Monday, May 31, 2010

a remote culture

On a Sunday morning the Churches are full and the streets are empty. Walk past any church and you will hear the parishioners worshipping ‘Alla’. Songs of worship sung in the Semitic mother tongue sound like they should be echoing through a mosque rather than a church. 

After church it’s family and food - and so the trinity of tradition is reinforced every Sunday. Extended families congregate at their grandmother’s house, on this sacred day she is in her full matriarchal role – the mother of mothers, the provider of food. Lunch starts with a serving of ‘timpana’, pasta baked in pastry, rich in sauce, meat, eggs and Parmesan and sliced like a pie. This is followed by roast meat served with potatoes, vegetables and thick slices of crusty bread to dip in the gravy. For desert a selection of almond cakes and homemade liqueur. These Sunday rituals are leftovers of Malta’s history.

It is said that Malta was once a ridge that rose out of the land connecting Europe to North Africa - from Italy through Sicily, Malta and Tunisia, dividing what is now the Mediterranean Sea into two great lakes. The ridge, Malta, would have been the perfect vantage point from which to watch the great flood that transformed it into an island. The Atlantic Ocean roared into the western lake, swallowing up the land that connected Morocco to Spain and so forming the Straits of Gibraltar. It rolled on, engulfing the land bridge that connected Tunisia to Italy, isolating Malta and joining the two lakes to form the Mediterranean Sea.

Once the ridge became an island and the lakes a sea, Malta became the stepping-stone at the centre of all journeys across the Mediterranean. The island’s location shaped its story more than any other factor – it is the greatest asset of this otherwise dry rock. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Knights of St. John, French and British took the island and left their mark on the land, its inhabitants, their genetic make-up and culture.

Idiosyncrasies inherent in the Maltese culture are expressed through the local love of flags. All over the island they adorn the flat rooftops; the yellow and white Vatican City colours fluttering alongside an English Football flag. A Maltese one of red and white, with the George Cross stamped on it, flying by an Italian one. During a village’s feast, its rooftops are covered with images of its patron saint being martyred. Homage is paid to numerous cultures, resulting in a people that can relate to so many others but never in their entirety; a Maltese can laugh at a British joke, argue with a Sicilian and barter in any North African market – and on each occasion in the other person’s native tongue. As with the courses served in the Sunday dinner, this small place is layered with different influences; the eye of Osiris - the Phoenician God of protection against evil - painted on the prow of fishing boats, citrus trees brought by the Arabs, Roman Aqueducts and red pillar boxes.

Whoever happened to hold the island in their possession knew that they would have to fight to keep it. Malta, named ‘the island fortress’ by King George is so full of fortifications that it is like a museum on the art of defence. Arab citadels are strategically positioned on the highest hills, surrounded by deep moats and thick bastions. Valletta, built by the Knights of St. John, was to be the unconquerable city; a hilly peninsula surrounded by fortified harbours, moats and ramparts. The city’s pavements are covered in low steps so that knights in heavy armour can walk up them. It was connected to the rest of the island by a series of towers built along the coast, within line of sight of each other, to serve as lookout points and to relay warning signals to the city. Pillboxes and anti-aircraft batteries built later by the British surround the towers, testimony to the knights strategic positioning.

Such layering of style is not confined to fortifications. All over the island buildings from different eras stand alongside each other. Yet when inspected closely they are the same. The differences expressed in the designs are very slight; they are differences in form, differences in surface decoration, differences in proportion, unified by the yellow limestone that they are built from. Every church, catacomb, library, fortress, be it British, Roman, Arab or French is made of this damp, flaky rock. 
This is Globigerina limestone. For a long time it was the only building material available in Malta. It is formed by the accumulation of organic matter at the bottom of the sea, layer upon layer – like the stratified history of the island. The Limestone can be carved up to form any architecture imaginable that speaks of other cultures and distant places, but it is innately Maltese.

The horizontal grooves weathered into the surface of Dingli Cliffs are not only a clue to the geology of the island, but a poetic representation of its history and culture. Similarly the weather beaten bastions that surround the capital city talk of the true nature of this place. Some parts of the limestone dissolve and others harden through exposure to the elements. Malta seems to be shaped by so many outsiders, but like the rock, all the layers of influence have been subject to erosion. Some parts purposely left to dissolve away and others chosen to stand out in relief – to be strengthened by exposure.