The word Rabat is a derivative of the Arabic word for 'suburb'. Rabat has a population of less than 12,000 people.
The town is a commercial center and has museums, historical buildings, and a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways. Howard Gardens is a famous public garden. Domus Romana (Roman Villa) has remains of mosaic pavements and luxuriously decorated villas from the Roman period. Wignacourt museum and Casa Bernard museum are other tourist attraction.
Artifacts uncovered attest to that fact that Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians influence flourished here in the historical churches, convents, and monasteries. Also, the Roman Villa (Domus Romana), Catacombs of St. Paul and of St. Agatha are archaeologically and historically important sites in Rabat. Catacombs are underground burial vaults used by Romans. The catacombs were in use until around the 13th century. Various religious, Christians, Jews, and Pagans, groups used these catacombs.
Walking through the cobblestoned narrow streets was interesting. The narrow streets are bordered by well-maintained centuries-old buildings with brightly colored doors with one-of-a-kind locks/door knockers.
Rabat is unique in many ways. Rabat’s streets are clean, colorful, quiet, and edged by residential, and storefront buildings. It looks like they all have many stories of yesteryears to tell. All buildings have colorful doors, and doors have unique doorknockers.
We went past a plaque commemorating the late Fr. Mikiel Fsadni who discovered (together with Prof. Godfrey Wettinger) Peter Caxaro’s medieval poem il-Kantilena at the Notarial Archives in Valletta.
Walking along the narrow alleyways, towered by the historical buildings, noble houses, churches, and mansions my mind wandered off to a distant past of pompous, pageantry, war, destruction, and glory. After about two hours in Rabat, we came to the walled city of Mdina.
Mdina, the walled city
Mdina is a fortified medieval town enclosed in bastions. A city with strategic importance to many occupied forces. It is found on the island’s highest point, on one of the highest promontories, in Malta. It gives a beautiful view of the Island from the vantage point of the high bastion.
Mdina has many names including Città Vecchia or Città Notabile and Malta's silent city. The Phoenicians named her Maleth. The city was named Mdina during the Arab occupation of Malta. Mdina in Malta has many similarities to Medina in the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula due to her historical inheritances from the Arab rulers. Now, Mdina is on the UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage Sites.
It is the old capital of Malta, and a small city, about 0.9 sq. kilometers, with fortifications including trenches. Mdina’s long history of foreign occupation gave her certain characteristics. It is a pleasant city, an eye-catching one, with her historic architecture, trenches, and fortifications. Her archaeological sites, structures, and relics attest to the town's prominence.
Crossing the trench by the bridge and through the baroque main gate, we entered the city. The original bridge was rebuilt to allow cars and other vehicles. The TV series Game of Thrones featured the main entrance and other locations in Malta,
There is no vehicular traffic, except for the vehicles belonging to a small group of residents' and a few horse-drawn buggies for tourism purposes, inside the city. Inside the city, it is a maze of narrow streets, bordered by historical buildings and artifacts displaying many centuries of cultural contributions.
The Normans started the fortifications of the city as a defense mechanism with moats/trenches around the forts to supplement fortification. This renovation restoration of Mdina started in 1722 with António Manoel de Vilhena. French architect Charles François de Mondion led the renovation incorporating Baroque style elements into the existing medieval architecture. Since then, large parts of the fortifications and the city entrance were completely rebuilt.
The St. Paul’s Cathedral (17th century) stands in the main square. This baroque cathedral, Magisterial Palace, and Palazzo Falzon were rebuilt by the Knights of Malta after the earthquake of 1693. The St. Cathedral Museum is another interesting place that holds religious arts, paintings, coins, Roman antiquities, wood carvings and documents from the time of the Medieval Inquisition (circa1184 AD).
Mdina is still Malta’s center of nobility and religion. Her current residents (about 250) are the descendants of the old, once powerful noble families.
There are many interesting things to do and see in Mdina. The Natural History Museum, located in the Vilhena Palace, has collections of rocks, minerals, birds' eggs, and nests, mammals, fish species, and exotic shells and insects. Palazzo Vilhena became Connaught Hospital and since 1973 it houses the National Museum of Natural History of Malta.
Mdina Dungeons, close to the main gate, is a collection of underground caverns, cells, and passages. Archbishop’s Palace, built in 1722, is the seat of the Archbishop of Malta. Banca Giuratale is the Municipal Palace, a public building. It was the government building but now it houses the National Archives of Malta. The Casa Inguanez palace, built in 1370, belongs to the oldest noble family of Malta.
The architectural styles in Mdina is a mixture of many as the city was occupied by many foreign forces. Thus, we could see the influence of Norman (Romanesque), to French Baroque to Arab, and modern architectural styles. There are many palaces, most of them are private residences now, few are museums, and some are restaurants. The Palazzo Falzon is a well preserved medieval building which dates to 1495. Built as a family residence by the Maltese nobility and it is named after the Falson family.
The Plaque near the Torre dello Standardo is to honor the people who were killed during the 1798 uprising. The Torre dello Standardo (Tower of the Standard) is part of the fortifications and used to as a commutations tower.
The Benedictine Nunnery of Mdina came to existence in 1450. The present building is based in a medieval hospital for women. Today, about 20 nuns live here.
Standing in front of this store brought memories of an old classic: the movie titled ‘Maltese Falcon’- a 1941 black and white film directed by John Huston. Humphrey Bogart played the main character, detective Sam Spade. It is a murder mystery/detective novel by American author Dashiell Hammett (1930) deals with the disappearance of a statuette of a bird: the Maltese Falcon.
Constructed in 1666 by Tomaso Costanzo the Palazzo Costanzo in Mdina was the residences of a Sicilian noble family. It is a restaurant now.
We walked around via the narrow alleyways enjoying the sights and sounds of Mdina and reached the east part of the bastion at Triq is-Sur. From this vantage point, the panoramic view of Malta is very eye-catching.
Malta offers a lot to visitors as it is packed with attractions and interesting places, sun-drenched sandy beaches, quaint seaside fishing villages, architecture, arts, and antiquities. Valletta, Rabat, and Mdina played major roles in Malta's past. They are the widows into Malta’s cultural heritage.
Of course, when in Malta, experience a few Maltese dishes and include a glass of Kinnie, local beer, or a Cisk, a traditional tea, or relish a piece of pastizz, a savory pastry.
From prehistoric, it has over 7000 years of history, Hypogeum, Megalithic temples, catacombs, churches, forts, to modern-day parks, and gardens and everything in-between Malta is a visitor’s paradise.