Awhile back (OK, like six months ago), one of my favorite websites, Slate.com, ran a series on the tiny island of Malta, and I found it fascinating. I just reread it. I love, love, love reading about little, out of the way, history-filled places I will probably never visit.
(Slate’s Well-Traveled column often covers what can only be called obscure countries. They recently posted another series about tiny European countries like Andorra and San Marino. Who’s even heard of San Marino? Certainly not me…well, at least until I read that series.)
A tiny island – only slightly larger than Martha’s Vineyard, according to Slate – at the center of the Mediterranean, Malta has an ancient, bloody and religious history, complete with a series of megalithic temples that predate the Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge. The Bible’s Acts of the Apostles even claims that Saint Paul was actually shipwrecked on the island, whereas Malta’s smaller, sister island, Gozo, claims to be the island on which Odysseus was waylaid by Calypso. The island is also home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites, with another seven sites under consideration.
Civilizations and countries from the Phoenicians to the British to the French under Napoleon to Nazi Germany fought for control of the strategically important island for millennia, and Malta finally gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. Knights of the Order of St. John also famously and fiercely defended Malta against the Turks in 1565.
The dramatic story is worth quoting from the second installment of the series:
“Some 500 knights, together with about 5,000 mercenaries and native Maltese, would have to defend the island from 22,000 Turks. It didn’t look good. The ensuing siege was bitter, even by 16th-century standards. The Turks decapitated and crucified captured knights; the knights retaliated by decapitating Turks and firing their skulls from their cannons. But thanks to the savvy leadership of the septuagenarian knight Jean Parisot de la Vallette —and thanks to some very good luck—the knights managed to keep the Turks from scoring a decisive victory. With the rough seas of winter bearing down on them, the Turkish fleet returned to Istanbul empty-handed. Christendom had been saved.”
The writer, who is never actually named, went on to say that Malta is a bit…tacky, I suppose would be the best word, but the photos of the capital, Valletta, that run with the series reveal a charming, slightly tired Medieval and ancient city.
If I remember correctly, Malta was also the place where Queen Elizabeth II spent some of the happiest years of her life when Prince Phillip was stationed there for the British Navy.
I looked up the airfare and, surprisingly, it doesn’t cost much more than what I paid to go to Florence last year. Still, I don’t have an extra $1,543.40 lying around at the moment so I won’t be going any time soon. And it’s not as though I don’t already have enough cities and countries on my bucket list.