Gargoyles & Gifts in Malta

What if a demon were to creep after you one night,
in your loneliest loneliness, and say,
“This life which you live must be lived by you
once again and innumerable times more,
and every pain and joy and thought and sigh
must come again to you, all in the same sequence.”
Would you throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse that demon?
Or would you answer, “Never have I heard anything more divine?”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900

Valletta, Malta

To the score of ringing church bells on a Sunday morning in Malta, I walked through a small leafy park to a marble 16th century gardiola jutting out from a promontory overlooking the water.  The tower was adorned with sculpted ears and eyes signaling a watchful presence high above Valletta’s historic Grand Harbor.   The sentry post was just one small detail in a swath of architectural handiwork that stretched along the graceful curves of the waterline, constructed by the medieval Knights of St. John.  Graduated tiers of golden stone rose from the shore, defensive curtain walls that connect the forts of St. Angelo, St. Elmo, and Ricasoli and protectively encircle the villages within.

The Knights of St. John were a long-time presence on Malta, one that continues to loom large today—they make regular appearances in every day conversation with locals.  A religious order formed during the times of the Crusades in the 11th century, the Knights were given Malta as a home in 1530 by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, for the rent of two falcons a year.

Early in their 265-year reign of the island, the Knights established the adjoining “Three Cities” of Senglea, Cospicua and Vittoriosa along the southern coast of Grand Harbor.  After a horrific 1565 battle with invading Turks that involved decapitated heads being fired as cannon balls, the Knights built the highly fortified Valletta across the Grand Harbor, on the Sciberras Peninsula.  At 1,800 feet by 3,000 feet, Valletta is Europe’s tiniest capital.

From the park, I headed down to the waterfront, descending one flight after another of steep steps carved into the rocky headland, snaking my way through the tightly-packed neighborhood.  The sun-bleached, peeling exteriors of the ancient structures were offset with splashes of color–potted asparagus ferns lined a section of stairs, pink sheets flapped on a clothesline, and a fierce-looking gargoyle coiled from the corner of a  building’s façade.  I spied a toddler on a balcony above, hugging a shaggy long-haired cat as big as she and, across the way, a brooding, muscular man, smoking a cigarette.  Passing an open door, a spicy scent wafted by, and I heard what sounded like a well-practiced argument between the elderly couple inside.

Emerging from this compact universe to the harbor, I was drawn toward a small flotilla of graceful and brightly-painted boats bobbing in the clear azure water.   From among them, boatman Carmen Farrugia called a welcome and I boarded his dghajsa, (pronounced dye-sa) to enjoy the view from the water.  As we glided about the harbor, he taught me about the type of craft he skippered, a passenger boat that sits low in the water, akin to a gondola.

The dghajsa passenger boat is double-ended, with a high fore stem, called a rota in Maltese.  The shape of its rota developed for two reasons, both related to its usage.   First, the height provides space for the boat’s registration number, which, as a passenger vehicle, needs to be visible to port authorities.  And second, it gives the boatman a place to hold the boat steady when he brings passengers ashore, while taking the fare with his other.

The dghajsa’s backrests are called spallieri, and generally display a glazed oval in the center that depicts a British symbol, such as a lion, St. George, or the Brittania. This practice speaks to Britain’s long-standing presence in Malta, which they ruled from 1814 – 1964, and the economic reliance of the Maltese dghajsa boatmen on the English, who they long considered the source of their daily income.

There were some concerns that the dghajsa would not survive the British withdrawal from Malta in 1979, when the island country became totally independent.  In fact, tourism has ensured that the crafts have not only survived but thrive, as a popular means of getting around the Three Cities.

Carmen pointed out sights such as ancient Fort St. Angelo at the tip of Vittoriosa, and the 21st century Mediterranean Film Studios beyond it, where water scenes from The Spy Who Loved Me and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were shot.   He told me that after a stint in the Navy, he had emigrated to Canada 42 years ago when he was 24, but came back after a year.  During my visit, I met many Maltese who had worked abroad but returned home.

“Now, I go to church every morning and pray for beer and bread,” Carmen said with a smile, as we ended my tour at the Vittoriosa embankment in front of the Maritime Museum.  “That need is met by taking people for a ride, like this.”

The Museum resides in what had been the British Navy’s bakery.  Built in 1842, its exterior was inspired by England’s Windsor Castle.  Inside, it now offers a well-documented look at Malta’s long history on the water.  Joe Abela is the Museum’s ship model maker and restorer.

One of Joe’s primary resources in understanding the structures and color schemes of historic vessels is “ex voto” paintings, commissioned by sailors after surviving a turbulent storm as offerings to the Madonna or other figures central to the Catholic faith of the Maltese.  The Maritime Museum displays one such painting, originally from the village of Qala, on the neighboring island of Gozo.  In Malti, a Semitic language that reflects the influence of the country’s two centuries under Arab rule, Qala means “sail.”  The local proverb Ghandu r-rih fil-qala refers to the ‘wind blowing the sails,’ meaning someone has luck on his side when performing a task.

I look back on my time in Malta with great fondness, as perhaps the first time in my life when I felt with great certainty that the wind was indeed at my back, and that I was under the protection of some kind of Providence.  It was the furthest I had ever travelled alone, and when I had embarked on the journey, my terminally ill mother was just emerging from the grips of a pernicious infection.

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