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.

The smell of the rain

The smell of the rain

IMG_5233

When you live in a country where rain is a regular occurrence, it becomes a fact of life, almost an annoyance. Particularly in areas where precipitation is a year round affair and where the prospect of uninterrupted spells of rainfall implies inconvenience, damp and blocked sunlight for long periods of time, the subject of rain becomes a topic of distaste; a phenomenon which necessitates the need to temporarily flee one’s normal abode in search of warmth and sunshine.

Not so in places where rain is not so common. Such as Malta during the long, hot, dry summer season. A place where week after week of warm to hot sunny days prevail almost uninterruptedly between late spring and late summer: around twelve weeks of hot, dry weather which burns the countryside dry and lets you wonder at the resilient patches of green vegetation which defy the furnace-like quality of what they face and survive almost without a drop of soothing water for sustenance, except for the occasional heavy dewfall which is absorbed through their leaves.

Those of us who inhabit such areas are generally sensitive to a particular sensation which is most magnified when it rains after a long dry period. I term this sensation, the smell of the rain. A wonderfully rich and refreshing earthy smell which brings great joy. An indicator of change to come. The first airborne drop of relief in advance of wetter days ahead.

I used to think that this sensation was something that was simply an undefinable feeling. Some primitive switch to which humans in dry places are programmed to respond. Until an architect friend of mine told me that there is actually a word for it! Petrichor. A combination of two distinct words, petra and ichor designed to embrace and encapsulate the feeling that has been arousing my senses since childhood.

Petra stands for stone while ichor stands for the more esoteric fluid that flowed in the veins of the Gods in Greek mythology! So there you have it: a heavenly fluid mixing with the very earth on which we lesser human mortals stand. Producing a sensation of what flows through the Gods’ own veins! No wonder the feeling of euphoric refreshment which the smell of the first rain brings.

Researchers theorise that the smell of the rain, or petrichor is caused by a combination of factors. Part of the smell derives from an oily substance exuded by certain plants during dry periods which is absorbed by clay and rocks on the ground. When it rains after a lengthy dry spell, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of certain bacteria which is emitted by wet soil, producing the distinctive scent. The smell can be further compounded by ozone which is generated by lightning during a thunderstorm.

The purpose of the oil is to slow down seed germination and plant growth during the lethal dry season. It is only when the rain dissipates the oil in the ground that the seeds get the go-ahead to germinate. This would indicate that the plants produce the oil in order to safeguard the seeds from germination under duress.

Just imagine what is taking place whenever you feel this exuberant high! As each raindrop lands on the porous surface of the sun-baked ground, air trapped in the pores forms small bubbles, which float to the surface and release spray-like aerosols.  Such aerosols carry the scent, as well as bacteria and viruses from the soil. Gentle rainfall tends to produce more aerosols which explains why petrichor is stronger and more noticeable after light rains.

As to why it excites us so much? Scientists believe that humans react so joyfully to the smell of the rain because our ancestors may have been hard-wired to rely on rainy weather for survival.

Blood of the Gods splashing on dry stones or complex organic chemicals released by plants and bacteria? Whatever the origin, the magic remains for all those who like me are sensitive to its timeless pleasure.

 

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

Dining with the Dear Departed

DSCN9552 pixlr signed

Dining with the Dear Departed.

In many cultures the concept of a wake takes place to bid farewell to the deceased. A wake is very often a social occasion which emphasises the fact that the loss pertains to a social group and therefore has an effect on the group as a whole.

Modern wakes are also associated with the serving of refreshments after the burial ceremony: something which contemporary Maltese society is not accustomed to except in feature films portraying northern cultures. However, evidence from the Maltese early-Christian catacombs clearly suggests that the custom of a final farewell meal with the person who has just been laid to rest was a common occurrence during the Roman period of Malta’s history.

While there is no documentary evidence to support this, the major Maltese catacombs from the Roman period commonly feature one important component which clearly points to this tradition.

This feature is commonly known as the Agape Table and is generally found in the wide public hall areas of the catacombs, generally at their entrance. The larger catacombs such as St Paul’s and St. Agatha’s in Rabat, Malta generally feature two of these tables while smaller catacombs with reduced burial capacity such as the small hypogea overlooking the old Roman harbour in Salina (where the pictures accompanying this story were taken) either feature a single Agape table or even none at all.

DSCN9547_Monochrome 2 pixlr signed

This so called “table” is carved in its entirety from the living rock and its shape is assumed to have been jointly inspired by the triclinium (reclining couch) which was a common accessory in Roman dining rooms together with the stibadium which was the C-shaped banquet table from whose surface the diners reclining on the triclinium obtained their food.

These combined triclinium-stibadium combinations were hewn out of the limestone rock within the catacombs to form a solid architectural unit. Thus they are a solid part of the catacomb meant for permanent, multiple use.

DSCN9539_Soft 3 pixlr signed

The Agape tables generally rise around 60cm above ground level. They were carved in such a way so as to slope gently downwards towards the circumference of the main chamber. On the surface, they assume the shape of a round, flat table encircled with a 6cm wide rim which is around about 3cm high, a sort of raised circumference giving the impression of a shallow flat bowl. The tables in the Maltese catacombs are about 75cm in diameter.  These Agape tables copy the C-shape of the Roman stibadium and all feature a small section of the rim which is opened on their front part. It is assumed that this opening had a functional rather than ceremonial function making it possible to clean and wash the table when the meal was over.

Of course, one assumes that at the time when the catacombs were in use, the people partaking in the meal were not expected to recline on the bare rock but that cushions and other soft material were laid on the sloping surface surrounding the table to provide for comfortable posture.

There are various interpretations for the use of these structures but the most popular explanation is that they were generally used by relatives and friends of the deceased to share a last meal to commemorate the person’s passing to the afterlife, possibly inspired by Christ’s last supper with his disciples.  They may also have been used to host commemorative meals during festivals of the dead such as All Souls Day during which visits to places of burial were very common and ceremonies to renew the rite of burials were held.

DSCN9542_Monochrome 2 pixlr signed

So next time you visit the catacombs do look for these conspicuous structures, close your eyes and go back fifteen hundred years to imagine a silent gathering of mourners sharing a meal within the stark rocky embrace of these underground labyrinths.

 

 

The Roman Catacombs of Salina

DSCN9531_Creative pixlr signedThe Roman Catacombs of Salina.

I have known about the small Christian Catacombs of Salina for a very long time but never had the opportunity to visit them. Finally, an opportunity to go to the site arose and I took my trusted Nikon with me to explore this relatively unknown, small but nevertheless impressive legacy from Malta’s early Christian period.

Salina Bay today is a small inlet within whose inner waters one finds the salt-pans which give it its name. Centuries ago, however, Salina was Malta’s biggest Roman harbour, extending as far inland as the village of Burmarrad. Centuries of silting by soil and sediment carried by storm-water draining from the huge watercourses of Wied il-Ghasel and Wied Rihana eventually choked this once-great harbour, first converting it into marshland and eventually into the fertile agricultural land there is today.

Proof of Salina Harbour’s historical importance and relevance is evidenced by numerous archaeological finds including anchor stocks and amphorae found underwater (suggesting the unfortunate remains of ships caught in storms and which did not make safe harbour), walls of Roman ashlar masonry indicating the presence of jetties now located inland, the huge agricultural estate over which the Chapel of San Pawl Milqi was eventually constructed and, of course, the Salina Catacombs.

The area where the catacombs lie is behind the Chapel of the Annunciation near the Ta’ Cassia Restaurant. The complex consists of a main catacomb which is inaccessible and protected by a locked metal gate and a number of smaller tomb groups clustered around a rectangular court cut in the rock in what must have been an ancient coralline limestone quarry.

DSCN9505 pixlr signedIt is in fact the smaller tombs that I managed to visit and photograph. You can get to them through a signposted public footpath which passes through private agricultural land. The land is characterised by a grey lower coralline limestone outcrop showing clear evidence of ancient quarrying. Eventually you get to a small rectangular space in which five portals are cut into the vertical rock-face although the remains of tombs outside these entrances suggests that more recent quarrying may have destroyed parts of this catacomb complex.

The catacombs are well maintained, clean and navigable. Since these small hypogea are almost at surface level and do not penetrate deep underground, they are reasonably well illuminated with natural light. Mosses and ferns grow on their damp walls and floors. Their ceilings are not very high and care needs to be taken to avoid painful encounters with the hard coralline limestone!

DSCN9542_Monochrome 2 pixlr signedThe catacombs contain different types and shapes of graves including canopied graves and others which are arched recesses in the wall (called arcosolium graves). Some of the grave pits are wide enough to have held the remains of two individuals lying side by side. Until at least the eighteenth century a number of the graves still contained intact skeletons pertaining to the late Roman or Byzantine periods.

DSCN9524_Balanced pixlr signedIn one of the small catacombs there is a perfectly preserved Stibadium, the c-shaped dining table also called the agape table on which relatives of the deceased shared a meal after the burial. The size of these smaller catacombs suggests that they either belonged to different families or to guilds who interred their departed members in them.

DSCN9539_Soft 3 pixlr signedHaving a complex burial site such as the one at Salina indicates that the area continued to host a sizeable community even during the late Roman period after 500AD when the old harbour was already silting up and turning into unhealthy marshland rife with malaria. The area was eventually abandoned as evidenced by the name of the hamlet of Bûr Marrad which translates from the Semitic into the Marsh of Sickness.

The Salina Catacombs are well worth a visit. Their historical significance, their simple architectural charm, their status as an ancient resting place for our predecessors and their link with Salina’s rich ancient history all make the short sojourn to visit them very worthwhile.

DSCN9545_Soft pixlr signed