Queen Elizabeth, on a recent visit to Malta, offered the comment that the island appeared to be overbuilt. Indeed, it is. Thriving economically, it is a very different island today to the one Her Majesty knew in the 1940s. Malta has embraced the EU, and benefited from its inclusion. It has turned its size and, above all, its combination of Mediterranean and British culture to its advantage. Whether you are walking in Valletta or visiting the admirable University of Malta, it feels very Anglo-Saxon until you gaze at the pure Mediterranean sky or the stilled, reflective waters of the Grand Harbour. Indeed, at midday, as two Victorian cannons are ceremoniously fired across the harbour, the pageantry enacted by a uniformed sergeant major in khaki drill and polished boots, with Sam Browne belt and peaked cap, could easily be happening in London. On the other hand, the colour and fervid gaiety of carnevale feels Venetian. Nothing is spared on costumes, and the flocks of children and adolescents are plainly in second heaven.
The island’s treasures bear witness to an appreciation of giving value to tourists. The Knights’ church, St John’s in central Valletta, in all but name the cathedral, is a glorious Baroque exemplar. The many side chapels, each dedicated to national cadres of the Orders, are drawn into a great commanding narrative by the vivid burlesque of the paintings by Mattia Preti. It is said that Preti was in awe of Caravaggio, but his legacy here is little short of stupendous. Then, too, how on earth the church managed to survive the blanket bombardment of the island during World War II is a miracle.
But if the nave and its idiosyncratic chapels are a jewel, do not miss the Oratory. In hushed glory are two paintings by Caravaggio himself: one is of St Jerome, in modest and pensive mood; the other canvas, painted in about 1608, depicts the savage killing of John the Baptist. Caravaggio apparently made the latter as penance for a murder he had committed in Italy. Seeking refuge with the Knights, he found protection in return for making this masterpiece. The two paintings in the otherwise bare chapel evoke a hushed wonderment. As in hearing the greatest symphonies, you stand there eying the detail and dark tension, all the time pondering how this young Italian conjured up his artistry, and the mysticism of his subjects, given his own propensity for life on the wild side.
At the far end of Valletta, within the massive angular bulwarks of the fortress of St Elmo poking out at the entrance of the Grand Harbour, is a museum devoted to the town’s history and its struggle for survival. The galleries occupy a chain of different rooms rather like bunkers within the battlements. Valletta’s history really grew out of the Knights of St John’s intention to reinvent on Malta their previous suzerainty on Rhodes, after their expulsion from the Dodecanese by Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottomans were relentless, however. Their objective was to eliminate the Knights. Accordingly, in 1565 Malta was besieged by a colossal army whose number included the celebrated Ottoman admiral and privateer, Dragut. Dragut’s demise when hit by friendly fire effectively swung the balance of the struggle and, on the eve of a hard-fought Ottoman victory, hearing of a relieving Christian crusade to aid the Knights, the invaders lost courage and in fleeing were slaughtered. Valletta was the outcome. It was conceived as a fortress on a superhuman scale in tiers to defy any cannon.
The exhibits in the National War Museum (in Fort St Elmo) use all manner of museology to trace Malta’s Mediterranean story up until modern times. The 16th-century siege that culminated in victory over the Ottomans is told in an animation with plenty of objects and descriptive panels to fill in the detail. The narrative embraces the French annexation of the island, their capitulation, the British occupation, Malta’s role in World War I, and the island’s epic resistance in World War II. The story reaches to the present day: Malta’s recent flirtation with Libya as it voted for independence from Britain is described to complete the picture of its role in world history. But without doubt it is the section devoted to Operation Pedestal, beyond Faith, one of the Gloster Sea Gladiators that defended the island against the Axis forces in 1940-1941, that grips visitors.
Operation Pedestal is a story of unalloyed daring. Projected onto the floor, a crisp narrator describes how 59 ships set out to supply Malta at the height of the Axis siege in 1942. Four aircraft carriers, two battleships, and 39 cruisers and destroyers shepherded 14 precious merchant ships. In the centre of the flotilla was the giant American tanker, Ohio. Previous convoys had been obliterated by Axis submarines and Stukas. Pedestal, over five extraordinary days, faced the same foes, by turns seeking to eliminate the siege-breakers. On the museum floor, fighters blitz ships, submarines sink ammunition boats and cruisers, and the great fleet is pitilessly whittled down day by day. The story is pulsating because it is so human, heroic, and vivid. This epic ended improbably with the badly holed Ohio, lashed to destroyers either side of it and nudged by a third, entering the Grand Harbour to a humongous welcome by Vallettans. Shiploads lost their lives bringing provisions to the island, bravely turning the siege into a springboard for the Allied victory at El Alamein two months later. The story is gripping in its telling and, surrounded by material salvaged from the Pedestal flotilla, it is hard not to be inspired and to shed tears for the superhuman efforts of all those involved.
Modern Valletta has benefited from the kind of focused determination that was at the heart of its wartime survival. The whole town is a tribute to quality ‘built’ heritage practice. Repairs to shattered buildings have long since become invisible. Strangely, though, its celebrated archaeology museum has missed out. No place in Europe except perhaps Wessex, boasts better prehistory. The art and archaeology have been brilliantly studied and published, thanks to the pioneering work of Sir Themistocles Zammit (1864-1935). This polymath lent the prehistory its just status as a founding platform for the island’s peerless Mediterranean past. The shelves of books on sale beside the ticket counter show how Zammit’s legacy has been more than sustained. ‘Maltese archaeology owes everything to Zammit’s personality’, so the British editor of Antiquity wrote in 1928. But the museum’s galleries themselves, full of Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Punic treasures, extraordinary as objects, show their museological age, a long way from the emotional interactivity with Operation Pedestal.
However, my visit to Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum showed what Heritage Malta in its earlier guise as the Museums Department can do. The Hypogeum is situated about 15 minutes’ drive out in Valletta’s suburbs. The entrance off a suburban street seems more in keeping with a safe house in a John Le Carré novel than a UNESCO World Heritage Site (inscribed in 1980). Booking is necessary and the tariff is €35, both at first a little imposing. The guided tour soon illustrates why. This sacred spot in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age was preserved by the indefatigable Zammit after having been found by workmen some decades earlier while making wells. The site amounts to a compact underground labyrinth of chambers, many covered with spiral and other megalithic ornamentation. Each space with its burials – numbering hundreds – attests to an engineering that was precocious by any 4th or 3rd millennium standards. The raw simplicity of the art and tools belies an extraordinarily sophisticated cognitive world. The hour-long tour of ten people a time ensures that the fragile environment is properly protected for the future. At the same time, our guide patiently explains the struggle with humidity and the efforts made to ensure this hidden gem can be visited. How the learned Zammit would be impressed! After my hour below ground, ushered out into the anonymous side street, I came away feeling very privileged.
Centrality of Mdina
On my bucket list was a visit to meet Nathaniel Cutujar, now Deputy Superintendent with Heritage Malta. After studying at York University, Nathaniel worked for Heritage Malta at the Hypogeum. Since then, he has undertaken numerous rescue excavations all over Malta in advance of near constant development. His offices in the heart of old Valletta are stacked with crates brimming with ceramics from many digs. I am especially curious, as ever, to find out what he has from the late Roman to the 11th centuries. What part did Malta play in the revival of the Mediterranean in the 10th and 11th centuries? The answer, he believes, lies in the centre of the island, at Mdina, where he kindly takes me.
Mdina today is an elegant, well-restored fortified Baroque town occupying a rise from where much of the island and its craggy northern coastline can be viewed. In rescue excavations at Mdina, Nathaniel found heaps of imported Byzantine globular transport amphorae, as well as finer sherds, imports from far-flung places. A Hellenistic peristyle house (which can be visited) once occupied this hilltop, part of a small ancient town. The first Byzantine community appears to have nestled in or against the bare remnants of the ancient properties, not so much squatters as Byzantine farmers and traders with priorities that were not architectural but material in other ways. This, drawing on the memory of a place, was to be the germ of medieval and – grander – Baroque Mdina. New settlements, unlike northern Europe at this time, were eschewed in favour of some continuity of sorts. Elsewhere on Malta other scattered Roman villas have come to light over the past century, and occasionally, as at Mdina, within their ruins Nathaniel has found tell-tale imported amphorae and other sherds, evidence of minimal but unmistakable Dark Age habitation. Mdina long before Valletta, he believes, was the first post-Classical Maltese central place, safely distanced from menacing pirates, and yet in terms of administrative oversight readily connected to a constellation of small communities. Nathaniel’s theory makes perfect sense.
Today it is hard to imagine this world between the sea and the largely flat island. A few fields with their drystone walls, riven by sharp ravines, occupy the diminishing spaces between Malta’s many villages and the modern ribbon development. It is hard not to agree with Queen Elizabeth that the island has been over-built, much of it for tourism. In these circumstances, its archaeology and history – well managed and presented – offers a special chance to see an unusual Mediterranean country as it was, through the prism of its justly vaunted treasures.
Richard Hodges is President of the American University of Rome.
This article appeared in issue 78 of Current World Archaeology.