Comino: the island of singular experiences

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Comino: the island of singular experiences

It all depends on how you look at it of course. Barren, empty, crying out for development according to some.  Precious, pristine, untouchable according to others.  I find myself leaning towards this latter viewpoint.

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Comino: three square kilometres of parched upper coralline limestone deprived of the perched aquifers providing liquid sustenance to its larger siblings.  High cliffs,  miniscule inlets and its own brood of smaller islets: a mini archipelago within an archipelago.  Together with its magnificent Blue Lagoon which attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year.

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Elsewhere such a small rock would have probably been ignored.  But not in Malta, where every square kilometre of territory has its own story to tell!  Roman and Punic burials, ancient shipwrecks, finds of pottery and coins and troglodyte structures all point to a millenary human presence on this tiny island.

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Comino was also an island of exile as evidenced by Cabbalist’s Abraham Abulafia’s thirteenth century solitary confinement there after managing to attract the combined wrath and fear of Christian and Jewish religious leaders with his teachings.  The island’s solitude was also exploited by Barbary pirates raiding shipping between Malta and Gozo and smugglers from Sicily seeking to evade the Maltese quarantine authorities during times of plague on the Italian island.  The reaction to this was the building of the imposing Santa Maria Tower to stem piracy and the small Police Station in Santa Maria Bay to deter smuggling.

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Its isolation also attracted the building of a Hospital by the British following a cholera outbreak in the nineteenth century on the site of an older eighteenth century Knights’ period residential structure called il-Palazz and the more recent, twentieth century pig-farm to help Malta re-populate its swine population following a deadly outbreak of African Swine Fever.

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You will witness a chapel of medieval origin complete with an Eastern Christian-style wooden iconostasis screen separating the altar from the faithful and a small, enclosed cemetery complete with gnarled cypresses clinging for dear life on a windswept hill pointing to humanity’s religious needs during its short worldly presence and its need to rest in peace in expectation of an afterlife.  Faith, life and death aside, there is also an impressive gun battery to guard shipping movements in the channel facing the extreme northern tip of Malta.

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Look out for scattered evidence of a twentieth century attempt at sustaining a private agricultural colony: terraced fields in miniscule, meandering valleys with their low dry-stone walls struggling to prevent the sparse red soil from being washed away into the nearby sea.  Pines, carobs and olives planted as windbreakers and sources of sustenance and fuel.

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Also an abandoned bakery, complete with stone oven and vats for mixing the dough, for the once-a-week baking of the bread for the farming community.  There once also was a schoolhouse within the confines of the abandoned hospital to educate the colony’s children.  The colony is long gone but one determined permanent household remains, eking a living from agricultural produce.  And from the last half of the twentieth century, the more recent tourism development consisting of the hotel and its handful of bungalows a stone’s throw away.

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There are a couple of water pumping stations that harvest fresh water from the sea-level aquifer whose existence was unknown until the nineteenth century and a few ugly, functional structures, standing like a cancerous blight on the ancient landscape, erected in more recent, insensitive times in connection with the transfer of electric power from Malta to Gozo.

Comino is an island with almost no vehicular traffic and with a few dusty paths for roads.  A place to walk, to sit, to smell and to fill the senses with the aura of nature.  A photographer’s paradise, a nature-lover’s dream, a birdwatcher’s haven.  An island of wild rabbits and scurrying lizards.

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Then there is the sea: that most deep azure of blue seas tempered with the mesmerizing turquoises, which only the unique combination of coralline limestone sand and crystal clear water can create.  The sea which dominates the entire landscape and changes its hue depending on depth, light and shadow. A paradise for divers with natural caves, impeccable water quality, wrecks to explore and diverse marine flora and fauna.

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Finally Comino is mostly about nature.  Vast swathes of virgin garigue, fragrant with Mediterranean thyme and other aromatic species dominate the landscape.   In some areas, the garigue gives way to more verdant steppe where patches of lentisk bushes, treasured for their mastic resin all over the Mediterranean but ignored and unknown over here, are to be found.  There is a small and endangered sand-dune habitat in the hinterland of the miniscule Santa Maria Bay together with isolated communities of cliff-side vegetation supporting shy populations of sea birds amongst the boulder screes.

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My Comino is for the connoisseur: the visitor who is capable of stopping to savour the beauty of an unsophisticated but beautiful landscape and seascape.   It is like an aged distillate to be savoured slowly, not in a rush.  It is the place to slow down your pace, narrow your field of vision, observe what you usually ignore.  A place which you can either dismiss as barren and empty or appreciate in terms of its rich diversity if you bother to adjust your scale.   Once you get to this stage there is really no going back and you will join the ranks of those who dream of its continued protection and isolation.  Dreamers like me.

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Malta’s Rosetta Stones

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Malta’s Rosetta Stones

Everybody is familiar with the Rosetta Stone, the ancient stone stele containing three almost similar inscriptions written in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics,  Demotic Script and Ancient Greek.  This stone was used by the great French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion to sensibly decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time in 1822, thus opening the way for the eventual understanding of the previously undecipherable multitude of Egyptian inscriptions and papyri .  In turn, this helped us understand day to day life in Ancient Egypt in a way unprecedented until the deciphering became possible.

Within the Maltese context, a lesser known set of stone candelabra, or ornamental pillars known as cippi (plural of cippus) were used in a similar fashion to decipher the Phoenician alphabet for the first time in the late seventeenth century, making them Malta’s equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.  What and where are these cippi?

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The two white marble candelabra were discovered within the multi-period sanctuary site of Tas-Silg near Marsaxlokk in the south of Malta  in the late seventeenth century during the period of the Knights of Malta.  Tas-Silg is a very important Maltese archaeological site because it features a continuous, uninterrupted use spanning all eras from the Neolithic to the fourth century AD.  Within this time-span, the site served as a religious sanctuary containing layer upon layer of Stone Age, Bronze Age, Punic and Paleo-Christian places of worship.  The candelabra have been dated to the Punic (Phoenician) phase of the Tas-Silg site when the place was a Sanctuary of the Goddess Juno (Astarte to the Phoenicians).  They date to around 200 BCE.

The discovery of these two candelabra within the grounds of a Phoenician temple in Malta suggests that they were votive offerings in gratitude for prayers heard.   They contain inscriptions in Phoenician and Greek text in which two brothers, Abdosir and Osirshamar, sons of Osirshamar of Tyre (in modern day Lebanon) thank their Lord Melkart for having heard their voice and ask for his blessing.  The Greek text provides alternative names for the brothers, Dionysos and Serapion, sons of Serapion of Tyre and their gratitude and request for blessing is dedicated to the Greek God Heracles.

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Great detective work by the linguist Jean-Jacques Barthélémy made it possible to associate the words in the two texts in a way which made it possible to decipher 18 of the 22 letters of the Phoenician alphabet.  This preliminary translation is acknowledged as forming the foundation on which all successive Phoenician and Punic studies were based.  It took place at a time when very little was known about these great seafarers apart from scant references in sources such as the Bible and Greek texts.

So, as in the case of the Rosetta Stone, we have an archaeological find which was not only valuable in terms of its inherent uniqueness but also in terms of its larger-than-life contribution to the understanding of an important part of our common human development, this time through the deciphering of the world’s first modern alphabet.  An important, but underestimated and relatively unknown archaeological treasure which deserves to be elevated to the status and glory of its Egyptian counterpart.  These two cippi definitely deserve the status of being Malta’s own version of the Rosetta Stone.

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And where are the two cippi today?  They both survive and are given pride of place in two different locations.  The first resides, with other contemporary findings from Malta’s Phoenician past, within the confines of the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, Malta while the second is to be found in Room 18b of the Eastern Antiquities Section of the Louvre in Paris, France.  As to how it got there: contrary to the provenance of many such collections from the past three hundred years it was not looted, but was sent to pre-revolutionary France in 1782 as a gift from the Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta Emmanuel de Rohan to King Louis XVI.

Although it would be nice to be able to view them together in Valletta’s museum in recognition of their original resting place it may also be argued that their display in the two locations is symbolically fitting and important as the Malta-based cippus commemorates the place where they were found while the Louvre-cippus commemorates the work of Barthélémy in deciphering the Phoenician alphabet.