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?

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Everlasting beauty in Dwejra Bay

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Everlasting beauty in Dwejra Bay

Dwejra Bay on the island of Gozo in the Central Mediterranean.  A bay born out of the ancient collapse of a sea cave whose roof disappeared beneath the waves and whose sides survive as cliffs and the solitary Fungus Rock guarding the entrance.

A place of solitude and beauty where the land and the sea combine to form the perfect scene.  Sheer tough coralline limestone cliffs on one side, softer, golden globigerina limestone gently sloping to the water on the other.  Sedimentary rock made of the compressed, fossilised remains of billions of marine creatures which drifted to the bottom of the sea in an age of higher sea levels.  Until the waters receded and the new rock rose and became dry land.  Only to start gradually eroding back into the sea through the action of wind and water.

Dwejra survives as one of the least disturbed areas in the densely populated Maltese Islands.  A protected area, it is considered to be a natural heritage site of international scientific importance owing to its unique geology and botany.  It also hosts a number of rare, endemic plant species, foremost amongst which, the Maltese everlasting, examples of which are visible in the foreground of the picture.

An endemic plant is one which grows in a single place or area only.  Some endemics are common while others are very rare.  The Maltese everlasting – Helichrysum melitense – pertains to this latter category.  It is so rare that it is only to be found on the western cliffs of Gozo and nowhere else in the world.  Formerly present around the Zurrieq coast on mainland Malta it is now thought to be extinct there, surviving only on the Gozo cliffs and the tiny Fungus Rock Nature Reserve at the mouth of Dwejra Bay.

In line with its specificity to Gozo, its Maltese name is sempreviva ta’ Ghawdex and it was only described by botanists for the first time in 1980.  It is recognised as one of the rarest Maltese endemic plant species giving it a very special status.  The plant grows in shrubs which range in height between 20 and 60 centimetres.  Its leaves are covered in white hairs to protect the plant from sea spray and help it retain moisture in the arid Maltese summer.  Between April and June it produces a profusion of beautiful yellow flowers.

So I trust that you will excuse the pun in the title of today’s post, for not only is the beauty of the image and the location everlasting in its value but it is made even more special by the presence of the everlasting plant.  I have to confess that I am always humbled when in the presence of rare and endangered species, in awe at the opportunity of witnessing the last remaining specimens of what might have once been a thriving species.  Add a magically beautiful location such as Gozo’s Dwejra Bay and the picture is complete.

Malta’s original name as told by an ancient coin

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Malta’s original name as told by an ancient coin

The modern name of “Malta” derives from “Malitah” which was the Arabic corruption of the classic Graeco-Roman “Melita”.  Melita was the name of both the island and its city: names which eventually changed to “Malta” for the island and “Mdina” for the ancient Punico-Roman city which originally covered not only present day Mdina but almost one half of its suburb of Rabat too, all the way to St.Paul’s Church.  The name “Mdina” itself derives from the Arabic word “Medina” which simply means “the City”.

Given that humanity’s presence in Malta extended to at least three thousand years before the era of Graeco-Roman influence, it is only natural to speculate on what the island’s name was in such earlier times.  What the historic and prehistoric evidence tells us is that Malta was first inhabited by the prehistoric migrants from Sicily who eventually developed the highly sophisticated megalithic temple culture which gave the world its first complex monuments built in stone.  After these people mysteriously and inexplicably died out, they were replaced by a Bronze-Age prehistoric people, also migrating from Sicily, who were more warlike and defensive in nature as evidenced by the fortified remains of the Bronze Age Village at Borg in-Nadur in Birzebbuga.

Maltese prehistory (ie that period of human existence before writing was invented), gave way to historical times and their written records with the arrival of the Phoenicians; those great traders who originated from modern-day Lebanon and whose trading network extended beyond the Straits of Gibraltar to Britain in the north and West Africa in the south.  The Phoenicians’ most important contribution to global civilisation was the alphabet which used letters representing sounds instead of the more cumbersome symbols and pictograms to denote writing used previously by more ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians with their hieroglyphics and the Sumerians with their cuneiform. The Phoenicians wrote from right to left as in modern day Arabic.

The Phoenician alphabet revolutionised writing and from it evolved all the major alphabets of the ancient and classical world: Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and eventually Cyrillic.  Quite an achievement for a small people who achieved fame by establishing themselves as the used-car salesmen of the Mediterranean!

But lets get back to Malta.  So the Phoenicians arrived here with their trade and their alphabet around 800BC and eventually Malta’s lot fell under the influence of their great colony of Carthage in modern day Tunisia.  By this time, coins were introduced for the first time in Malta and the historical findings suggest that these coins were the same as the ones used within the Phoenician colonies.  The Phoenicians populated the Maltese Islands and ruled for some 600 years and such was their influence that the Maltese continued to speak their language for hundreds of years after the Roman conquest of 218BC, so much so that the Apostle Luke, writing about St. Paul’s shipwreck in Malta in the Bible’s Acts of the Apostles in 60AD describes the Maltese as “barbarians”: a description not because of their savagery but merely to highlight the fact that they spoke neither Latin nor Greek.

And here comes the subject of this story, which, you will recollect, deals with Malta’s original name as told by an ancient coin.  While all of the first coins used in Malta were imported varieties, there was a very short period of about 200 years between 212BC and 15BC, when Malta and Gozo were allowed by the Romans to mint their own bronze coins: a privilege given to Roman municipia in Sicily under whose administrative control the Maltese Islands lay.

During this period around twelve different types of coins were minted, including one specifically by the Island of Gozo suggesting that the smaller island possessed a level of autonomy from Malta.  Eventually this practice was discontinued as the evolution of Rome from a Republic to an Empire under the Caesars led to a single, uniform coinage throughout the whole Empire.  The different types of coins feature the name of Malta or Gozo either in Greek or Latin but there are also a few which feature Malta’s name in Punic, the language of the Phoenicians.  The pictures in this post, of a Maltese triens coin from 85BC, show a sacrificial tripod on the reverse side, and, most importantly, Malta’s original Phoenician name as represented by the three characters:

                                                                               

which represent the Phoenician letters (from right to left) aleph, nun and nun or A, N and N.  The letters are reasonably visible in the photos.

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The sound of the three letters, which signify Malta’s original and older name from the time of the Phoenicians, has been differently interpreted as “Ann” or “Ghonan” given that the Phoenician alphabet did not have vowels but merely consonants like the modern Arabic alphabet.  The best way to represent the word would be ‘nn.  This word best translates into “ship” or “vessel” and has been tentatively attributed to the ship-like profile of the Maltese Islands as viewed from the distance by an approaching ship.  The Hebrew word for ship which also features a similar root is oni.

Malta and Melita but also ‘nn or Ghonan.  One wonders what other names this little island had before writing was invented when the temple builders and their Bronze-age successors lived here.  A question which will probably go unresolved forever given that there are no more fantastic coins inscribed with ancient alphabets waiting to be discovered!L1320630 pixlr signed pixlr signed closeup

 

Musings on Comino

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Musings on Comino

Since my childhood, the island of Kemmuna or Comino has always held a special fascination to me.  Snugly nestled between its larger siblings Malta and Gozo whilst in turn watching over its own brood of tiny islets including the appropriately named Kemmunett or Cominotto, this small one square mile of Maltese territory possesses a uniqueness which makes it special.

Comino is near, but also far away. Contrary to what one would expect for one of the smallest islands in an archipelago, Comino is not in some far-flung corner like distant Filfla, but just off the geographical centre of the Maltese Islands.  In the days before ferries to the island became widely available, for people like me it was a terra incognita, an island one got tantalisingly close to when crossing the Malta-Gozo channel, but never to step on.

From the Gozo ferry one could glimpse the almost bare rock of the island, the few stunted trees, the imposing Santa Marija Tower and a handful of other man-made structures.  One could also see the imposing cliffs, punctured by the occasional cave or grotto, and, between the thimbleful of rocky outcrops that separate Comino from Cominotto, a glimpse of that most unbelievably turquoise stretch of shimmering water, the exotic and almost out-of-place Blue Lagoon, bearing the modern and touristy name of a body of water otherwise matter-of-factly and aptly named “Bejn il-Kmiemen”, literally “Between the Cominos” by our practical, down-to-earth ancestors.

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My first youthful forays to Comino actually consisted of the ubiquitous day trip to the Blue Lagoon. A visit to this enchanted spot is truly an experience not to be missed, irrespective of the fact that it is currently being abused beyond the limits of sustainability by a myriad of boat operators who dump boatload upon boatload of day trippers onto the spot with its minute jetty and its postage stamp sized stretch of beach.  In spite of the crowds and the lack of space, however, swimming in the crystal-clear, transparent waters of this spot is a unique experience which one does not expect to find so far away from the South Pacific.

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Comino is not only about the Blue Lagoon though.  Beyond this gem there is so much more on this island which is designated a Natura 2000 site in its entirety. Although its odd square mile is mostly fragrant, virgin garigue, it also features an amazing number of features, man-made or otherwise that increase its attraction and fascination.  It is one of those amazing places possessing one of a number of many things: one medieval chapel, one police station, one isolation hospital, one coastal watchtower, one permanent household, one hotel and one coastal defence battery.  It also contains one cemetery, one water pumping station, one abandoned pig farm, one lighthouse and one helipad. Quite a list for a small rock.

“Comino is crying out for development!”  Thus uttered a work colleague who was my boss a quarter of a century ago.  My angry response to this statement was the equally emphatic, “Comino is crying out to be left alone!”  I still stick to this opinion after all these years.  Comino does not need development.  Comino does not need any further interventions.  Comino needs a simple and practical management plan.  Nature will do the rest.

A couple of summers ago I started a tradition of spending a few nights on Comino with my wife, staying in the charming, although slightly dated, four-star Comino Hotel.  All my previous visits had concentrated on the Blue Lagoon apart from one particular day trip sometime in the early 1990s when I had spent a day with Birdlife Malta volunteers who were ringing birds during the spring migration.

Extending one’s stay by an overnight or two on an island like Comino makes a huge difference. Having a hotel room base means that one can extend his range, both in terms of time and in terms of distance, beyond the limitations imposed by a typical day-trip to the Blue Lagoon.  For although distances on Comino are invariably small, the summer heat, lack of shade and the rough dusty paths that constitute the island’s roads all contribute to making summer trekking a bit of a feat, ideally to be undertaken either in the early mornings or in the late afternoons and evenings.  The period between 09:00 and 17:30 is best left to swimming, sunbathing or relaxing in the shade of the hotel’s terraces or its tiny private beach!

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Over the course of a number of short evenings and mornings, I have so far managed to explore around one half of the island in detail.  In spite of its relative isolation Comino has a number of dusty roads which criss-cross the island and enable comfortable walking in all directions.  This is much more preferable to walking across the uneven garigue which is also to be avoided where possible to preserve the seemingly rough but delicate landscape.

One evening we walked uphill from San Niklaw Bay to the Santa Maria Tower on the high ground spanning the Malta-Gozo channel.  En route we took the short detour to the small enclosure housing the closed and abandoned Comino Cemetery.  The walled enclosure which is sealed by a padlocked gate contains a small cross monument in its centre, a set of unmarked graves on the left (some with their top slabs broken, presumably vandalized) and disturbed ground on the right. The walls protect a group of gnarled and windswept cypress trees clinging for dear life on this harshly exposed hill.

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Continuing uphill, one eventually starts walking on a pleasant dirt road which is lined by low pine and sumac trees on one side with excellent views of Gozo, Cominotto and the Blue Lagoon on the other side.  This road leads to the remains of the one hundred plus year old British Isolation Hospital built after a cholera epidemic and the splendid glory of the Santa Maria Tower.  Some of the less fortunate of the hospital’s patients are apparently buried in the small cemetery.  

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The Hospital building and some adjoining structures are used by the only permanent residents on the island as evidenced by the various positive and negative signs of human habitation ranging from some small carefully tended fields, clothes hanging out to dry, the odd free-range chicken, and also the amazing collection of abandoned vehicles, boats and other mechanical paraphernalia which look like a mini scrap yard.   The Tower, lovingly restored by Din L-Art Helwa is a joy to behold and climbing its steep staircase raises one to an altitude which gives an immense perspective overlooking the four main Maltese islands.  The same cannot unfortunately be said about the Hospital building which bears the signs of years of neglect and abandonment.

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On the way back we decided to go downhill all the way to Santa Marija Bay.  The entire road follows the natural course of Comino’s main valley which means that one side of the entire route is very well planted with a variety of trees and shrubs.  The lower part of the valley also contains a small batch of cultivated fields before opening up to the small beach and its tiny sand-dune habitat.  Two thirds of the way down one encounters the small and charming chapel, apparently of medieval origin, with its rough façade and three arched belfry: a very well maintained, impeccably whitewashed structure surrounded by a protective band of trees which is more reminiscent of what one expects on a Greek island rather than in Malta.

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Past the chapel the valley widens to the full width of the Santa Marija Bay with its small sandy beach backed by a patch of tamarisk trees, apparently popular with campers, evidence of whom can be seen through the numerous remains of bonfires and other detritus left behind when they depart. And here, another unexpected structure: Comino’s Police Station, another simple two-floor building complete with boathouse at the water’s edge.  A very photogenic building also reminiscent of decades back when Comino housed a community of around 50 to 60 rural folk engaged in making the most of the island’s scant agricultural resources!  The bay also houses the bungalows belonging to the Comino Hotel’s Club Nautico.

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Our morning tours always started at an early hour, generally around 05:30 by walking east from the hotel along the dimly lit coastal path towards the Club Nautico.  Reaching the top of the low slope at 06:00 we enjoyed clear unobstructed views of some glorious sunrises:  an experience which is unique every time you witness it.  After ten minutes or so of savouring the beauty and the solitude, it was time to take the twenty minute trek to the Blue Lagoon, walking along a path which is parallel to the Gozo coast a few hundred metres across the water.

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At this hour the Blue Lagoon was still devoid of people with the exception of a gang of cleaners who were busily and efficiently removing the copious remains left behind by the previous day’s visitors: remains comprising a boat-full of plastic bottles, cans and ice cream packaging.  Some estimates suggest that up to 4,000 people a day visit the Blue Lagoon during the peak summer months. Perhaps the time has come to consider establishing a capping for the number of such visitors, as the place definitely cannot sustain such a daily influx while continuing to ensure safety and a positive visitor experience.

Another time we trekked along the same route to hear mass in the small chapel, sharing the celebration with the wizened old priest, complete with walking stick, who had crossed-over purposely from neighbouring Gozo.  Mass in the simplistic surroundings of the chapel was a beautiful experience and was shared with a congregation comprising the island’s three permanent inhabitants and a family of four German tourists.  After the mass, the priest very nimbly jumped onto an ancient Land Rover and drove off for breakfast with his resident flock!

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On yet another walk we crossed the centre of the island and proceeded towards the abandoned pig farm: a 1970s construction that was built to take advantage of Comino’s isolation in order to restock Malta’s pig population which had been totally destroyed by a vicious outbreak of African Swine Fever.  Its mission accomplished the farm today lies in ruins.

En route we passed by the tiny but charming Wied l-Ahmar, Comino’s Red Valley, a small, meandering, water carved channel draining in Santa Maria Bay with low lying trees eking an existence from the thin soil and seasonal moisture and with a scattering of postage-stamp sized fields where the contours have allowed the thin soil cover to accumulate. 

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I shall definitely be back.  In the summer to enjoy the crystal clear waters and explore the rest of the island or perhaps in October before the hotel shuts down for the winter, or in May/June before the crowds start to peak and when the landscape is still full of life and wild flowers.  There is still more than one half of the island to explore.  I would like to revisit the Tower and its environs, hopefully when it’s open for visitors, hear Mass again in the tiny Chapel and take a peek inside the Police Station.  I would like to revisit the Blue Lagoon at midday when almost no-one else is there and be able to hike across the island without having to avoid the unbearable sun.

In the meantime I continue to dream about this tiny piece of Malta.  I dream of its continued protection and preservation from the clutches of vicious development.  I dream of its real appreciation and protection from the depredations of a few who exploit it without leaving anything in return.  I dream of the removal of unnecessary structures and waste, of the proper maintenance and preservation of its historic buildings.  For to dream is to hope for better things, as so eloquently expressed by George Bernard Shaw: “You see things, and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?”

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Island hopping

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Island hopping

Islands in an archipelago.  Siblings not clones. So near and yet so far away, separated by narrow but deep channels of seawater.

Neat parallel lines. Sky, land, sea, land, sea.  Like layers, almost too neat to be true.  Land born in the sea, raised above the sea and embraced by the sea.

In the first picture, the island of Gozo in the distance.  The gothic-style church at Ghajnsielem and the barely discernible ramparts of Fort Chambray on the right, the fortified Citadel and town of Victoria on the left.  Twenty minutes sailing north of Malta and yet a world away.

In the foreground the tree-covered Ahrax tal-Mellieha peninsula, on mainland Malta.  Rising 70 metres above sea level.  Almost an island in its own right but for a narrow strip of land which attaches it to the mainland.  Apart from the trees and the cliffs, the ubiquitous presence of military architecture as evidenced by the low defensive wall, a redoubt aimed at harassing attempts to land by enemy shipping.

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In the second photo, another stretch of the Ahrax peninsula on Malta: tough upper coralline limestone sitting on top of a softer and older clay deposit.  Slowly crumbling, boulder by boulder into the blue sea.  The thin layer of trees whose deep roots seek moisture retained by the waterproof clay below.

And in the background, the Ta’ Proxxa Cliffs on the tiny island of Comino, also perfectly parallel.  Not by accident but by design.  The result of past geological faulting creating a series of ridges and valleys, horsts and grabens as the geographers would call them.  Only in this case the valleys are under water while the ridges survive as dry land, the tips of submerged heights which once stood prouder and taller before the waters rose.

Beautiful vistas and interesting geography rolled in one.

The island that fits in an aircraft window

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The island that fits in an aircraft window

Gozo.  The diamond of the central Mediterranean, as the old Tramps’ song goes. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_-h6xDSsUs)  Nearly oval in shape, emerging almost magically out of the deep blue sea surrounding it.

An island of hills, cliffs and valleys; much greener than its larger sister Malta due to the water retaining qualities of its impervious clay layer.  The island where the oldest stone man-made structure in the world is to be found.

Home to 24,000 souls with their own dialect, culture and cuisine, Gozo is an island of immense beauty and diversity.  A place unknown to most but beloved by those who chance upon it.

It is an island with a bustling town as a capital, beautiful hilltop villages with houses snuggling around glorious churches, high terraced hills growing out of snaking valleys, sheer cliffs seemingly cut by a knife and beautiful beaches both rocky and sandy.  An island where distance is not an issue but where you can still find total detachment from humanity and its mad hustle and bustle.

And in spite of all of this: an island which is compact enough to fit entirely into an aircraft window as evidenced by this photo I managed to take last week on my flight back home from a frozen Berlin.