To some of my regular readers, it comes as no surprise that in April I made the move from Sydney to London ostensibly to work. On my list of places to visit was Malta, a little island nation in the Mediterranean with a population of 400 000.
Flying in to Malta I was excited. I had always wanted to be met at an airport by someone holding a placard (sign) with my name on it. The Maltese Tourism Authority (MTA) had kindly arranged for a driver to meet me at the airport with a sign displaying my name. However, unseasonable rain and a car accident ensured that the driver was unable to show.
As a person who clings to omens like a Roman to his Toga, I wondered what this would mean for my Malta trip. Rain, no signs or placards and a delayed flight into Malta – would I struggle to find signs of Malta’s Byzantine (Medieval Greek) past. I had given myself 2 days to find evidence of Malta’s Byzantine history. And the signs weren’t looking good!
Malta is undoubtedly a jewel in the Mediterranean. Reminiscent of a Medieval Greek island (i.e. Rhodes) combined with modern comforts, this emerging EU member is a traveller’s delight. It is also a unique melting pot of influences from some of histories greatest civilizations – the Phoenicians, Carthaginian, Romans, Arabs, Normans, the Knights of St John, Spanish, British and of course the Byzantines. Interestingly, the Knights of St John also ruled the Greek island of Rhodes for a significant number of years.
Malta in the eyes of a Greek
Before I get to the Medieval Greek empire of Byzantium and its presence in Malta I should alert the reader to a remarkable aspect of Malta. It is home to a number of megalithic temples. These temples are older than the Pyramids, dating back to 4000 BC. This makes Malta home to the oldest freestanding buildings in Europe. I also heard a rumour from the locals that Malta could have been the home to the supposed ‘mythical’ kingdom of Atlantis – which in my opinion was in Santorini, but that’s a story for another day.
When you consider the ancient Greeks established numerous towns and villages in Sicily it is surprising that Malta, the immediate neighbour, was largely ignored. In fact there are no signs of the ancient Greeks making attempts at colonisation. Instead the Greeks of Sicily passed on the secrets of making olives, oil, cloth and honey which in Greek means ‘meli’ and may actually be the origin of Malta’s name (Melita). It was not until several centuries later that the Byzantines under the Thracian general Belisarius established a permanent presence in Malta. It is generally agreed by historians that Belisarius’ forces occupied Malta in 535AD about the same time northern Africa was reclaimed for the Empire. However, there are dispatches from Greek historian Precopius that could place the Byzantine fleet in Malta in 533AD.
Frustratingly, there are few signs of the Byzantine rule of Malta. In fact it receives little coverage from the medieval Greek writers, making it difficult to gauge the impact of Byzantium on Maltese history.
The Christians and the Church of Malta were invariably linked to that of the Holy See of Africa. When Africa was conquered by the Arabs in the late seventh century AD, Malta is then generally tied to or rather mentioned in conjunction with the Greek church of Sicily and also as a place of exile for dissidents from Constantinople.
There are signs (evidence) that by the start of the eighth century, the Byzantines were building fortress style towns such as Mdina (which I made a visit to) in anticipation of an Arab invasion. This eventually occurred in 870AD. The Byzantines were expelled after approximately 337 years in Malta, a relatively long reign compared to other foreign occupiers. The Byzantines returned years later to besiege Malta, though it ultimately proved unsuccessful.
The fall of Malta had a profound impact on Byzantium’s Mediterranean territories – by 902 AD all of Sicily was occupied by Arabs, as well as Sardinia and Corsica around the same time and by the late twelfth century Byzantine Italy was occupied by either Arabs or other foreign conquerors.
Considering the proximity of Malta to the Greek speaking Sicily, one wonders why the Greek language was not the main tongue of the locals. The Byzantines maintained rather small garrisons and whilst many of the clergy were Greek speakers there was never really a substantial Greek presence on the island. Although when the island fell in 870 AD, many of the locals fled to Greek speaking territories of the Byzantine Empire.
I have mentioned above a lack of Byzantine sites in Malta, however I was fortunate enough to visit the few that have been located or are currently under excavation.
After spending my first day in Malta enjoying the hospitality of the locals and relaxing by the sea, I spent the second touring Byzantine sites courtesy of a driver provided by the MTA. True to form I choose a time when most of the sites were closed.
St Paul Roman Villa
My driver took me to what was a secluded part of the small town of Milqi. In anticipation of my arrival, the Villa was shut. Thankfully my driver was able to locate the caretaker who allowed me access to the interior and the outer grounds.
The Villa was built by the Romans. Centuries later it was used extensively by the Byzantines and renovated accordingly. It was also the temporary home of Saint Paul who was shipwrecked off Malta in 58AD. I was also allowed access to the cellar where Byzantines made oil and wine.
In Rabat, which is literally a stone’s throw from medieval walls of Mdina, I found another Roman Villa and a museum. What interests us here is the mosaics that adorn the courtyard. The mosaics of the ‘Drinking Doves’ were painted in the Hellenistic period (the period following Alexander the Great’s death) most likely by Greeks. The design was copied from Sossos of Pergamum in Asia Minor. This particular mosaic was famous in the Hellenistic world and copies have been found in Alexandria, Anchialos, Delos, Ostia, Pompeii and Rome.
The Roman Villa of Rabat was transformed into a Hellenistic style of villa around the first century BC, taking on the colonnaded peristyle with 16 Doric columns to make it different to the Latin Vitruvian model.
Also in Rabat, there are a number of frescoes from the early Byzantine period at St Agatha’s catacombs.
The Greek Gate of Mdina
I was intrigued to locate the ‘Greek Gate’ – one of the entrances to the stunning medieval town of Mdina. The Arabs developed the town on what had been a Byzantine city. Certain aspects of the town’s fortifications are from the Byzantine period and are located near the ‘Greek Gate.’ Walking around the town it is easy to understand that the town would have a been focal point for the Byzantines against invading forces as it has a high vantage point with a view that extends for miles.
Tas – Silg
By the time we reached Tas – Silg via Marsaxlokk Bay, an idyllic sea side town, I had become firm friends with my driver. This friendship was put to the test during a time in the day usually reserved for siesta – he went out of his way to find the site known as Tas – Silg which is not properly sign posted. So after a drive around a deserted hill top, we came across a local who showed us exactly what Tas – Silg is. At this juncture in time it is sealed off to uninvited visitors such as myself which meant I had to peer over the wall to view the site that is being excavated.
There have been a few Byzantine finds at Tas – Silg including a number of Byzantine coins and it is hoped there will be more discoveries in the future.
Byzantine Lead Seal of Archon
In the archaeological museum on the island of Gozo you can view the Byzantine Seal of the governor Theophylactos, circa 750 – 850 AD. The Seal was used by the governor for official Byzantine business and duties.
Gozo is the second island of Malta and means ‘joy’ in Castillian (Spanish). Gozo is the island where Odysseus spent 7 years of his life under the spell of the nymph Calypso. Homer calls the island Ogygia. His description of a tranquil paradise may still ring true as there are a number of beaches and places to watch the sunset.
As a Greek myself it never ceases to amaze me how far the ancient Hellenes and the Byzantines spread their influence and culture. So in the end whilst there may not be an abundance of Byzantine sites, there actually are a number of signs of Byzantium’s Maltese heritage – I look forward to returning to Malta at some stage to discover more Byzantine sites.
A big thank you to the Maltese Tourism Authority for providing me with all the necessary support during my visit. The MTA impressed me no end with their expedient assistance and infectious enthusiasm for their fascinating country.