A golden, fennel-infused sunset at Ras il-Qammieh

DSCN8208 pixlr signed.jpg

A golden, fennel-infused sunset at Ras il-Qammieh

It is mid-July on Malta.  Summer is almost four weeks old and the last signs of spring have long since vanished.  It has not rained for weeks and the next rainstorm is about six weeks away.  The air is hot and humid and the land is parched.  Only a few brave patches of resistant greenery emerge from the bone-dry, dusty, rocky landscape.

I stand at Ras il-Qammieh at the western tip of the Marfa Ridge on the flat topped plateau descriptively called id-Dahar, the Back.  Truly it resembles the back of some gargantuan rock monster lying face down in the blue Mediterranean from which it was born and from whose depths it now emerges.

I walk towards the westernmost point on mainland Malta to watch the sun set.  A place where the wild fennel grows profusely on the garigue, competing with Mediterranean thyme, wolfbane and lentisk.   There are no clouds on this clear July evening, but the air near the horizon is pregnant with suspended dust: fine dust from the Sahara sand storms of a few weeks ago, still airborne due to the absence of rain.  As the sun sinks lower into this dusty atmospheric layer, the sky, the sea and the landscape take on a surreal golden hue.  No need for fancy filters or artistic rendering: a mere point and shoot on my camera’s automatic setting and the scene is captured for ever.

The photo only captures the visual aspect however.  In reality, the experience is augmented by some rich olfactory flavours and other sensations  which can only be experienced in situ to be fully appreciated and enjoyed.  The cloying humidity,  the smell of the baked earth rising in waves from the ground, the fine dust clinging to one’s sandal-clad feet, the soft breeze coming from the sea.  And the intoxicating smell of wild fennel like some heady liquor combining to turn a simple sunset into something transcending the mystical.

Advertisements

A rushed burial on Comino

DSCN6216

A rushed burial on Comino

I visited Gozo’s small but rich Museum of Archaeology recently.  A small building housing an impressive spectrum of remains and artefacts from Man’s earliest forays on the island up to early medieval times. A testament to how this small island has played host to multitudes of peoples and cultures for the past eight thousand years.

In a room reserved for Roman-era finds, one exhibit attracted my attention. The well-preserved, skeletal remains of a man accompanied by a vertically split amphora lay gingerly within the confines of a glass display cabinet. The man’s skull, his vertebral column, his shoulder blades and his ribs indicating a state of repose spanning long centuries. His well preserved skull still contains teeth and also sports a reasonably sized puncture in the cranium.

The remains were discovered on the island of Comino in 1912. Workmen carrying out trenching works on the eastern side of Santa Maria Bay discovered a shallow grave in the soil. The grave contained a man’s remains covered by two vertical halves of a split terracotta amphora. Amphorae were the classical age’s equivalent of packages and containers and were used to transport anything from wine to oil, honey or the famous, pungent Roman fish sauce known as garum. The burial has been dated to around 1,500 to 1,700 years ago between the 3rd and 5th centuries of the current era.

The archaeologists could say a lot from the style and nature of this unique burial from the evidence at hand. This was not a typical rock-cut tomb in an inland location as one is normally used to for the Roman period. It was a shallow grave in soft soil very near to the sea. The split amphora provided even further clues.

DSCN6215

In all probability this man was a sailor or passenger on a ship who died on board. His death must have happened in Maltese waters and the decision must have been taken to bury him at the first available opportunity for a landfall. This landfall was Comino’s Santa Maria Bay, a small sandy beach at the mouth of Comino’s two miniature valleys of Wied Imdied and Wied l-Ahmar.

The deceased’s body must have been unloaded off the vessel and transported to the beach where a shallow grave was rapidly dug out of the soil. In order to compensate for the shallowness of the grave and protect the remains from exposure, the burial was completed by covering the corpse with two halves of a vertically split amphora, from the stock of amphorae on board the vessel. And there it lay in peace until 1912 when it was brought to light once more and now lies in its new resting place in the museum in Victoria’s Citadel.

Who was this man? Where did he come from and where was he bound to? Was he a sailor or a passenger? What led to his early demise? Is the hole in his skull related to his death? What did he look like and how old was he?

DSCN6244

I hope that one day we will have answers to these questions. A mix of detective work assisted by analysis of DNA extracted from this man’s teeth and facial reconstruction from the well preserved skull could tell us so much more about this small incident which played its final drama on tiny Comino so many centuries ago.

 

Emily’s resting place

Emily’s resting place

IMG_0648 pixlr signed lores

Last weekend, I took a visiting friend to a quiet corner of Floriana, to the aptly named Garden of Rest.  Run by Malta’s National Trust, Din l-Art Helwa, the garden lies on the site of Malta’s first Protestant cemetery built during the early decades of the British period until it reached full capacity and was replaced by the larger Ta’ Braxia Cemetery in Pieta.

The site is lovingly and tastefully maintained and presented and features the final resting place of more than 500 people including the Maltese patriot and scholar Mikiel Anton Vassalli and the British diplomat and author John Hookham Frere.

The graves of great men and women aside, whilst walking along the garden paths, I was particularly struck by a simple headstone marking the resting place of a little English girl of eleven who died in Valletta on the 29th May 1837. A little girl called Emily Greig.  The details on the headstone are scant.  It tells us Emily’s age, her place and date of death and her father’s name: Sir Hector Greig.  It also tells us that she was Sir Hector’s only child.

Intrigued by this information I took a few pictures of this memorial and continued on my tour of the cemetery.

Upon my return home I decided to look for information on Sir Hector Greig.   My research told me that his first appointment in Malta was that of Superintendent of Quarantine and that he was subsequently appointed as Chief Secretary to the British Government of Malta by Governor Henry Bouverie in 1837.  He also served as Chief Secretary under the Governorship of Patrick Stuart until he resigned in September 1846, presumably to return to England.  Other responsibilities of his while in Malta included serving on the Board of Health and the Committee of the Charitable Institutions.

My curiosity also unearthed another small piece of history: an envelope for sale on Ebay bearing a postmark dated November 15, 1866 and bearing the handwriting of Sir Hector Grieg: little Emily’s father.  A small memento which suddenly became a tangible link to a forgotten girl’s resting place and which now lies in my proud possession!

The front of the envelope contains some very useful information.  It is addressed to a Mr Baden of the North British Mercantile Insurance Office in Threadneedle Street in the City of London, the same street which houses the Bank of England.  An addendum in somebody else’s handwriting at the top of the envelope notes that Sir Hector, “has been Chief Secretary at Malta” and that he had been “created Knight Commander – 1839”.  This latter piece of information indicates that he was Knighted while serving in Malta and this could be due to services he rendered to Her Majesty Queen Adelaide during her visit and stay in Malta between 1838 and 1839.  This was the first ever visit of an English Queen to Malta.

IMG_0715 pixlr signed

The front of the envelope tells us even more!  It was posted  in 1866, twenty years after Sir Hector’s departure from Malta and twenty nine years after little Emily’s premature demise.  The stamp on the Victorian Penny Red stamp indicates that it was posted in London SW18, a postcode which includes Battersea and Wandsworth, suggesting that Sir Hector resided in this part of London upon his return to his country.

IMG_0718 pixlr signed

The opened flap at the back of the envelope contains some more information in Sir Hector’s own script.  It is a short message “with Sir Hector Greig’s compliments to Mr Baden” indicating the enclosure of payment covering “premium on life insurance due 18th November” (1866) for “£27″ 3/4d” which I interpret to signify 27 shillings and three quarters of a penny or one pound and thirty five and three quarters pence in today’s sterling currency.  This would be equivalent to a £152 insurance premium in 2017 currency after taking inflation between 1866 and today into account.

It all started off with a casual walk on a sunny autumn morning around a cemetery on a Floriana bastion constructed by the Knights of Malta.  A walk during which my attention was drawn to a little foreign girl’s final resting place on a Mediterranean island so far away from her home.  And it evolved into my learning a few interesting facts about her father’s sojourn in Malta and my acquiring a small memento bearing his handwriting.

I plan to revisit little Emily’s resting place in the coming weeks.  And I will be sure to carry her dear father’s memento with me to place it on her grave so that I can briefly help them reunite again by intersecting across space and time.

Changes in City Gate

img_6060-pixlr-signed

Another piece of Valletta is about to be improved.

The scruffy, shanty-town collection of kiosks and bus ticket offices circling the perimeter of the former bus terminus which converges into the bridge crossing the dry moat to City Gate have already been closed down to be demolished to make space for a pedestrianized, tree lined plaza focused round Vincenzo Apap’s bronze masterpiece, the Tritons Fountain which is also set to be returned to its former operating glory.

Sounds fantastic. Rundown, dilapidated, downright ugly and nondescript structures selling a variety of cheap foodstuffs and convenience goods. With clients to match. To be replaced by a neater, well planned, uniformly designed layout in which the pedestrian is king.

img_6055-1-pixlr-signed

The demolishing of these eyesores, ugly and unloved as they are, cannot but also raise a tinge of nostalgic regret in me. A nostalgia comprising half a century of memories of a location which is central to the lives of the majority of the Maltese. A location which for decades has served not only as the fulcrum of the Island’s public transport network, but also as the meeting point for friends, students, colleagues, lovers and countless other combinations of humanity.

A nostalgia based on memories of childhood, youth, love, friends, education, work and family.

For within those ugly structures lurked a world which shall not exist any more: some of which already has not existed any more for some years now.

A world comprising establishments such as the Milk Van and the Imqaret Kiosk. Both synonymous with their unique City Gate location. I have early childhood memories of drinking flavoured milk from a pyramidal carton purchased from that Milk Van. I also remember buying milk in glass bottles, fresh ricotta and yogurt from what was probably Malta’s only surviving stand-alone retail outlet exclusively selling dairy products.

img_6058-pixlr-signed

The same Milk Van also served as the area’s ubiquitous Meeting Point. Meeting a girlfriend on a first date, a group of friends for a hike or a day at the beach or a visit to Valletta to go to the cinema or shopping generally involved meeting “near the Milk Van” at a specific date and time.

The Imqaret Kiosk: a ramshackle structure from which the enticing smell of deep-fried dates encased in golden pastry attracted people in droves to buy the ridiculously affordable, if unhealthy, deliciously warm and tasty heartburn bombs. The Kiosk operator would lure people to buy his wares by adding a few drops of anisette to the bubbling oil in which the mqaret were frying, and the resultant aroma had a pull not dissimilar to that of magnetism. Such was the brand value of the humble Imqaret Kiosk that other kiosks have sprouted elsewhere on the Island bearing the reassuring statement, “Imqaret minn tal-Belt” which translates into “same provenance as those of the Valletta kiosk”.

img_6056-pixlr-signed

The Kiosks selling cheap pasti: fake kannoli filled with butter cream, atrociously coloured cakes containing a potentially lethal mix of food colourings and pies composed mostly of dough with the consistency of seasoned hardwood. And, from an age which predates one of the curses of our current age, plastic, the flavoured water dispensers from which orange or almond squash drinks could be purchased in real glasses which were returned to the kiosk for re-use. The same kiosks which remained open until the last bus left at 23:00 and which offered a telephone service for two cents a call when one missed the last bus and needed to do some explaining to one’s irate parents!

img_6051-pixlr-signed

There were other shops too of course. I distinctly remember a news kiosk selling not only newspapers but also stocking a variety of glossy magazines, books and classics such as Marvel and DC comics which we would stop and look at in awe, penniless as we were as students. Carts selling deliciously smelling fresh bread in the morning, lottery ticket sellers and a variety of itinerant, enterprising seasonal sellers selling you umbrellas on a rainy day, vetch seeds for the Christmas crib in November, carob sweets during Lent, sandals and hats in summer.  Apart from the then familiar but now rare sight of matronly ladies selling mulberries, capers, parsley, mint or bunches of stocks (gizi) from ancient prams.   The scene was completed by the cheap souvenirs kiosk aimed at the panicking departing tourist who left it till last or bus passengers seeking a beach towel, a baseball cap or cheap sunshades!

img_6061-pixlr-signed

Apart from all of these shops there were others less frequented. Shops which were attractive and provided sustenance to the bus and taxi drivers, bus conductors and ticket sellers. Burly men on metal chairs hunched on spindly formica tables drinking tea from a glass and eating a greasy pizza slice, a plate of imqarrun il-forn or a steaming qassata. A few rough looking ladies, bleach blonde and bedecked in garish jewellery made the picture complete. And in the narrow passageways behind the kiosks, another little world, not unlike Naples: unsavoury men betting money on card games or playing “morra”, a numbers guessing game which involved opening a number of fingers on one’s hands with the other side trying to guess a number from one to ten. Men who even the forces of law and order gave wide berth to.

The bulldozers shall be moving in soon. The structures will become but a distasteful memory from yesterday. Whatever will replace them will definitely be more visually attractive and appealing. But for nostalgics like me, the memory of what shall be no more shall always cause a small lump in my throat, a slight pressure in my chest whenever I pass from this well trodden patch of land.

A monument to diversity and peaceful co-existence

15111034_10154746431808781_4264285928528688808_o

In the lowlands of Marsa, Malta, which is so close to sea level that the aquifer often overflows vertically through the rock, lies a beautiful structure: a Moslem cemetery known colloquially as the Cimiterju tat-Torok, or the Turkish Cemetery.  When first built, it was alone amongst the fields but it, and its later neighbour the Jewish Cemetery, have subsequently been almost completely engulfed by the development from the industrial estate nearby.

Dating back to 1873, it was designed by the eminent Maltese architect Emmanuele Luigi Galizia on commission from the Ottoman Sultan Abdűlaziz I.  The cemetery is the resting place of soldiers, sailors, victims of shipwrecks in Maltese waters, residents, refugees and other Moslems who expired while in Malta.

I was recently privileged to visit this superb monument which is currently being restored through the efforts of the Turkish Government to whom the land belongs.  Like all places of rest, it exudes that mixed experience of historic curiosity emanating from the details on the headstones and the stark realisation of the temporary nature of our brief sojourn on this earth.

The purpose of this short entry today is not to describe the monument.  That will be the subject of a future entry, complete with photography.  Rather, it focuses on the strong message forthcoming from the marble plaque commemorating its erection.  A plaque, which to my mind, represents all that is nice and beautiful about diversity and co-existence.

A Moslem Cemetery designed by a Catholic Architect in a Christian Land, by order of an Ottoman Emperor, represented by his Jewish Consul.

So much to ponder from a simple seven lines of text on a marble plaque.

A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

DSCN4822 2 pixlr signed

A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

A hot August morning on Comino. The rising sun’s heat is tempered by the occasional straggling cloud providing a few overcast seconds of relief and a stiff breeze of Majjistral, Malta’s prevailing north west wind which is nature’s alternative to refreshing air conditioning.

We are on our annual pilgrimage to this desolate little island. Arid, but full of life. Ruggedly beautiful with ever changing scenery. A two and a half square kilometre island. One tiny corner of which, its Blue Lagoon, is over-run by up to five thousand visitors daily. Leaving the rest to people like us. A fair deal, I think. Amazing how even on such a small landmass, you can just climb the small hill overlooking Cominotto Island and all evidence of the crowds dissipates into thin air. No sight, no sound. Nothing.

We have climbed from the inlet of San Niklaw and walked across Comino’s main thoroughfare, Triq Kemmunett. At the location of the old Bakery building we take a sharp right and climb steeply up Triq il-Gvernatur, the road leading to the imposing Santa Maria Tower, part of a network of coastal watchtowers built by the Knights of St. John.

Our final destination today is the small mooring place at Wied Ernu, a tiny cleft in the island’s southern coast which used to serve as the landing for boats from Malta during the time of the twentieth century agricultural colony on Comino.

The colony is long gone, but its remains, mostly in ruins and disrepair are spread all over the island.

On the way back, a small sign of human activity. One of the handful of people which stayed behind when the colony disbanded in the late 1960s. True Comino-born and bred. Hanging clothes to dry on a line. Surrounded by stalks of wild fennel.

A beautiful sight. A sign of humanity’s resilience and adaptability. And oneness with nature.

The fresh breeze, the aromatic smell of ripening fennel seeds and the slight waft of damp, clean laundry hanging out to dry in the wind. Elements which make me return to Comino year after year.

Of carob pods and carats

 

5307625114_87e7994a57_o signed

Walking in the Mellieha countryside this weekend, in the traffic-free and solitary whereabouts of Ghajn Tuta, I came across an ancient carob tree laden with ripe pods. The carob, known to science as Ceratonia siliqua and as harrub to the Maltese is a hardy evergreen tree which graces the Maltese landscape and retains a canopy of green in the otherwise parched and dry summer Mediterranean landscape.

The carob is an evergreen flowering shrub, belonging to the pea family. It is native to the Mediterranean region especially in the eastern and southern area of this great Sea and is a very common species here in Malta where it grows without much care or cultivation and is legally protected, although countless ancient carobs unfortunately continue to be regularly uprooted to make way for development.

The carob’s fruit, its pod, has been consumed since ancient times by the peoples of the Mediterranean. The Bible makes numerous references to it such as in the parable of the Prodigal Son where the man who squandered all his riches and ended up working as a swineherd, longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything”.

On the basis of another biblical reference, it is also known as Saint John’s Bread or locust bean given that when Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist was fasting in the desert, “the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” The locusts referred to in the biblical passage are not of the grasshopper variety but carob pods!

In Malta the ripe carob fruit is used to produce a syrup called “Gulepp tal-Harrub” which is used to treat chest colds and coughs and also forms the basis of the “karamelli tal-harrub” sweets which are popular for consumption during Lent when it is forbidden to consume sugary sweets. In times of scarcity, the carob pod was ground into a flour to produce bread. During the siege of Malta in World War 2, carob pods became highly prized for their nutritional value and fetched the highest-ever recorded market price of a penny a pod!

IMG_4982 pixlr signed

I prefer to eat my carob pods straight from nature. Detached from the tree, rinsed under clean, running water and chewed one small mouthful at a time. Beware of the very hard seeds inside the pod which can easily break a tooth! Eat them in the countryside and spit the seeds onto the soil to help propagate new trees or savour them at home. An unrefined, woody sweet flavour which leaves a delectable aftertaste in one’s mouth!

But does one simply eat carobs for fun? There are many ascribed nutrition and health benefits which can be summarised as follows:

Carob tannins contain Gallic acid that works as an analgesic, anti-allergic, antibacterial, antioxidant, antiviral and antiseptic. It improves digestion and lowers cholesterol level in the blood and is used for treating bowel disorders in children and adults alike. Since it does not contain caffeine, carob is beneficial for people with high blood pressure.

The vitamin E content in carob helps in treating cough, flu and anaemia while the Gallic acid helps in preventing and treating polio in children. Carob fights against osteoporosis due to its richness in phosphorus and calcium. Carob pod husks are chewed by singers to clear the voice and throat.

And the seeds? Small and hard there is not much of a culinary use and unless you wish to plant them in a pot to grow little carob trees, just throw them away into the countryside where they may either take root or serve as food for the birds. But have one final look at them and hold one in your hands. For the humble carob seed you are holding was used by the ancients as a unit of measure for weighing gold and precious stones.  The carob’s scientific name Ceratonia siliqua originates from the Greek name for carob seeds: keration.  The word carat used in this sense is a corruption of this Greek word!

4231183118_eb5277183d_o signed