Sunday, January 29, 2017

Around Malta Part I

Why visiting Malta? So small, 2 days will be enough... is it worth flying there?

Blue Grotto
Carved by un-countable waves...
A few rocks surface in the middle of the Mediterranean between the Levant and Gibraltar, and between Sicily and North Africa. Sea currents and winds whirling around, few safe coves and harbors, a recipe for historic crossroads.

A small archipelago of 3 main islands have been the center of Mediterranean human traffic since prehistoric times. Only 3 rocks barely above the surface (highest point around 253 meters) are big enough to hold human presence. Comino, the smallest, maybe is today round the year populated thanks to technology (people goes there for work, or as tourists, no one really *living* there). Malta island is the biggest and most populated and the economic centre, but do not forget Gozo, the farm and barn of Malta: greener and with little best soil and pastures than the main island. In total 316Km2 for 394K inhabitants, making the country one of the most densely populated in the world [see here for a paper on the Geography of Malta].

If it is difficult to make sense of more than 10Km2, put this in perspective: in the main island, Malta, the longest direct path you can make, if you were a bird, it's just 27.3Km NW to SE, and 14.5Km W to E. Yet no clear idea? Buenos Aires city has a surface of 203Km2, New York has 784Km2! Heathrow airport has 12.14Km2!
malta islands

Yes, we are comparing a full country against cities, and an airport!

In that sense you can think why Malta is a touristic spot?
Comino Malta
Blue Lagoon - Comino

Regardless it is small surface as a country it is located in the middle of the Mediterranean. Does it make sense to travel there? A way to figure out why is reading The Great Sea by David Abulafia. Just as an starter.

Have you finished the book yet? If not here my summary explanation - why you should visit Malta!

Several civilizations raised and felt around the shores of the Mediterranean: Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians just to name a few of the old best known. To Venetians, Genoese, French, English and Ottomans to name another well known few, more modern.

The flow of sea currents across the Mediterranean, had made Malta a relevant place in the geography, culture and history of the Great Sea. With ample and protected bays for anyone that can control the land.

Around 7000 years ago neolithic farmers jumped from today Sicily to Malta. Followed by almost one thousand years of no big civilizations, suddenly the Temple Era started: around 4100 B.C. They lasted for several thousands years until in 2500 B.C. they disappeared. Until the 700 B.C. when the Phoenicians re-discovered Malta, used it as a stop over. In the 480 B.C. came the Carthaginians to pass the control to the Romans in 216 B.C.

Nothing last long, so after the implosion of the Roman Empire in the West started the Byzantium period from 400 A.D. to around the 870 A.D. The arabs then got into the picture until the christian european kings got back into the picture. The Normans conquered the inland in 1091 A.D. The semitic root started by the Phoenicians, continued by the arabs, was revamped as full christianization around 1249. Under the rule of the Kingdom of Sicily until 1530 and they were passed to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in perpetual lease. The Maltese Order.

In the 1500's Malta had to witness the struggle between incipient european states and the Ottoman Empire. Thanks to the early success of the Knights against the Ottoman Empire in 1565, rewarded lavishly by the occidental European powers and the Vatican gave to Malta the typical view that it is conserved today in many places. So much that in the last 400 to 600 years the architecture, art and churches do not show any influence from the Renaissance.
Malta architecture

Entangled in every intrigue of the changes of power in occidental Europe after the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, Knights surrender Malta to Napoleon in 1798, to surrender it again to the Navy of Admiral Nelson just 2 years later. And part of the Pax Brittanica they became.

Until the WWI and the WWII it had key geopolitical and military importance. With ships using coal and the Suez being like the aorta for the British Empire. Ships needed stop to refill water and coal in the pre-oil era and Malta port was key for the economic flow from the Far East to London. After WWI and the switch to diesel, no more stops and strategic importance diminished.

However with the start of WWII, its key geographic position strangled the logistic lines of Rommel in North Africa, and brought in the full rage of the Axis. With Italians and Germans participating in the longest siege of Malta from 1940 to 1943. Malta was the unsinkable carrier for the Brits, as Churchill liked to say (however the quote can be traced back to Sir Hasting Ismay in his memoirs:  "The British Isles had already proved a gigantic - and unsinkable aircraft-carrier. They now had to fulfil the additional role of a gigantic ordnance depot") (Also see Churchill and his special relationship with Malta).

With the end of WWII started another era for the Maltese: now of independence that finally came in September 21st 1964. And joined the European Union in 2004.

Those more than five thousands year of history are layered and interwoven in a delicate mosaic in those tiny islands, giving Malta (the whole archipelago) a strange topological feature: after a year living there, and two return trips for summer vacations, we still can find spots that we didn’t know before. We do not get tired of going back to the same places. And moving from point a to b, is like Alice down the Rabbit Hole, or the History tunnel: every meter you travel is like scalping layer after layer of history: visiting Malta is in itself a living museum of the past 6K years of human history around the Mediterranean.

Not convinced yet? It has great places to expend from April to November, escaping from the northern and awful European weather, and the best hostesses you can find: the Maltese people!

if approach that not convince you lets go in a future post for the more traditional approach of a touristic guide.