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.

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Malta’s Grand Harbour

5718787958_3ff013c5a2_bMalta’s Grand Harbour

Growing up as a child before the arrival of computers and video games consoles, feeding one’s imagination rested on creating fantasies by reading books and comics, watching the two black and white television channels which were available and going to see the occasional movie.  Living in 1960s and 1970s Malta with relatives who had lived through the bombings of the Second World War, scars of which were still visible all around, military matters constituted a never-ending source of history, mystery and adventure. Couple this with my paternal grandmother’s seafront house on the Vittoriosa waterfront, with its constantly changing and omnipresent activity by the British Royal Navy and the picture becomes complete.

One of my past-times as such a child of the 1960s and ‘70s was to draw imaginary islands which I would populate with cities, hills, valleys and small villages surrounded by fields.  My islands would also feature bays and beaches, cliffs and coves and the ubiquitous airports and road networks.  But by far, the most impressive of features which my imagination would impose on my imaginary rocky outcrops surrounded by the deep blue sea would invariably be their harbours.

These harbours would inevitably be deep water and capable of hosting the most impressive of fleets.  They were embraced by the elongated arms of solid rock, on whose foundations impregnable fortresses and battlements, guarding the entrance through the narrow harbour-mouth stood.   Inside, they were subdivided into a number of smaller but similarly impressive basins, between which, tongues of land overflowing with walled citadels and castles would protrude.  My imaginary harbours also invariably hosted the island’s capital city and were obviously the centre of all political, commercial and military activity with the rest of the island being devoted to the countryside, the villages, the cliffs and the beaches.

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Whilst engaging in this past-time I was unaware of one basic fact: the heavy, subliminal influence which Malta’s Grand Harbour was having on my perception of what a harbour should look like.  Decades later, I today understand more than ever before the importance and significance which this harbour has had and will continue to have on Malta’s prospects.

The name Grand Harbour, bombastic as it may seem to those who do not know it, evokes images of greatness.  To the Maltese it is simply il-Port il-Kbir, similar to the Italians’ Porto Grande or Great Harbour.  But it is the English version with its connotations of grandness, which comes closest to home in appreciating the true wonders of this natural basin, which has ensured that Malta grows larger than life over the centuries to eventually become the sovereign European state it is today.

In my library I have a nineteenth century Dictionary of Geography that describes the Grand Harbour as follows:

La Valetta is,  from its excellent harbour, of great importance as a naval station and a commercial town.  The Grand Harbour, on the south-east side of La Valetta, is one of the finest bays in the world.  This beautiful basin is divided into five distinct ports, all equally safe, and each capable of containing a considerable number of vessels.  The entrance is hardly a quarter of a mile wide, and is commanded on either side by strong batteries. ……”

This short entry contains a host of terms describing this harbour: excellent, finest, beautiful, distinct, safe.  And indeed it is, for not only does this harbour deserve each individual adjective extolling its greatness, but it actually deserves them in their accumulated totality.

For a harbour can be beautiful but lack safety.  It can be distinct but not excellent or the finest.  Grand Harbour is all of these combined, which is what makes it so special.  For it is a natural marvel, which gives the impression of having been purposely designed to be one of the finest harbours in the world. And all of this on an almost insignificantly small island-state which can fit very comfortably within the confines of London’s M25 ring-road.

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The Grand Harbour consists of the confluence of a number of individual valleys, some very small, and some quite big by Maltese standards, which all drain into the same bay.  However, the geology of the place, coupled with millennia of the carving action of water flowing through the soft limestone, have meant that each valley has carved out its own individual little basin, thereby making the Grand Harbour a collection of creeks rather than a single port.

Thus individual valleys on the Cottonera side have carved out Rinella Bay, Kalkara Creek, Dockyard Creek and French Creek.  But by far, the valley which has had the largest influence on the Harbour’s formation is the one draining at Marsa: a valley which drains rainwater along the huge watercourses originating in the Siggiewi/Zebbug/Rabat/Mdina highlands and flowing through Attard, Qormi and Marsa.    This valley has carved a deep channel that extends for one kilometre from inner Marsa to the harbour mouth where the breakwater is located.

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But this is not enough!  Under normal circumstances, the effect of such valleys, great as they are within the Maltese context, would only have led to the formation of a series of shallow bays with beaches rather than a deep-water harbour.  Grand Harbour actually owes its very existence to a more catastrophic event in Malta’s geological history, as a result of which the entire island was raised in a lopsided fashion through the actions of a massive, underwater tectonic upheaval so that it now slopes in a west to east direction. This explains why most of Malta’s west coast is composed of high sheer cliffs while the east coast consists of indented bays and harbours that dip into deep water quite rapidly.

The upheaval described above caused the shallower bays and harbours on the eastern side of the island to be submerged quite heavily, forming the wonder which is the Grand Harbour.  Without this upheaval, the area currently housing the harbour would currently most probably be an extensive valley system gently shelving into the sea somewhere where the breakwater currently stands.

Before the interventions of man, the area around the Grand Harbour must have been a joy to behold.  Ancient oak woodlands would have stood on the high grounds where Valletta, the Three Cities and Corradino Heights currently stand.  The cliffs leading down to the sea would have sustained bushes and other maquis vegetation, whilst more difficult to visualize would have been the marshes and small islands prevailing in the wetland area between Marsa and Qormi, parts of which were actually beneath sea level thereby retaining pools of brackish water in a veritable Mediterranean saline wetland all year round.

With the arrival of man from Sicily around seven thousand years ago, the area around Grand Harbour started to change as evidenced by the Neolithic remains in Kordin and nearby Tarxien.  This besides other settlements which must also have existed in the highly built Cottonera conurbation which has been developed and redeveloped on numerous occasions over hundreds of years ensuring the obliteration of any previous signs of very probable earlier human activity from the Punic, Roman and Arab periods.

Medieval sources make clear references to the emergence of the Castrum Maris, or “Castle by the Sea” as the forebear of today’s Fort St. Angelo. This stronghold in the middle of Grand Harbour led to the development of Malta’s first extensive maritime town, the castle’s burg or Borgo.  This town was to later expand into the three distinct entities collectively known as the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea.  Around this time, one of the most important economic activities in Malta was state-sanctioned piracy, with the Grand Harbour being the base for the ships which embarked on these ventures in an open manner and on which taxes were paid to the authorities depending on the returns from each trip! Apart from this, some of the most famous of medieval events to take place within the Grand Harbour which are worth mentioning are the 1283 naval battle which saw the forces of Spanish Aragon oust the Angevins from Malta and the 1425 uprising by the Maltese against their feudal lord Don Gonsalvo Monroy resulting in the imprisonment of his wife Donna Costanza in the Castrum Maris as a hostage.

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The arrival of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem in 1530, who were granted the Maltese Islands and the Port of Tripoli in Libya by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Fifth of Spain, against an annual rent of one peregrine falcon, led to the huge transformation of the Grand Harbour. The initially reluctant Knights, whose long-term vision consisted of the eventual recapturing of the much bigger and greener island of Rhodes from the Ottomans, commenced the fortification of the harbour by strengthening the medieval castrum which was renamed St. Angelo, fortifying the borgo and constructing two additional forts, namely St Michael in Senglea, a peninsula parallel to Birgu which they also encircled by a wall and St Elmo, at the tip of the Sceberras Peninsula guarding the harbour mouth.

The successful outcome of the Great Siege of 1565, during which the Knights and the Maltese repelled a 30,000 strong Ottoman invading force, led to the Knights’ decision to establish Malta as their permanent home.  The building of Valletta and its suburb of Floriana and their impressive network of fortifications, the expansion of the Three Cities and their subsequent encirclement by the impregnable Cottonera Lines and the huge amount of shipping which the new city state of the Knights started to attract saw the Grand Harbour reach its zenith.   The Harbour steadily increased in strategic importance, benefiting from the dual advantage of location and strong defences, until the decline of the Order of the Knights in the late eighteenth century first led Napoleon’s French and subsequently Nelson’s British to take control of the Island, particularly on the realization of the fact that whoever controlled the Grand Harbour effectively controlled shipping movements in the whole Mediterranean.

5245188946_7b21214709_bThe advent of the British Royal Navy, not only gave a new lease of life to the Grand Harbour as the base for Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet, but also led to its industrialization through the strong expansion and development of the ship-repair yards first developed by the Knights.  The Dockyards were to become synonymous with the social, economic and political history of the Grand Harbour during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and were to provide employment to the thousands of people who lived in the districts surrounding the harbour.

The Harbour witnessed strong military activity during the Second World War including incessant dive bombing sorties on military and merchant shipping by the German and Italian air forces, attacks on its ship repair facilities as well as a daring Italian e-boat attack on the defensive net blocking its entrance which was thwarted by a well aimed defensive artillery response which literally blew the attackers out of the water.

7439624138_f82428817e_bThe post war years led to the gradual decline of the Grand Harbour.  The closure of the British Military base and the departure of the Royal Navy in 1979 was the first step followed by the gradual decline in merchant shipping movements as Marsaxlokk Harbour steadily developed as the alternative cargo hub for Malta.  The downsizing and eventual closure of the ship repair yards and their replacement by a leaner, privatized operation almost led to the eventual demise of the harbour in the first decade of the new millennium.

However, like a phoenix, Grand Harbour is rising once more from the ashes. From cruise ships to super-yachts and from extensive refurbishments to ambitious regeneration projects, the area around Grand Harbour is once again at the heart of Malta’s quest to redefine itself anew for yet another time during its long and chequered history.

Tourism is playing a major role in this latest version of the Grand Harbour: tourism activity which recognizes the natural and historical importance of the harbour and its environs as the Island seeks to attract ever increasing quantities of tourists embarking on city-breaks.  Thus, the Harbour and its surroundings become a focal point in themselves, rather than a curious addendum to the experience of a tourist who visits primarily for the island’s coastal charms.

4624760551_61f9106924_bGrand Harbour has, over the centuries, had a very huge impact on the economic, political and social development of Malta and Maltese statehood.  I have always maintained that without its Grand Harbour and its central Mediterranean location, Malta would have been reduced to the same status as its smaller, almost unknown, Italian neighbours of Pantelleria and Lampedusa: with peripheral tourism activity sustaining a small population of fishermen and subsistence farmers.

Meanwhile it continues to be a joy to behold.  Whether experienced from three hundred metres up through the window of a descending aircraft, from the deck of a cruise ship as it sails by the impressive battlements or from vantage points such as Valletta’s Barrakka Gardens, Senglea Point or Bighi, it is indeed impressive and a source of pride for the Maltese.  And after more than fifty years of endless visits, I have to confess that it is one of the few places in Malta which continues to give me a tingling sensation at the back of my neck every time I view it!

The City and the Forest

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The City and the Forest

Valletta and Buskett, City and Forest.  Fifteen kilometres distant from each other but beautifully framed in a single photo taken from the heights of Dingli Cliffs.  A photo showing a scene which is not possible when using one’s eyes alone, but which is squeezed in due to the effect of the zoom lens which flattens distances and narrows angles of vision.

The City and the Forest.  Their common origin not immediately apparent, but common it indeed is.  For they both date back to the first few decades of the Knights of St. John in Malta in the sixteenth century.  The Knights were offered Malta and the desolate North African fortress town of Tripoli by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Fifth as an alternative home following their eviction from Rhodes by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

The Knights missed Rhodes badly: their beautiful island home, lush and verdant, green and bountiful.  And complete with a fortified harbour town.  In Malta they found nothing of the sort.  An inland capital which was of no use to their naval needs, a coastal village with a decrepit medieval hold as their maritime base and a windswept, treeless landscape which made them yearn with nostalgia for their previous home in Rhodes.  The coastal city they needed as a maritime base, the woodland they needed to indulge in their pastime of hunting.

But their initial dislike and disappointment eventually gave way to action.  Knowing full well that a return to Rhodes was well nigh impossible they set about modifying their new island home.  Where there was no maritime city, they built one from scratch and turned it into one of the most famous of the period.  Where there were no defences they spared no expense and built one of the most impregnable and impressive systems of defence worldwide.  And where there was no forest they also created one: the Boschetto, or small wood, the Maltese word for which was to eventually become corrupted to Buskett.  A wood of pine, oak, cypress, poplar, olive and carob, surrounded by citrus groves.  An artificial creation which has today matured to the extent that it has acquired the powers of self-regeneration, meaning that it is slowly freeing itself from its original artificial creators.

Two man-made creations which add two special dimensions to Malta: a sophisticated capital city and a mature woodland.  Two phenomena where you least expect them.  Courtesy of the hard work of a group of reluctant guests whose nostalgia for their previous home led them to create the inconceivable.

Valletta’s Saluting Battery

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Valletta’s Saluting Battery

The lovingly and painstakingly restored Valletta Saluting Battery in the lower part of Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens.  Period guns dating to the nineteenth century British period facing the impregnable Fort St. Angelo and the Three Cities across the Grand Harbour.

The guns sit atop an elevated part of Valletta’s harbour-facing battlements and the location has served as a gun battery for almost half a millennium making it probably one of the oldest such locations still in operational existence.

Besides their defensive role, the guns in the saluting battery also used to perform a number of ceremonial roles marking anniversaries and feasts and also extending greetings to visiting vessels.  Since the 1820s the battery has also been used as a time-synchronising device with its daily firing of the noon-day gun which was especially useful to commanders of vessels withing hearing range of the gun to synchronise their clocks and watches.  This was not done for some frivolous reason, but for navigation purposes given that satellite tracking and gps devices were not even the stuff of dreams back then.  At that time mariners used to estimate their location by taking readings of the sun’s altitude using devices such as sextants and for the navigation to be precise the readings had to take place at precise hourly times: thus the importance of properly synchronised timepieces.  The practice of firing the noon-day gun was re-introduced a few years ago by heritage NGO Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna (http://www.wirtartna.org/) with the support of European Union funding and sponsorships from the Malta Tourism Authority and the Bank of Valletta, and is now carried out daily to coincide with midday. (http://www.salutingbattery.com/)  Visiting cruise ships also occasionally commission six-gun salutes for the experience and entertainment of their clients.

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The beautiful historic Grand Harbour, surrounded by the walled towns crowding around its perimeter appears calm and radiant in this picture taken during a sunny January day.  The contrast between the blue sea and sky and the pale limestone buildings is very pleasant while the patch of lawn behind the cannon gives the scene a distinct British feel.  The yachts and superyachts berthed off the Vittoriosa shore are the contemporary replacements to the warships which crowded the harbour until the departure of the Royal Navy in 1979.

As to the concept of a saluting battery: although protocol and etiquette ensured that this defensive feature evolved into an activity which was mostly ceremonial in nature, its origins were apparently more practical.  Based on humanity’s inherent distrust in strangers, the concept of the salute evolved from the need by both host fortress and visiting vessel to send out a clear signal that no aggressive behaviour is being contemplated.  What better way to do that than to fire off and empty your entire battery before your host/guest comes within range?!

Flying back home!

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Flying back home!

I am privileged to work in a job which necessitates loads of travel: around twelve to fifteen trips a year.  Such a privilege has enabled me to widen my horizons and visit many countries: some very frequently, others only once.  The more I travel the more I learn to appreciate diversity and enjoy the differences which make this planet and the people who inhabit it such a wonderful place.

Living on a small, Central-Mediterranean island also means that most of my trips involve flying: a sensation which some people thoroughly enjoy and others dread.  I have to confess that I do not really mind flying although my comfort zone generally starts to get stressed if individual flights are longer than three and a half hours!

After all these years of flying, the single most pleasant sensation still arises during the last few minutes of my return flight home.  Borne perhaps out of the need to get back home to rejoin family after yet another business trip.  But not only for this reason alone!  There is another reason which can only be understood by those who, like me, possess a familiarity with the minute details of the territory in which they live.  Something which is of course very possible when you live in a country the size of Malta and its islands.

As the aircraft descends, all the familiar details become visible and recognisable.  Generally, most arriving flights from northern locations fly past the islands’ eastern coast thus exposing the heavily indented eastern shoreline to perfect view.  The cherry on the cake is when the aircraft flies past the glorious panorama of Valletta, straddled between its two two deep-water harbours and their numerous bays and creeks: an area of heavy urban development, historic walled towns and busy shipping activity.

The photo accompanying this story may not necessarily be top notch from the photographic perspective, but adequately displays what I am trying to explain.  A moment in time, captured while sitting on an inbound Air Malta plane (www.airmalta.com), watching my small island drift by and absorbing the first class view of the UNESCO World Heritage City of Valletta within its impressive maritime setting.  A scene that I have enjoyed so many times but that still continues to give me a tingling sensation to this very day!

Woman rowing a boat in Marsaxlokk

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Woman rowing a boat in Marsaxlokk

They say a photo is worth a thousand words.  And I think that this is particularly applicable when the photo captures a genuine moment in space-time, a matter-of-fact event, frozen for posterity.

I do not normally like taking photos showing people and have a particular dislike for pictures which include posing humans.  However, there are occasions when a perfectly natural photo, untainted by the artificiality of posing, says so much more because there is a human being in it than if it were to only feature inanimate objects.

This particular photo is a favourite of mine.  A woman rowing a small boat from one of the larger luzzu in the background to the shore.  Probably after having delivered some food or supplies to her fisherman husband who is preparing for his next trip to sea on his vessel.  A woman of the sea, for whom the transition from land to sea comes naturally and with no fuss.  Bearing the clothes she wears at home and rowing the boat with grace and skill.

The beautifully coloured luzzu, the calm inner waters of Marsaxlokk harbour and the graceful paddle of the oars are all factors which contribute to make this photo special.  I also love the small details: the boat fenders which are actually used detergent bottles and the larger buoys which are actually plastic tanks in which imported olives are consigned.  A culture for whom re-use and recycling are not newly discovered fads but practical realities which they have long practiced.

A photo which does not feature a model chosen on the basis of looks wearing clothes specially selected for the occasion, but a split second snapshot of life in Marsaxlokk, Malta featuring a real person in her day to day life in a Mediterranean fishing community.