Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

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Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

A wet wintry day just outside Valletta’s main gate.  The Triton Fountain sporting Vincenzo Apap’s beautiful bronzes from 1959.  Above the fountain, the diffuse rays of the setting sun flicker like flames amongst the billowing clouds textured like smoke.  The road surface is wet from a recent downpour.

A strong image reminiscent of men holding a bowl of burning oil with its leaping flames reaching out into the sky.

And all an optical illusion, of course!  Captured on my way out of the office during my walk to my car using only a humble mobile phone camera.

 

 

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The Stepped Streets of Valletta

 

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“Adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs, how surely he who mounts you swears”

Thus did Lord Byron describe the stepped streets of Valletta during his twenty day visit to Malta between August 31 and September 19, 1809 when he was forced into an extended stay, mainly due to quarantine following an outbreak of yellow fever in his previous port of call.

Following a few miserable days on board, made worse by the customary September hot and humid weather conditions, he was eventually allowed to disembark and visit Valletta.   At that time, the best way to reach upper Valletta on foot was via an interminable staircase which started near today’s fish-market (the infamous Nix-Mangiaris steps) and climbed steeply until they linked with the stepped part of St. Ursula Street all the way to Castille Square.

Byron suffered from a limp, and having to negotiate Valletta’s stepped streets in the sweltering humidity of September must have been a huge effort which stressed him to the point of putting pen to paper to create the spiteful, nevertheless immortal, lines quoted above.

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But this short essay is not about Byron’s short sojourn but about Valletta’s stepped streets.   The streets are today taken for granted by most Maltese as an integral part of the City’s street-scape.

Valletta is built on a spit of land jutting between two deep-water harbours. A nineteenth century visitor once described Valletta as a city built “on a hog’s back, a narrow but high neck of land dividing the Grand Harbour from the Quarantine Harbour”. The same visitor vividly goes on to describe the City’s main streets as running “in parallel lines along the said hog’s back”, while being regularly intersected “by others which run up and down its steep sides”. He then concludes by stating that, “in some parts they are so steep that flights of steps take the place of the carriage-way”.

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When the Knights of St John were planning the city, as a modern renaissance town combining the best of military architecture together with the latest trends in street layout and infrastructural design, they apparently tried, as much as possible, to minimise the annoying limitations brought about by the “hog’s back” contours of the Xiberras Peninsula.

In fact they managed to use rubble to flatten as much as possible of the area between City Gate and St. George’s Square where they built the Grandmaster’s Palace together with an almost similar stretch of Merchants Street except for the hilly upper part which led to Castille Square.

As to the steep side streets: the only way they could negotiate these impossible gradients was to use steps, creating a practical way to make otherwise difficult slopes negotiable by pedestrians. Some of the streets were stepped across their entire width while others had a smooth surface but had pavements (sidewalks for our American readers) made of steps.

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Given the tendency of most Maltese-sourced masonry to become polished and very slippery upon extensive use, the designers countered this by using a very scarce, today almost exhausted, source of hardstone: a particularly hard type of coralline limestone known colloquially as żonqor for the steps to ensure durability and a non-slip surface. It is, in fact, amazing that these stone surfaces, evenly pitted with a pickaxe to provide a better grip, remain intact after hundreds of years of use!

If you are a local who regularly walks past these steps and stepped streets with a sense of déjà-vu, do pause for a moment to admire their style and practicality. And if you are a visitor, do make sure to spend some time to experience negotiating these stepped streets which give Valletta yet another unique touch to the many it surprisingly contains within its minuscule dimensions.

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A light in the black

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A light in the black

The place: Comino, the smallest of Malta’s inhabited Islands.  The time: 4:30am on a damp and dewy Sunday morning in August.

An early wake up for our yearly appointment with Mass in the tiny chapel at the mouth of Santa Marija Bay where Wied Imdied slopes gently into a smoothly shelving sandy beach.

My wife and I wake up at 4:30am  and we quietly make our way down the deserted hotel corridors and staircase to start the brisk half hour walk from San Niklaw Bay to the next inlet along the coast.  The air is still and heavy with dew.  The stars of the summer constellations twinkle brightly as a faint indication of the forthcoming dawn starts to appear on the eastern horizon.  Across the channel, the sleepy lights of Gozo seem so near and yet so far away.  In spite of the short distances, the feeling of insularity on this tiny island is very strong.

We walk along the dusty path, the limestone gravel crunching beneath our sandals and the noise of nocturnal insects and the occasional scurrying wild rabbit breaking the silence.  The path is dimly lit by evenly-spaced light bulbs but that is enough as our eyes adjust to night vision and the walk is easy and straightforward.  The smells of wild fennel and Mediterranean thyme permeate the air with their cloying aromatic sweetness whilst the occasional brush with a wet African tamarisk, saturated with dew and expelled brine is bound to give a refreshing feeling in contrast to the warm, sticky air of an August night.

Walking through the sleepy Club Nautico bungalows we reach the arms of Santa Marija Bay to the gentle sound of waves lapping the shallow sandy beach.  The bay harbours a handful of sailing boats protected from the currents of the Gozo Channel, huddling together under the watchful gaze of the ancient Police Station built in colonial times to discourage smuggling from neighbouring Sicily.

From here the road slopes gently upwards, from the sea level of the beach to the side of Wied Imdied where the small chapel which is our destination lies, protected by a group of stiff, old cypresses standing to attention like ancient sentinels protecting something precious.

Aside of the few dim lamps affixed to the structures along the road, it is still pitch dark.  The collared doves huddled on the chapel’s roof croon monotonously while a dog barks in the distance, perhaps from one of the tents in the small campsite behind the beach or on one of the anchored boats.  And in that monochrome darkness, a source of warm light stands out: emanating from the open door of the chapel where we, together with a handful of other early risers congregate for the short, rushed ceremony celebrated by the wizened old priest who crosses over from Gozo every weekend for the purpose.

The darkness, the warm, damp night, the sounds and smells of the walk and the thin layer of talc like dust sticking to our feet.  And the welcoming light in the black, coming out of a centuries-old rustic chapel on a one square mile island, suggesting an unchanged ritual spanning hundreds of years.  Simply wonderful.

Sunset over the southern coast

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Sunset over the southern coast

A beautiful Maltese sunset seen from the limits of Qrendi in the south of the island. The broad expanse of the Mediterranean stretches in an uninterrupted direction all the way to the Tunisian coast about five hundred kilometres away.

The minuscule islet of Filfla, the remotest of the uninhabited smaller rocks of the Maltese archipelago lies silhouetted against the ruddy hues of the setting sun, its imposing 60 metre high cliffs like standing sentinel against the approaching darkness.

The exposed hard layer of coralline limestone karst is almost devoid of soil, its thin layer of organic cover washed into the sea ages ago once the trees which originally bound it to the land were cut. This landscape is far from dead however, supporting rich and aromatic Mediterranean garigue vegetation such as thyme, heather, asphodel and sea squill.

At the bottom of the picture, the small and picturesque inlet of Wied iz-Zurrieq, a tiny and narrow coastal indentation providing shelter to the small fleet of boats which ferry tourists to Zurrieq’s Blue Grotto further down along the coast.

Many call Wied iz-Zurrieq a fjord and superficially it does give the impression of being a mini version of one, but fjords are carved by glacial ice and glaciers have never featured in the Maltese landscape, not even during the ice ages. It is actually a ria, a submerged river canyon caused when a valley that was originally carved by fresh water on land ends up below sea level either due to a rise in sea level or due to land subsidence.

Within a few minutes total darkness will prevail. In the southern Mediterranean latitudes which are ten degrees closer to the Equator than they are to the North Pole, twilight is always brief. Like flicking off a light switch, someone once described it. But until that light switch is flicked off, the ephemeral beauty of the setting sun’s multi-hued light on this beautiful coastal stretch is captured by this picture for all to enjoy.

Malta’s oldest fortification

Malta’s oldest fortification

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Mention Maltese fortifications and one’s mind is automatically transported to the impressive and extensive defensive systems designed and constructed during the period of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, more popularly known as the Knights of Malta.   The most impressive of the Knights’ fortifications include the walls of Valletta and Floriana, the Cottonera Lines encompassing the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea and the walled citadels of Mdina and Victoria on Gozo.

The British also left some impressive fortifications the most famous of which are the Victoria Lines which criss-cross the island at its widest breadth between Madliena and Fomm ir-Rih. Older medieval fortifications, some dating from the Byzantine and Arab period, are found in Vittoriosa, Mdina and the Gozo Citadel where they were incorporated into the Knights’ battlements. A couple of locations such as San Gwann also feature the remains of Roman towers which presumably had some sort of military significance, albeit of an observatory nature.

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By far, the oldest evidence of a fortified structure to have been found in Malta is the impressive wall protecting the remains of the Bronze Age village at Borg in-Nadur in Birzebbuga on the south-eastern tip of the island of Malta.

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Borg in-Nadur has a very interesting history. It lies at the tip of the Wied Dalam valley where around half a kilometre upstream lies Ghar Dalam, the Cave of Darkness after which the earliest phase of Maltese prehistory is named. The Ghar Dalam phase dates back to around 5000BCE and is reputed to contain the oldest evidence of human activity in the Maltese Islands: settlers who came from Sicily by crossing the 100 kilometre stretch of sea on rafts and boats bringing with them seeds, livestock, fabrics and pottery which has been matched with artefacts from a south-eastern Sicilian prehistoric site called Stentinello.

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Borg in-Nadur started life around 2,500BCE as a Tarxien-phase temple. It was a relatively small and undecorated temple on a promontory overlooking the protected expanse of Marsaxlokk harbour.  After around a thousand years as a temple, the site was taken over by a new wave of Bronze-Age settlers around 1500BCE who differed principally from their Neolithic predecessors owing to their introduction of metal tools, implements and weapons to the Islands. The Bronze Age settlers occupied Borg in-Nadur for a thousand years until 500BCE when the literate Phoenicians reached these shores and transported Malta into the historic age.

The Bronze-Age settlers redeveloped the site quite extensively into a sizeable village. They recycled a lot of the stones from the temple complex and built their huts in the general area of the older temple site. Hut foundations were excavated by Margaret Murray in the 1930s but were buried once more once the necessary studies were conducted.   The village seems to have been quite large housing a few hundred residents and also featured around one hundred grain silos excavated as bell-shaped cisterns in the soft globigerina limestone around the coast.

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Most of the silos were destroyed in two episodes of road construction and widening in the twentieth century but a handful survive on a thin coastal stretch across the road from the main site: silos which have their own unique story to tell owing to the fact that most of them lie under sea level suggesting either a rise in sea levels over the past couple of thousand years or else land subsidence. This story is further corroborated by the presence of a single, adjacent set of cart-ruts which also lead straight into the sea.

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Evidence indicates that the Bronze-Age inhabitants were more warlike than their predecessors, although it is not clear whether their bellicose behaviour extended to the threat of foreign seafarers or other clans inhabiting other parts of the Island.

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One of the most impressive and clear indications of the troubled times in which these people lived, is the extensive 4.5 metre high semi-circular wall which lies at the northern end of the Borg in-Nadur village. The wall was excavated by Murray in the 1930s and contrary to most of the dig carried out then, it was not reburied. The original remains of the wall were augmented by modern reconstructions especially in the back part. The entire structure is about 30 metres long and circa 2.5 metres thick. The most impressive aspect of this 3,500 year old wall is the huge rock boulders which are embedded within the structure: megaliths which were probably recycled and reused from the original temple.

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An intriguing aspect of the Borg in-Nadur defensive wall is that it actually faces inland rather than towards the sea! Does this mean that the villagers were more interested in defending themselves from the enemy within or is there another unknown significance?

Whatever the interpretation, this small and relatively unknown site has its special place in Malta’s impressive list of historical treasures: the first in a 3,500 year fortress-building tradition making Malta one of the most well-defended locations in the Mediterranean.

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An elephant on Comino?

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An elephant on Comino?

Not quite!

Although fossilised remains of a dwarf species of this grand creature have been found in places like Ghar Dalam on Malta, there is no fossil record of anything so huge on the little, 2.5 square kilometre island lying between Malta and Gozo.

There is, however, an impressive rock formation found on the high cliffs of Comino’s eastern side which definitely resembles one. A natural monument featuring a gigantic head complete with its trunk lowered gingerly into the water. The detail is so incredible that one can also discern a small eye socket on top of the head with the rest of the animal’s body seemingly carved out of the rock.

A little known natural feature which lies away from the more popular sea route between Malta and Gozo to the west of Comino and therefore not as famous as its mainland counterpart the Blue Grotto at Zurrieq which is known locally as the Elephant’s Leg.  The Comino Elephant’s main claim to fame is its appearance in Kevin Reynolds’ 2002 film, The Count of Monte Cristo which had extensive scenes shot on Comino with the island’s Santa Maria Tower doubling as the Chateau d’If.  In the 2002 film the Elephant Rock was used as one of the clues to get to the hidden treasure in the story.

The Comino “elephant” bears a different official name however. The maps identify it as id-Darsa, the Molar and indeed it does also bear a resemblance to a huge extracted molar complete with deep roots.

Elephant or Molar? A question of taste perhaps. Personally I am for the former! And you?

The sunken silos of Birzebbuga

The sunken silos of Birzebbuga

At the very entrance of the village of Birzebbuga, at the extreme south-east of Malta, lies the small but important prehistoric site of Borg in-Nadur. The site, which lies a few hundred metres away from the better known Ghar Dalam cave, started life as a late Tarxien-phase megalithic temple but was eventually occupied by Bronze-Age settlers who developed a major village complete with a still-surviving defensive wall which is reputedly Malta’s oldest surviving fortification. L1460357 hdr pixlr signed The extensive Bronze-Age village which existed during a one thousand year interval between 1500 and 500 BCE originally stood on high ground overlooking St. George’s Bay but its remains and context have today been sadly disturbed by modern development including the building of the major road into Birzebbuga which cuts through the land formerly occupied by the village near the shore. One surviving indicator of the size and extent of the Borg in-Nadur bronze-age village consists of a number of rock-cut silos which were used by the villagers to store grain. Silos of this type have also been found in similar settlements from the same period such as Bahrija and Luqa on Malta and in-Nuffara in Xaghra, Gozo.  The grain was either stored for future consumption or else as seeds for the forthcoming growing season.  Given their location so close to the sea it could also be that the grain was stored there for purposes of trade with visiting vessels. L1460359 pixlr signed These silos were dug into the rock and eventually plugged to keep the grain dry and protected from the elements. They were bell-shaped cisterns not unlike the rainwater cisterns dug by the inhabitants of the Maltese islands to capture and store rainwater during the rainy season. The Birzebbuga silos which survive today consist of a small group on an exposed patch of rocky coast which is accessible from the promenade near the small sandy beach opposite the Al Fresco restaurant. The surviving silos today consist of around fifteen but until a hundred years ago they numbered closer to one hundred. In fact no less than 32 were destroyed by the British colonial administration on 31 May 1920 so that they could build a coastal road to the village which had increased in importance due to the seaplane base which had been established at Kalafrana. A further 41 silos were destroyed some time later when the original road was widened. L1460387 pixlr signed An interesting aspect connected with the Birzebbuga grain silos is the fact that the surviving ones all lie at the very edge of the coast and that some of them are actually below sea level. Given that underwater silos are of little practical use, what the current state of the silos implies is that the coastal landscape on which they stand must have undergone some fairly substantial upheavals over the past three thousand or so years.   The silos today lie under water either due to a sea level rise of a few metres which changed their original low cliff-top location to a sea-level one or else as a result of subsidence which saw the rocky foreshore on which they were carved sink below sea level due to some tectonic cataclysm which pulled it downwards. L1460362 pixlr signed Today, the silos lie in an accessible area which is reasonably well protected from the deprivations of further development. Most of them have filled up with accumulated silt from both the land and the sea and a number of them feature recent channels which have been cut into the rock to link them directly to the sea. A couple have been sealed to prevent accidents. Evidence of past quarrying on the globigerina rock-face on which the silos are located is visible through two cross-sections of silos which still survive.   The cross-sections give a very good indication of the original bell-shape of the silos. L1460406 pixlr signed Some of the silos feature a reddish tint which was caused by fire implying that the pits were filled with flammable material which was set alight during some point. L1460394 pixlr signed The silos of Borg in-Nadur are not impressive or monumental in any way, being mere holes in the rock.  But they do bear testament to a forgotten people who inhabited this land some three thousand five hundred years ago: a warrior-like people with bronze tools who built fortified villages next to the abandoned temples of their stone-age predecessors. A people who not only were farmers and traders but also built complex food storage facilities for their grain using the concept of rock-cut cisterns which continued to be used in Malta for the same purpose until at least the 1980s of the current age. They also serve as a grim reminder related to the major risk phenomenon of our time: global warming and its effect on coastal settlements should sea levels rise. L1460398 hdr pixlr signed