We have always associated Malta with the sea, maginificent bays and beaches but its biggest attraction is hidden inland, far from the sea. Mdina and Rabat, previously one city located in the middle of the island should be obligaory during each visit to the archipelago. Not only because of its architecture, unique atmosphere but also because it’s a perfect place to get to know island’s history. We will lead you through it following it’s sequential names given by different nations ruling the country.
MALETH, OR PHOENICIANS ON THE ISLAND
The history of settlement on the island dates back to Stone Age but only its colonization by Phoenitians gave foundations of todays cities of Mdina and Rabat. Its strategic location on one of the highest points, with a panoramic view over whole island protecting it from the sea attack made it grow rappidly. Phoenitians called their settlement Maleth, what means “safe city”. Over the years whole island passed under the rule of Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans. Lasting more than 700 years the reign of the Roman Empire brought the hill further development. In this period wooden buildings were replaced with large brick Roman houses. Because the island had that special status of Municipium Rome governor’s palace was built there. That’s when the most cruicial event in the history of Malta took place – a ship transporting slaves crashed at its coast. It carried among them one exceptional person – Paul of Tarsus.
MELITA, OR SAINT PAUL ON THE ISLAND
Paul of Tarsus, known later as Saint Paul, did not expect to visit Malta but his arrival had a significant influence on Maltese religion and culture, making it the most Catholic country in Europe until today. Although St. Paul spent three months on that hill, called Melita at that time, we have very little information about his stay and evangelic mission. The most information gives the Act of the Apostles:
After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us round it. Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.’ He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god. Now in the neighbourhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him. After this happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. They bestowed many honours on us and when we were about to sail they put on board all the provisions we needed.
There was very little of tangible evidence of Paul of Tarsus stay on the hill. Above the grotto where he allegedly spent couple of weeks, Maltans built a chapel and in 16th century a church of his name. Grotto is today open for visitors with its central point of St. Paul statue made of white marble. Many attractions on the island, such as situated next to the grotto catacombs, are named after the apostle. They originated around 3rd century and have nothing to do with Paul of Tarsus, they are named after located nearby St. Paul’s church.
MDINA AND RABAT, OR THE REIGN OF ARAB ON THE ISLAND
In 533 the island came under the short rule of the Eastern Empire. Another important period in its history started in 870 with the invasion of Saracens, Arab nomadic tribe. They built a moat and large defensive walls which we can admire until today and divided the settlement into two parts. Suburbs, where above mentioned grotto and church are located, were outside the walls and were given the name Rabat. Areas inside the walls created a fortified settlement Mdina, which despite many twists of history kept its original character. Narrow and winding streets, symbol of the city, were also the idea of the Arabs. The character of the settlement, according to its name (Midna in arabic means “fortress”) was to make it impregnable; but only in 1091 due to outnumbered enemy troops the Arabs surrendered the settlement, ironically, without fight. The island passed successively through the hands of the Scandinavians, Angevin and Aragonese who again changed the city’s name. This time they called it Citta Notabile (Noble City). That was probably due to the fact that the most important families of Malta lived there. In 1530 by the decision of Spanish King Charles V the city was transferred to Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodos and Malta, later called the Order of Malta.
CITTA VECCHIA, OR THE ORDER ON THE ISLAND
Apperance of the Order in Malta has set off a great development of the island, while Mdina started to loose its meaning. Knights of Matla after heroic defense of their land in 1565 from the army of Suleiman the Magnificent, in fear of re-invasion, decided to move the capital somewhere else. In honour of Jean de la Valette, Grand Master of the Order commanding the army during the siege, they called new capital Valletta. After settling it in the eastern part of the island, they again changed Mdina’s name, this time to Citta Vecchia – Old City. The reign of the Knights Hospitaller was the golden period in the history of the island, the Order not only built a new capital, but also several forts, tens of watchtowers and hundreds of churches. At the same time the religious consciousness initiated there by St. Paul strengthened. In 1693 as a result of the earthquake, Mdina faced the greatest damage. After the cataclysm the city was rebuilt receiving its current apperance with the dominant cathedral of St. Paul.
Later it slightly suffered plundered by Napoleon’s troops quickly expelled by the British, who ruled Malta until its independence. The biggest damage the city suffered in the period of British reign was from bombing during WWII. At this time above mentioned Catholic consciousness developed and became an element of national identity on the contrary to British Protestantism. Let the fact that divorces were forbidden on the island until 2011, make you understand how important religion is to Maltese people.
SILENT CITY, OR OLA ON THE ISLAND
Today the area eclosed within the walls is called the Silent City. Almost a total ban on trafic, small number of inhabitants and amazing silence makes it stand out from all other Maltese towns. Lack of typical for Malta hustle and bustle perfectly reflects the name. The only thing that interrupts this peace and silence are noisy groups of tourists that seem not to notice signs asking for silence. All of them, advised by guides, visit the city in the evening but we decided to get there already during the day, or maybe afternoon and stay after dark. That seemed to be a very good idea.
The entrance from the side of Rabat is guarded by the Great Gate. Covering the bridge we are seeing huge moat and massive walls, which used to defend the settlement. What is interesting even after breaking through the first weak doors, the enemies were not yet inside the walls. While they were trying to break the second, stronger doors the third gate right behind them was closing making them trapped between doors. They were becoming an easy target and in most cases died of hot tar poured on them.
Today within the walls we can freely walk the maze of narrow and winding streets. Those have survived further redevelopments of the city being since Arab times an element of the defence system allowing to prepare many pitfalls for invaders just “around the corner”.
The largest damage as we already mentioned was done during the earthquake in 1693. Then Mdina was rebuild in popular at that time Baroque style with the Cathedral of St. Paul which is the main church of the Catholic Archdiocese of Malta until today. According to the legend here was the residence of Publius where presumably St. Paul cured his father. Current structure was made using the elements of previous temple and thanks to that today we can see things such as Mattia Preti’s polychrome „The diseaster of St. Paul’s ship”.
Walking the charming streets it is worth to pay attention on the details of surrounding buildings: cast iron decoration of balconies, decorative knockers and numerous statues of saints at the doors. High bulidings provide some relief in the hottest days. Ola loved winding streets and very few steps, small traffic allowed her to freely run around. Lack of the stairs is probably the heritage of Maltese Order who built it taking into consideration the inconveniences of moving in full armor.
In fact that walk is the biggest attraction of the city but we also advise to visit the Cathedral Museum and St. Benedict’s Church and St. Agats’a Chapel. Other buildings worth attention are beautiful residences Palazzo Falson and Palazzo Vilhena. The dungeons of the second one host the museum of the art of war. Since it presents the scenes of tortures and executions obviously because of Ola we gave up this attraction. At the end of our visit we went to the second gate leading to the city – The Greek Gate. It is also richly decorated and was used mainly as a back door, a way to deliver goods to the city.
Waiting for the dusk we went for a dinner to one of Mdinas restaurants. Fontanella seemed to be the best for us, mainly because of its top deck situated on the walls from which we could admire amazing view over the island. Beautiful views are one of the reasons to visit Mdina, accompanied by a very good food make the evening unforgeteble. While it was getting darker the restaurant filled more and more. That must be those tourists advised to visit Mdina after dusk, we thought. Later on we found out that those were Maltans and the tourists at this time occupy the walls holding wine glasses in their hands. Few of such groups and the whole atmosphere of this silent place disappeared, it became just another crowdy and noisy place.
Despite all that we went for a short walk trying to choose those less attended areas. Many lamps with that subtle yellow light made the neighborhood look magical. The night came, Ola almost fell asleep in her stroller and happy of our day and night visit in Mdina we left the place.