Changes in City Gate

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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!

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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!

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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.

Snapshot from a historic garden

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Snapshot from a historic garden

For most people, the suburb of Floriana is merely a place of transit en route to Malta’s capital Valletta. This is indeed a pity, for Floriana, in spite of its relatively small size, features a rich variety of places to visit, foremost amongst which its numerous public gardens, mostly on the extensive network of fortifications which were built as an outer buffer to the massive bulwarks defending Valletta itself.

One of the oldest of these gardens is the Argotti Botanic Gardens on the Marsamxett Harbour flank of Floriana.  The garden’s oldest parts date back to 1741 when they served as the private domain of the Portuguese Grandmaster of the Order of St. John in Malta Dom Fra’ Manuel Pinto da Fonseca.  They were later cared for and extended by the Bailiff Ignatius de Argote et Gusman from whose family name the corrupted name Argotti originated.

During the Knights’ period, the gardens were used to grow medicinal herbs and plants bearing in mind the Order’s Hospitaller vocation only to be later transformed into the Botanical Gardens we see today during the early years of the British period in 1805.

Amongst the Argotti Garden’s treasured possessions one finds an extensive and internationally recognised collection of potted cacti which are available for public display in the enclosed area managed by the University of Malta and which is generally accessible by appointment with the Curator during office hours.

The photo which is the subject of this short entry shows an area of dense foliage in the Gardens which is dominated by an impressive giant cactus which looks like some surreal creation from Salvador Dalí’s paintbrush.

The Neo-Gothic building in the background is the Wesleyan Methodist Church which was designed by architect Thomas Mullet Ellis in 1881 and was completed in 1883 under the direction of Poulsen. It was inaugurated for religious worship on the 18th March 1883.

A snapshot of yet another of those nonchalantly and perfectly co-existing Maltese paradox landscapes: a decades old New World cactus flanked by a South East Asian ficus and a North African date palm in a herb garden designed by eighteenth century Catholic warrior monks with a nineteenth century Protestant place of worship filling up the background!

 

Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

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Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

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

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

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

 

 

The Stepped Streets of Valletta

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bronzes of Valletta Part 1: Monument to a wartime leader

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Bronzes of Valletta Part 1: Monument to a wartime leader

There is a relatively inconspicuous corner in Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens which houses a simple but artistic monument.  The monument consists of a plain white marble column on which stands a beautifully rendered bust of Sir Winston Churchill, wartime Prime Minister of Britain during the Second World War.

Churchill had a long relationship with Malta, the island he was to describe as “the unsinkable aircraft carrier” for its unwavering defence against the Axis onslaught during the siege of 1941-43.  In fact he visited the island on no less than six separate occasions over a forty year period which covered both World Wars.  His first visit was in 1907 as a junior minister in the British government and his last two visits took place when the Second World War was still ongoing in 1943 and 1945 respectively.  In his 1945 visit he was joined by US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt whom he convinced to meet here before proceeding to Yalta in Russian Crimea for their historic meeting with Joseph Stalin.  It was during this visit that Churchill composed the famous couplet:

“No more let us alter or falter or palter
From Malta to Yalta, and Yalta to Malta.”

aimed at creating a strong joint resolve between him and Roosevelt before the decisive Yalta Conference which many see as the birth of the Cold War which was to follow the hostilities of the war which was about to be concluded.

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Churchill uttered numerous words of praise about Malta, indicating a love and respect for the island both during times of peace and times of war.  In one description he wrote, “You should see the hot stones of Malta, baking and glistening on a steel-blue Mediterranean.”, while during the height of the Axis siege in 1942 he wrote to his Chiefs of Staff, “The fate of the island is at stake, and if the effort to relieve it is worth making, it is worth making on a great scale… the Navy will never abandon Malta”.  It was Churchill who in the summer of 1942 guaranteed the success of the greatest sea-going convoy of the War, Operation Pedestal, by convincing the Americans to release the fastest oil tanker in existence at the time, Texaco’s SS Ohio to re-supply Malta before its fuel, food and ammunition ran out.  The personal files he kept on Malta during the war exceeded one thousand pages of notes, memos and minutes on matters relating to the island.

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The Maltese people had a lot of admiration for Churchill and in 1955, through public subscription, commissioned the prolific Maltese sculptor Vincent Apap to produce a lasting monument for presentation to the heroic leader on the occasion of his eightieth birthday.  Apap travelled to London and managed to model the clay bust over the course of a number of sittings at the famous number 10 address in Downing Street.  The resulting bronze bust was presented to Churchill by Judge Anthony Montanaro Gauci on August 3rd 1955, after which it was returned to Malta and placed in Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens, overlooking the Grand Harbour on Churchill’s own request.

A request which gains added significance when considering Churchill’s description of Grand Harbour as follows, “We sailed into the most wonderful harbour I could have imagined or dreamt of, harbour of harbours.”

What many consider to be among sculptor Apap’s finest works stands to this very day in the location it has graced for almost sixty years.  Definitely worth at least a small stop to enjoy its artistic beauty and the story it tells from a rapidly fading past.

Malta’s Rosetta Stones

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Malta’s Rosetta Stones

Everybody is familiar with the Rosetta Stone, the ancient stone stele containing three almost similar inscriptions written in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics,  Demotic Script and Ancient Greek.  This stone was used by the great French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion to sensibly decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time in 1822, thus opening the way for the eventual understanding of the previously undecipherable multitude of Egyptian inscriptions and papyri .  In turn, this helped us understand day to day life in Ancient Egypt in a way unprecedented until the deciphering became possible.

Within the Maltese context, a lesser known set of stone candelabra, or ornamental pillars known as cippi (plural of cippus) were used in a similar fashion to decipher the Phoenician alphabet for the first time in the late seventeenth century, making them Malta’s equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.  What and where are these cippi?

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The two white marble candelabra were discovered within the multi-period sanctuary site of Tas-Silg near Marsaxlokk in the south of Malta  in the late seventeenth century during the period of the Knights of Malta.  Tas-Silg is a very important Maltese archaeological site because it features a continuous, uninterrupted use spanning all eras from the Neolithic to the fourth century AD.  Within this time-span, the site served as a religious sanctuary containing layer upon layer of Stone Age, Bronze Age, Punic and Paleo-Christian places of worship.  The candelabra have been dated to the Punic (Phoenician) phase of the Tas-Silg site when the place was a Sanctuary of the Goddess Juno (Astarte to the Phoenicians).  They date to around 200 BCE.

The discovery of these two candelabra within the grounds of a Phoenician temple in Malta suggests that they were votive offerings in gratitude for prayers heard.   They contain inscriptions in Phoenician and Greek text in which two brothers, Abdosir and Osirshamar, sons of Osirshamar of Tyre (in modern day Lebanon) thank their Lord Melkart for having heard their voice and ask for his blessing.  The Greek text provides alternative names for the brothers, Dionysos and Serapion, sons of Serapion of Tyre and their gratitude and request for blessing is dedicated to the Greek God Heracles.

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Great detective work by the linguist Jean-Jacques Barthélémy made it possible to associate the words in the two texts in a way which made it possible to decipher 18 of the 22 letters of the Phoenician alphabet.  This preliminary translation is acknowledged as forming the foundation on which all successive Phoenician and Punic studies were based.  It took place at a time when very little was known about these great seafarers apart from scant references in sources such as the Bible and Greek texts.

So, as in the case of the Rosetta Stone, we have an archaeological find which was not only valuable in terms of its inherent uniqueness but also in terms of its larger-than-life contribution to the understanding of an important part of our common human development, this time through the deciphering of the world’s first modern alphabet.  An important, but underestimated and relatively unknown archaeological treasure which deserves to be elevated to the status and glory of its Egyptian counterpart.  These two cippi definitely deserve the status of being Malta’s own version of the Rosetta Stone.

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And where are the two cippi today?  They both survive and are given pride of place in two different locations.  The first resides, with other contemporary findings from Malta’s Phoenician past, within the confines of the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, Malta while the second is to be found in Room 18b of the Eastern Antiquities Section of the Louvre in Paris, France.  As to how it got there: contrary to the provenance of many such collections from the past three hundred years it was not looted, but was sent to pre-revolutionary France in 1782 as a gift from the Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta Emmanuel de Rohan to King Louis XVI.

Although it would be nice to be able to view them together in Valletta’s museum in recognition of their original resting place it may also be argued that their display in the two locations is symbolically fitting and important as the Malta-based cippus commemorates the place where they were found while the Louvre-cippus commemorates the work of Barthélémy in deciphering the Phoenician alphabet.

A Welsh soldier buried in Malta

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A Welsh soldier buried in Malta

A few months ago a British academic friend of my wife asked me to take some photographs of the graves of fallen soldiers from the First World War who are buried in Maltese military cemeteries.  Malta possesses four such cemeteries which are managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, three of which, namely the ones at Kalkara, Pieta and Pembroke contain the resting places of soldiers from the Great War.

In my assignment I ended up taking photos of the final resting places of soldiers of a wide variety of nationalities including English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish, Maltese, Australian and New Zealander, Canadian, Japanese, French, Indian and German.  This wide range of nationalities is impressive when considering that Malta was not on the front-line during the First World War.  The island did play an important role however by receiving thousands of wounded in its hospitals, especially from the horrendous battles that took place in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in Turkey in 1915, when thousands of young lives were sacrificed, estimated at 70,000 Allies and 60,000 Turks, due to the exposed terrain, the bad weather and the proximity of the front-lines.

Malta was a distant 850 miles away from the battlefield and the evacuation of wounded by sea usually took five to six days.  Before the war started, peacetime Malta had less than 500 hospital beds.  By March 1915 when the Gallipoli campaign was being formulated it was decided to increase the island’s hospital bed-stock to 3,000; however at the peak of hostilities the number escalated to over 20,000 beds.  Malta delivered medical treatment to 2,550 officers and 55,400 other ranks during the Gallipoli campaign with the first 600 patients arriving on 4 May 1915.  A number of those seeking treatment succumbed to their injuries and were buried on the island.

Most of the graves in the well-groomed and maintained cemeteries merely supply name, nationality, rank, regiment and age of the fallen.  However a few tombstones go into some more detail, shedding additional light on the person whose remains they commemorate.  One such case is the tomb of Private David Luther Isaac at the Pieta Military Cemetery.

Private Isaac’s tomb stands out not only due to its architectural features, with the marble cross emerging from a rendering of the sand bags so commonly associated with the trenches in which the men fought,  but also due to the information the tombstone provides.  It tells us that he was the son of John and Mary Isaac who lived in 29, Glenalla Road, Llanelli, South Wales.  It also tells us that he fought in the 1/4 Welsh Regiment.  Born in November 1891, he lost his life in Tigne Hospital, Malta in September 1915, two months and one day short of his 24th birthday.

Intrigued by this information I decided to search for more and found some additional information in a website called http://www.laugharnewarmemorial.co.uk.   The most precious  detail I found was the photo below.  Suddenly the name and details on the tombstone had a face.  The face of a young 23 year old soldier who looks much older in full uniform.

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The site provides some additional information to what is gleaned from the tombstone.  It tells that Private Isaac enlisted in the 1/4th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment in Llanelli itself.  This was the local Territorial Battalion, a volunteer reserve force.  He was attached to the 159 Brigade of the 53rd Welsh Division.  The young volunteer soldier very quickly found himself very far away from home, arriving at Cape Helles, the rocky headland at the south-westernmost tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula on 9 August 1915.

The young soldier was thrown into thick action almost immediately upon arrival, defending his post against a massive Turkish counter-attack during the battle of Sari Bair.  It was here that he received a severe leg wound and was evacuated to Malta for treatment.

In Malta, the young David Luther Isaac was transferred to Tigne Hospital at the tip of Marsamxett Harbour where he underwent surgery to have his wounded leg amputated.  The surgery was not enough to save his life and he sadly died of his wounds on 22 September 1915 at the tender age of 23 and barely six weeks after his arrival on the battlefront.  He was buried in the Pieta Military Cemetery just outside Valletta.

A short story about a young man who,  within a few short weeks  in 1915, found himself caught in the horrors of war by being detached from his small Welsh community, thrown into the nightmare of a Turkish battlefront which claimed 130,000 lives in eight short months, only to be evacuated to die in Malta where he has rested in peace for the past 98 years.

Amazing what a tombstone plus the power of the internet can achieve if one is curious enough.