Sunday, 1 June 2008
Mdina and Rabat, Malta.
Mdina, Malta's ancient capital stands majestically on a hilltop in the centre of the island. The oldest city on the island of Malta, going back to pre-historic times, the word Mdina derives from the Arabic word 'medina' which means 'walled city'.
From its lofty perch, Mdina commands stunning views of the Maltese landscape. This ancient walled city is not only the jewel in Malta's crown but also one of Europe's finest examples of medieval fortifications and a major must-see of any visit to the island. Only 400 people live here in this traffic free city known as "The Silent City". So make a point of taking the 20 minute bus ride from Valletta to see this unique place and the surrounding village of Rabat.
The history of Mdina goes back more than 4,000 years. According to tradition it was here that in 60 AD that the Apostle St. Paul is said to have lived after being shipwrecked on the Islands. Furthermore it is said that St. Paul resided inside the grotto know as Fuori le Mura (outside the city walls) now known as St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat. Lamp lit by night and referred to as “the silent city”, Mdina is fascinating to visit for its timeless atmosphere as well as its cultural and religious treasures.
Palazzo Inguanez, Mdina
Mdina has had different names and titles depending on its rulers and its role but its medieval name describes it best – "Citta’ Notabile": the noble city. It was home then, as now, to Malta’s noble families; some are descendants of the Norman, Sicilian and Spanish overlords who made Mdina their home from the 12th century onwards. Impressive palaces line its narrow, shady streets. Before them it was the capital for the Romans who called the island and the city “Melite” after the honey for which the island was famous. Before them the Greeks called the island Μελίτη (Melite) meaning "honey" or "honey-sweet" possibly due to Malta's unique production of honey; Malta has had an endemic species of bee which lives on the island, giving it the common nickname the "land of honey". After a period of Byzantine rule (fourth to ninth century) and a probable sack by the Vandals, the islands were conquered by the Arabs in 870 AD. The Arabs, who generally tolerated the population's Christianity, introduced the cultivation of citrus fruits and cotton, and irrigation systems. Arab influence can be seen most prominently in the modern Maltese language, a Semitic language which also contains significant Romance influences, and is written in a variation of the Latin alphabet. The period of Arab rule lasted until 1091, when the islands were taken by the Siculo-Normans. The Arabs reduced the roman city in size to build a walled citadel in the centre of the island surrounded by a moat, the town without the walls became Rabat.
Mdina is one of Europe’s finest examples of an ancient walled city and extraordinary in its mix of medieval and Baroque architecture. There is only one entrance to Mdina, at the city's gate. The only cars permitted within the city's walls are those belonging to residents, and those belonging to the strictly regulated repair and construction workers. This policy mimics that of the Benedictine nunnery of St. Agatha, located just inside the city gate. The nuns of St. Agatha foreswear the outside world when they enter the nunnery, and until recently, were buried within its walls when they died. St. Agatha supposedly sought refuge in a crypt at Mdina during her persecution in Sicily, and is usually depicted holding her shorn breasts on a plate, an injury of torture from which she was supposedly miraculously healed by a vision of St. Peter. To this day, the only people allowed entry to the nunnery are women whose services are required for deliveries, and men for construction and repair, who are strictly supervised so as not to come in contact with the nuns.
Mdina Entrance Gate
Mdina has been dubbed "The Silent City," and not without reason. Turn just once after entering the city gate, and the sense of quiet becomes deafening. Without cars, within walls, and standing high above the land the stillness of the place is overwhelming and very welcome on what is in many ways a busy and noisy island. The golden stone from which most buildings are made reflected the sunlight, bathing me in a warm glow wherever I went. If there was ever a place to ponder life, it surely must be Mdina. With its high-walled streets and alleys it was much like a labyrinth, and I probably could have lost myself in my thoughts. Every street was so much the same, yet so different from the one before. All the closed, but brightly-painted doors & windows, all the golden bricks on every side. Streets led in circles, and sometimes to dead ends.
Tomb of a Noble, Cathedral Mdina
Within the walls of the Silent City one can visit many places of interest. The most obvious of these is the Cathedral dedicated to the Conversion of Saint Paul, itself an artistic masterpiece and a showplace of fine art. Other Museums and places of interest include: the Cathedral Museum, housing treasures by, among other masters, Albrecht Durer and Caravaggio; the Natural History Museum; the "Mdina Dungeons"; the "Mdina Experience", an audio-visual spectacle covering the city's history from the Roman era; the "Medieval Times", a guided-walk through 14th and 15th century life; the "Knights of Malta", another walk-through experience with life-sized figures; and various Palazzos, some purely for historic interest, for example Palazzo Falzon, while others provide food and beverage in an unrivalled ambience.
St Paul's Cathedral, Mdina
The National Museum of Natural History is housed in the 18th century Magisterial Palace of Justice within Mdina. The original building served as the seat of the Università, or local Government. In the early 18th century, a new entrance to the city was constructed and the Portuguese Grand Master Antonio Manuel de Vilhena (1722-36) re-structured the building at personal expense and transformed it into the present palace. A bronze bust of the Grandmaster of the Order lies above the main door and Vilhena’s coat-of-arms are sculptured on the main gateway and inside the portico.
In the early 20th century the palace was converted into a hospital through the generous funding of HRH the Duke of Connaught and was officially inaugurated on 22nd April, 1909, by King Edward VII. Throughout the forty or so years of its existence, it was popularly known as the Connaught Hospital. The National Museum of Natural History was set up in the palace in 1973.
Medina and its Noble Families also changed the course of Maltese History in 1798 when Malta was occupied by the French under Napoleon. The reign of the Knights of St. John ended when Malta was captured by Napoleon en route to his expedition of Egypt during the French Revolutionary Wars in 1798. As a ruse, Napoleon asked for safe harbour to resupply his ships, and then turned his guns against his hosts once safely inside Valletta. The Grand Master knew that he could only allow a few ships at a time to enter the harbour, due to the Treaty of Trent. Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim capitulated and Napoleon stayed in Malta for a few days, during which time he systematically looted the movable assets of the Order, and established an administration controlled by his nominees. He then sailed for Egypt, leaving a substantial garrison in Malta.
The occupying French forces were unpopular, however, due particularly to their negative attitude towards religion. The high hopes of the population were soon shattered when, on July 5th, a mere month after their arrival, the new conquerors looted the Mdina Cathedral of its silver. Messing with their churches was the biggest crime the French garrison could have committed against the fanatically religious Maltese people of the time! That same month, less than 3 weeks later, the Church of the Annunciation (Lunzjata) and the Carmelite Monastery in Mdina were both closed down by the French and, as if to prove that they hadn’t grasped the gravity of their misdoings, in August they even closed down the Benedictine Monastery in Birgu.
But their final act of abuse – the straw that broke the camel’s back – came when, on September 2nd, the French ordered the auctioning of the damask, richly draping the walls of Mdina’s Carmelite Church. This was thwarted by the angry crowd and, later that same day, rioting broke out. French officer, Masson, and a group of his men were killed at Rabat, giving rise to a state of high alert. French troops gathered behind the walls of Malta’s fortified cities, where they were blockaded by the Maltese militia until their surrender 2 years later to the British fleet, under the command of Captain Alexander Ball, Lord Nelson’s bright star.
Interior - St. Paul's Cathedral Mdina - By tradition built on the site where the Roman Governor, Publius, met St. Paul
The leaders of the people, having sought the assistance of the British Navy to oust the French and not wishing to have the Order reinstated as the islands' rulers, asked for the protection of the British Crown and, thus, become a part of its dominion. This was to be the beginning of Malta's British occupation as a Crown Colony and as a Military Base.
Around Mdina is Rabat, literally "The Town" in Arabic. Rabat is home to the famous Catacombs of St. Paul and of St. Agatha. These catacombs were used in Roman times to bury the dead as, according to Roman culture, it was unclean to bury the dead in the city (Mdina and parts of Rabat were built on top of an ancient Roman city). The Catacombs were also where early Christians secretly met and performed Mass until Constantine I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and therefore stopped persecuting Christians. The Catacombs are now looked after by Heritage Malta, the organisation who looks after most of the museums and temples in Malta. Part of St.Paul's Catacombs, the part accessible from the Parish church which is dedicated to the same Saint, was where St.Paul stayed for three months when he was shipwrecked on the island in 60 A.D.
St. Agatha's Catacomb
The Maltese Islands are rich in Late Roman and Byzantine burial sites. St Paul’s Catacombs are a typical complex of interconnected, underground Roman cemeteries that were in use up to the 4th century AD. They are located on the outskirts of the old Roman capital Melite (today’s Mdina). St Paul’s Catacombs represent the earliest and largest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta and owes its name to the widely held myth that it was related to St Paul’s Grotto.
The Maltese catacombs, when compared with those of Rome, Sicily and North Africa, although much more modest in size have a wider variety and richness of tomb architecture. The architecture of St Paul’s Catacombs is the result of an indigenous development which was barely influenced by overseas traditions. An imposing hall acts as the centre of St Paul’s Catacombs. Passages lead off from it in several directions into a bewildering series of tomb galleries. The few surviving murals, despite their fragmentary state, are of considerable interest since they constitute the only surviving evidence on the Islands of painting from the Late Roman and early medieval periods. Among the most interesting features of St Paul’s Catacombs are the circular tables which are set in a low platform with sloping sides and appear to resemble a reclining, circular couch. Both table and couch are hewn out in one piece forming a single architectural unit within an apsed recess. They were probably used to host commemorative meals during the annual festival of the dead when the rites of burials were renewed.
Parish Church, Rabat
Like nearby Mdina, Rabat played a major role in Malta’s past and is a prime source of its cultural heritage. This large provincial township was part of the Roman city of Melita, with the sites and archaeological relics found testifying to the town's importance during the Roman period. For many centuries, religious orders have established themselves within the precincts of Rabat and Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians still flourish here in their spacious convents and monasteries, catering for the religious needs of parishioners in their churches. The town is a commercial centre and acts as a market to its large agricultural hinterland. It is also well established on the tourist map due to its archaeological and historical sites: The Roman House (Villa), Catacombs, St. Paul’s Grotto and the fine churches and monasteries.
St. Paul’s Grotto
The mosaic pavements in the "Roman house" at Rabat rank among the finest and oldest mosaic compositions from the western Mediterranean, alongside those of Pompeii and Sicily. They were discovered in 1881 just outside Mdina in the remains of a rich and sumptuously decorated town house of the Roman period. These remarkably fine polychrome mosaic pavements were uncovered during the first excavations at the site. At that time, architectural elements of the building were restored and a number of rooms constructed over the remains to protect the mosaics.
The site was investigated further between 1920 and 1924 by Sir Themistocles Zammit, Malta’s first Director of Museums. An upper hall was added to the existing museum so as to provide more exhibition space and a more suitable entrance. Its neo-classical façade with a small front garden was completed in 1925.
A particularly satisfying place to visit in Rabat is the former palace of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. Indeed on the road from Valletta to Mdina you travel parallel to the Wignacourt aqueduct which was completed in 1615. The museum is run by volunteers and you are guaranteed an appreciative welcome from them and the resident cats! Formerly a clergy house called Wignacourt College, the museum is linked to St Paul's church by a tunnel. The college became a museum in 1981 and has a collection of Punic-Roman artifacts, coins, books, pottery, and furniture. The foyer of the ground floor leads to an extensive underground wartime shelter and various hypogea. Numerous exhibitions, featuring works by local and foreign artists are held throughout the year here.
The main floor hosts a number of exhibits including ceramics, coins, medals, pottery, maps, rare books, sacred vestments, parchments, portraits, furniture, sculpture, reliquaries, icons and bozzetti. Of particular interest is the Treasurer’s room, where there is the wooden chest on a loft above the bed, set in an alcove where the treasurer slept and from where he could safely guard the chest. Under the museum lies part of an extensive WWII air raid shelter with 44 rooms, interconnected with various tombs dating back to 2000 years old. In all, the two hypogeums boast about 50 tombs, rivalling the other catacombs in Rabat. Formerly the only entrance to St. Paul’s catacombs, the garden is that of which Lord Nelson was led to these catacombs in 1800.
Rabat and Mdina are easily reached by local bus from Valletta and to miss seeing them is to miss the essence of this unique island.