A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

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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.


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.


Fall of a fort: Malta, 23 June 1565.

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I have today acquired a beautiful piece of art, a fitting Christmas gift which besides its inherent artistic beauty also captures a dramatic episode in Malta’s history.  A three dimensional painting by my old schoolmate and established artist John Busuttil Leaver featuring the Fall of Fort St. Elmo during the Great Siege of Malta on 23 June 1565.

The Fall of St. Elmo.  An epic story of courage, a glorious chapter in a siege which pitted the superior strength of over 35,000 besieging Turkish Ottoman forces against an inferior force of around 6,500 defenders comprising 3,000 Maltese soldiers together with 500 Knights of St. John and a mercenary army of around 3,000 Spanish, Italian, Sicilian, Greek and other nationalities from the Spanish Empire.

The Siege was meant to be a foregone conclusion.  The cream of Ottoman Sultan’s Suleiman the Magnificent’s forces pitted against a ragtag army of Knights and untrained troops seeking shelter behind the walls of rapidly repaired battlements on a sun-baked, rocky island located on the front-line of two warring faiths.  A Siege whose significance was far greater than the tiny island on which it was fought.  For both sides knew that Malta held the key to the control of shipping between the East and West Mediterranean.  Coupled with the fact that whoever held Malta and its deep water harbours could use it as a base to attack Christian Europe.  Via the island of Sicily, 100 kilometres to Malta’s north, whose exposed coastline earned it the title of Europe’s soft underbelly: a very descriptive term which cuts no corners in explaining Europe’s vulnerability to attack should Malta have fallen to the Ottomans.

The Ottomans reached Malta on 18 May 1565 having set sail from Istanbul with a fleet of 193 vessels at the end of March.  After disembarking in Marsaxlokk and reconnoitering, they took stock of the defences which they needed to subdue: the inland town of Mdina with its crumbling walls, the town of Birgu with its strong walls and the bulwark of Fort St. Angelo and the newer settlement of Senglea with its new walls and its stronghold of Fort St.Michael.  The final obstacle consisted of a small, but modern star-shaped fort called St. Elmo guarding the entrance to the island’s two deep water harbours at the tip of the Sceberras Peninsula.

Turkish opinion was divided when it came to deciding which of the strongholds to start besieging.  The commander in charge of the land forces, Mustapha Pasha, was all for going straight for the strongest defences, in the belief that once the strongest defences fell, the rest would give up without a fight.  But his co-commander in charge of the Sultan’s fleet, Piali Pasha, insisted that tiny St. Elmo should be the first target, as its downfall would enable him to protect his precious fleet inside a safe harbour.  Piali’s opinion prevailed and tiny St Elmo, with its small garrison of Knights and infantry faced the Turkish onslaught.

The Turks initially estimated that the tiny fort, cut off as it was from the rest of the defences, and facing the incessant firepower of their artillery coupled with the pinpoint accuracy of their snipers, would fall within a matter of days.  What they did not reckon was that the defenders, led by the wily Grandmaster of the Knights Jean de la Valette, were quietly replenishing the beleaguered garrison with men and munitions under cover of darkness by crossing over with small boats in the darkness of the night while the Turks were resting after a day’s bombardment, and ferrying the wounded over the Fort St. Angelo.

However, the fall of St Elmo was considered by all to be a matter of when and not if, and de la Valette’s protracted game was only meant to waste Ottoman lives, ammunition and time before the assault on the main defences began.  In this, the tiny Fort and its defenders emerged with the greatest of honour for they managed to withstand a horrific, one-sided siege not for the few days as per the original estimate, but for a full, astounding  36 days of non-stop bombardment which stopped only for assault upon assault by crack Janissary troops to take place against the puny fortress and its small force of defenders.

The painting portrays the final moments of the Fort on 23 June 1565.  It is still flying the Knights’ banner as its stricken defenders make one last attempt to delay the unstoppable flow of besiegers: frustrated men wishing to avenge the death of  6,000-8,000 of their comrades, including half of their elite Janissaries and the famous veteran corsair, Turgut Re’is.

The Great Siege of Malta was far from over when St. Elmo fell on 23 June. It was to go on until the 8 September when the Turks finally abandoned their plans and set sail for Istanbul which they were to re-enter under cover of darkness to hide their shame at failing to take their prize.

However, the resilience of Fort St. Elmo played a very important part in the Siege’s final outcome.  It drained the Ottomans of their crack troops, gained the defenders five precious weeks and ultimately delivered a strong blow to Turkish morale.  In fact Mustapha Pasha himself is reputed to have stood on the ruins of St. Elmo gazing across the waters of Grand Harbour and the impregnable ramparts of Forts St. Angelo and St Michael uttering the words, “If the son has come at such a cost, what are the parents worth?”

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“The Desire of the Maltese and the Voice of Europe”: Stories of British Malta (Part 1)

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“The Desire of the Maltese and the Voice of Europe”: Stories of British Malta (Part 1)

Throughout its long history Malta was occupied by almost all of the powers holding sway over the Mediterranean across the centuries.  Two of the most famous powers to occupy Malta during the past five hundred years were undoubtedly the Knights of St John, whose stay was so long that they eventually came to be known as the Knights of Malta, and the British.  The story of the passage of Malta from under the rule of the Knights to becoming a fully fledged British Fortress Colony, with a very brief two year interlude under Napoleon’s French is indeed an interesting period in the island’s history.

While most storytellers tend to glorify the Knights as the chivalrous order which gave Malta its wonderful capital city, its impregnable bastions and fortifications, together with its lavish palaces, cathedrals and churches others tend to focus on the fact that the Knights were a medieval aristocratic anachronism, which in their last few years in Malta stuck out like a sore thumb in the brave new world heralded by the egalitarian and libertarian philosophies spawned by the French Revolution.

In fact when in 1798 Napoleon and his fleet, which were en route to Egypt, sailed into Valletta’s Grand Harbour with the excuse of needing to water the ships, it was a foregone conclusion that the supposedly unassailable fortress was surrendered without a single shot being fired.  Napoleon’s French were initially welcomed with open arms by the Maltese but the welcome quickly turned into distrust, hatred and a strong urge to expel once the French started to loot Malta’s ecclesiastical treasures to finance their war machine.  The resulting uprising quickly forced the French to abandon the countryside and seek shelter behind the walls of Valletta.  A veritable paradox as a result of which the only time Valletta was besieged in its history was by the Maltese themselves!

With the French squarely trapped in Valletta, the Maltese sought outside assistance to blockade the enemy and obtain military assistance to oust them.  A request which was ultimately responded to by the British under Nelson, who helped negotiate a capitulation which gave the depleted French garrison safe passage to evacuate from the island to the consternation of the Maltese who wanted to massacre them to a man in response to the atrocities they had committed during the siege of Valletta.

An unstable peace was declared between France and Britain in 1802 through the signing of the Treaty of Amiens, which amongst other things committed to the British withdrawal from Malta and the island’s return to the Knights.  This was something which neither the Maltese nor the British were happy with: the former on account of the fact that they did not want the return of the arrogant Knights at all costs and the latter following their growing appreciation of Valletta’s impressive natural harbours and their sophisticated defensive networks.  The British refusal to leave Malta is recognised as one of the major reasons for the re-commencement of hostilities between Napoleonic France and Britain until Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815.

A few months before Waterloo, the Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 May 1814.  One of the decisions of the Treaty, namely Clause 7, specifically dealt with the annexation of Malta as a British colony.  This decision put paid once and for all any aspiration by the Knights to regain control of their former island home, thus ushering in 150 years of British rule in Malta.

This important episode in Malta’s history is commemorated by a poignant Latin inscription above the Main Guard building facing the Palace in Valletta.  A plaque beneath a Maltese stone rendering of the British coat of arms complete with lion and unicorn, the rough translation of which reads, “Confirmation of the Granting of These Islands to Great and Unbeaten Britain by the Desire of the Maltese and the Consent of Europe AD 1814”.

An impressive mouthful which not only extols the virtues of the victor of the spoils of war but emphasizes the fact that Britain did not unilaterally conquer Malta but was invited here by the Maltese themselves with the approval of the other victorious European powers.

A small monument with a message that is undecipherable to most but which stresses an important transit point in our island’s rich history.

Maltese War Currency

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Until the advent of the British in Malta in the early nineteenth century, the island’s currency consisted exclusively of coins.  During the time of the Knights of St John, Malta minted its own coins with issues changing under each successive Grandmaster of the Knights.

The commencement of the British period in Malta’s history brought about the introduction of the Maltese banking system whose major objective was to facilitate trade between Malta and its trading partners, particularly in areas where the island was used to export British goods to traditionally inaccessible continental markets.

The introduction of paper currency was an intermittent affair, normally associated with the higher denominations.  By and large people preferred coins, particularly at a time when silver and gold formed the basis of the high value coins.  A currency’s worth was estimated in terms of its inherent metallic value rather than the symbolic value represented on a printed banknote.

Wars have a strange way of affecting rapid changes to things which would have otherwise been impossible to dislodge, and nowhere was this more true than in the case of Maltese currency banknotes.

two shillingsThe first signs of change came during the First World War.  A fear that stocks of British coins could not be replenished following the British declaration of war on Germany led to the widespread printing of the first ever Maltese banknotes for general distribution rather than use by the merchant classes.  However these notes were withdrawn and replaced once again by coins after the initial panic subsided.  Towards the end of the Great War in 1918, a hoarding of silver coinage by the Maltese population which was feeling the economic pain of reduced military expenditure, led to a temporary shortage of two and five shilling coins thus restricting commercial activity.  The authorities printed significant quantities of banknotes for the two denominations, but the panic quickly subsided and the few notes which had been initially circulated were withdrawn and the remaining stocks were stored.

The commencement of hostilities during the Second World War posed a different problem.  This time round, Malta was on the frontline and there was a genuine fear that Britain could not guarantee a steady flow of currency, especially given Malta’s lonely location as a British outpost surrounded by enemy territory in all directions.

two shillings sixpenceThe solution to this state of affairs was practical and ingenuous.  Paper currency issued in the name of the Government of Malta was once again designed, with six different notes for one shilling, two shillings, two shillings six pence, five shillings, ten shillings and one pound.  Since there were no sophisticated printing presses available on Malta the notes were printed in the United Kingdom and shipped in different consignments to the island.  Furthermore, to economise, the notes were only printed from one side.

The dangers of transporting currency during a war are high, both because of losses if the ships transporting them are sent to the bottom of the sea and also in the event of the currency falling in enemy hands.  While there was not much that could be done in the case of the first eventuality, the risk of currency falling in enemy hands was removed through the introduction of a simple, yet effective way. The Malta Government banknotes printed in Britain were not valid unless they were stamped with the signature of the Government’s Treasurer!  Thus, arriving stocks of banknotes were further processed in small, hand-fed printing machines to add the Treasurer’s signature and make them valid legal tender.  When the bombing became very intense, printing facilities were spread in different locations and at one point banknotes were even being stamped within the confines of a brewery!

five shillingsThis notwithstanding, the Italian propaganda machine did its best to transmit the message to the Maltese population that Britain had effectively commandeered Malta’s currency stocks and replaced them with worthless printed paper: a message meant to turn the Maltese against their British masters and foment economic uncertainty.

Notes were dispatched to Malta on naval and merchant ships, aircraft and even submarines and not all stocks made it here.  For example when HMS Breconshire was sunk off Malta only 12,000 of the 84,000 one pound notes on board were recovered.

onepoundAlthough stocks of banknotes were generally adequate during the worst parts of the siege, there was a period between 1942 and 1943 when there was an acute shortage of one shilling notes.  The solution to this problem was found when the Authorities discovered the old stock of unused two shilling notes from 1918 and overprinted them with a new one shilling denomination until replacement stocks arrived from Britain in 1943.

one shilling overprintWhen we talk of war we tend to concentrate on stories related to bombings, hostilities, food shortages and battles.  However it is also important to bear in mind that even during such horrible times life does go on, albeit at an abnormal pace, and economic needs remain as real as during times of peace.  The availability of currency, standard or emergency, is of paramount importance to enable economic life to continue as normally as possible for during war people still need to earn, spend, buy and sell.

So, the hostilities of the Second World War not only brought us our first set of emergency paper banknotes for widespread use, but eventually made people get accustomed to the convenience of paper money in lieu of more cumbersome coins.  This changing trend was formalized with the Paper Currency Ordinance of 1949 following which permanent banknotes denominated in a Malta Pound whose exchange rate was on par with the Pound Sterling were issued.  The Malta Pound eventually evolved into the Maltese Lira until Malta joined the Eurozone in 2008.

The Two Towers

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The Two Towers

Isengard and Barad-dûr in Middle Earth?  Not exactly, but in north-west Malta in fact.

Two seventeenth century watchtowers guarding the coast from the high ground of Ghajn Tuffieha and il-Lippija.  Not really fortresses but fortified platforms with the scope of raising the alarm if enemy shipping movements are observed.  From a time when corsairing and enemy incursions were a daily reality.

These two towers form part of an extensive network of coastal watchtowers built during the seventeenth century by the Knights of St. John.  They are also collectively known as the Wignacourt and de Redin Towers after the two Grandmasters of the Order of St. John who funded their construction.  Each tower had its specific field of vision and obviously had to be within visual range of its neighbouring towers so that signals through bonfires could be communicated to the garrisons in the cities whenever there was a sighting of enemy shipping.    The tower in the foreground is Ghajn Tuffieha Tower guarding Ghajn Tuffieha and Golden Bays while the one in the background is Lippija Tower guarding over Gnejna Bay.

The towers’ apparent proximity is due to two factors, one illusory the other practical.  The illusory stems from the effect of zoom photography since the photo was taken from around one kilometre away from Rdum il-Mejjiesa in the Park tal-Majjistral at Manikata.  Such zooming tends to flatten distance giving the impression that subjects are closer to each other.  But the main reason behind the proximity is that the towers are standing watch over a very indented part of the Maltese coast which gives rise to three beautiful sandy beaches: Golden Bay, Ghajn Tuffieha Bay and Gnejna Bay.  In modern times, beaches are a welcome asset but in past centuries they were a source of dread as they provided marauding pirates and invaders with landing opportunities in shallow, protected waters.  The combination of cliffs, slopes, and inlets necessitated that all angles were covered to ensure 100% supervision.

The pirates are long gone but the towers remain, as almost all of their network: silent sentinels from a past age watching over the wide expanse of blue Mediterranean from their privileged vantage points on the Maltese coast.