18 February 2009

Knights and the Sleeping Lady

After a slighAdd Imagetly less hair raising drive than the last time, we made it to Gatwick through thick sleet for the last ten miles and duly arrived in Malta at around mid-afternoon to a beautiful warm and sunny day...a bit different to the UK that we'd left behind a few hours earlier.
It was quite odd for me in a strange way to go back to Malta and it took me a little time to adjust . Here's a small island then, slap bang in the middle of the Med, where they drive on the left, drink pints of Hopleaf Pale Ale, have red post boxes, blue police lamps, M&S, BHS and all the public signs are in English...but when the locals open their mouths they speak in this totally indecipherable mixture of Arabic and Italian (plus a few other bits thrown in) Add to that, all the houses have flat roofs and are painted in varying shades of off-white and it's little wonder that it's a bit confusing at first. You cant' help at wonder either at the Maltese apparent disregard for tidiness, everything seems to be done in a ramshackle and chaotic sort of way, just one example of which is that all the electrical wiring has just been strung along the outside of the buildings as if it's been deposited by a giant spider...except spiders are a lot more mathematical. This feeling of unruliness seems to pervade most aspects on the island...it's as though you want to get them to just finish something off and do a half-decent job of it!
For all that though, it's a great place and absolutely stuffed with history and culture, not least of which is the episode of the Great Siege of 1565, when Soleyman the Magnificent attempted to oust the Knights of St. John, entrenched in their fortresses in Malta. Accounts vary, but it's estimated that the Turks sent 40,000 troops, opposed by just 600 knights and 7,000 or so local Maltese militia. The Turks began by hauling 36 siege guns firing huge stone shot up onto the Sceberras Peninsula (now modern day Valletta) to begin pounding Fort St. Elmo, followed by mass infantry attacks... they were confident that it would fall in a few days. Each night though, under cover of darkness, the wounded were rowed across Grand Harbour to Birgu and replaced with fresh volunteers, so that after five weeks of bitter close quarter fighting, the fort was little more than a pile of rubble and finally succumbed to a vast Turkish onslaught on June 23rd. Grand Master de Valette had forbidden the defenders to surrender and so they were slaughtered to the last man...the spot where they said their final prayers on the night of June 22nd can still be seen (pic through a dusty window) After they'd taken the fort, the dead knights were decapitated, their corpses nailed to crucifixes and then floated across Grand Harbour to Fort St. Angelo, where they washed up the following morning. The Grand Master was so incensed by this act that all the Turkish prisoners were immediately brought up from the dungeons in St. Angelo, decapitated on the spot and their heads were fired back across Grand Harbour into the Turkish lines...no surrender and no quarter given! The Turks then turned their attention to Birgu and Fort St. Angelo, where again the knights and their Maltese allies stubbornly held out 'till Sept 8th when reinforcements from Sicily finally arrived... the last remnants of the Turkish army were slaughtered in their thousands at St Paul's Bay, where all the big holiday hotels are now. It's estimated that the Turks lost 30,000 men during that summer to wounds and disease. Afterwards off course, money in vast amounts from flowed into Malta from a grateful Europe and the modern city of Valletta ('a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen') rose from the ashes of the Turkish camp on the Sceberras Peninsula.
One of the highlights of the week though was the visit (long booked in advance) to the Hypogeum in Paola. This is an underground necropolis that was discovered by accident in 1902 when workmen broke through the roof during the construction of local houses. The archaeologists at the time thought that another early Christian burial site had been discovered...later on it was realised that the site dated to at least 3500BC and contained approximately 7000 human remains.
Now 'awesome' is a word that's unfortunately crept into modern parlance...I've even heard it to describe a stupid computer game! Only certain things or events can really be described as truly 'awesome'...standing in the utter stillness at the bottom the Grand Canyon is one and gazing up to the top of the Great Pyramid of Cheops is perhaps another. Unquestionably, the sheer delicacy and breathtaking quality of the stone carving in the 'Holy of Holies' at the Hypogeum, executed over 5000 years ago using little more than stone tools and in semi-darkness 40' underground has to fall into this category...just awesome.
The gem that was discovered though in one of the chambers is the 'Sleeping Lady', a small figurine about 130mm long made from clay. It depicts a rather large female effigy taking a nap, or is maybe meant to represent the position adopted in death...who knows? She's estimated to be over 5000 years old and is now kept behind plate glass in the National Archaeology Museum in Valletta. That such a remarkable find came out of the ground after so long and in such good condition is again...awesome.
Traveling around Malta is a sheer delight and the only way to do it is on the yellow buses. I'd go so far as to say that they're a national...no, let's up the ante a bit, an international treasure. There are a few new ones but most date from the 50's and onwards and try as I might, I didn't see two that were the same. It's my belief that the synchromesh gears on the older buses wore out in about 1958 and the decibel level, going up a steep hill at 15mph, breathing in a heady mixture of hot engine oil and diesel fumes is beyond belief...normal conversation is all but impossible. They're driven by the Maltese with what can only be described as 'passion' over some of the worst pot holed roads in the civilised world! I have a theory (and there's probably some credence to it) that the Turks built the first decent roads on the island in order to haul the guns up onto the Sceberras Peninsula to batter Fort St. Elmo to bloody ruin...and the Maltese haven't done a lot to improve them in the intervening centuries!
If you do catch one particular bus (a number 41) driven by Michael (Schumacher that is, he of the mullet, big shiny shades and Australian flag) and you're unfortunate enough to be standing... just make sure you hold on for dear life!
Something must also be said of the events of WWII, where Malta again took a devastating pounding from the Italians and Germans, particularly around Valletta and the dockyard area... dockyard workers still use the air raid sirens to start and finish their day. We went down into an air raid shelter in Vittoriosa (Birgu) hewn out of the rock that could accommodate 600 people during the raids. In all, there were nearly 3000 raids in total and 16,000 tons of high explosive fell on the capital and it's surrounds. Or guide cheerfully admitted that the Maltese hate the French (who desecrated their churches in 1798) look with disdain bordering on contempt at the Italians and have a outright loathing for the Germans...though it doesn't stop them buying Mercedes cars.
Before this Blog entry turns into a novel, just a word about some of the pics:
There's a main shot of Valletta looking down the main street, the one with the wiring shows just what most of it's like! There's a couple of the buses as well and two shot inside the Palace Armoury...the one with me in it shows the armour worn by Grand Master de Valette at the time of the Great Siege in 1565. There are two shots of the sumptuous High Baroque interior of St John's Co-Cathedral as well as the pic of the site of the knights chapel in Fort St.Elmo (now rebuilt) not forgetting the 'Sleeping Lady'. SWIMBO is shown inside the air raid shelter with our guide and there's one of me at the Mdina gate. The last couple of shots show the reenactment of the events on the island at the time of the French occupation in 1798...stomp around in a gaudy uniform, drink some vino and fire off a little black powder.
Not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting place, Rob.

Cheers ;-)

Paul Chapman