Saturday, May 19, 2007

Mosta, Mdina and Rabat

May 18, 2007

Today on my way to Mosta, home of the famous dome, I met another Scottish couple. They seemed to be pleased that I knew the difference between Scotland and England. National identity seems to be quite a strong issue with the Scots. (And the husband mentioned that I might want to pretend to be Australian, since Americans aren't terribly popular in Europe at the moment.)

Mosta, as the guidebook says, is fairly nondescript except for the Dome. Unlike most churches with domes, which are built on the cross-like floor plan, and place the dome over the intersection of the two beams (if you will) of the building, the Mosta Dome is built like the Pantheon (the temple to "all the gods," from the reign of Augustus) in Rome--essentially a round building underneath the dome, with side chapels spoking off to the sides. This is a shot of the front of the church:

The twelve apostles flank the main entrance, six to each side, and apparently St. Andrew was the Cooper of the Apostles. Rather than being dressed in the formal sense, his mantle/robe was just sort of carelessly thrown around his mid-section. Maybe he was getting ready to take a dip in the Sea of Galilee. (Mosta's Bartholomew isn't a fashion-plate either, but his robe is at least draped across one shoulder.)

During World War II, a German bomb pierced the dome when about 300 parishioners were inside. The bomb hit, then skidded across the floor and came to a stop, never exploding. This is, needless to say, considered a miracle, and a replica of the bomb (quite a large one for the time) is on display in the gift shop. The church calendar shows the point where the bomb came through the dome, which may or may not be the retouched spot (if you can make it out) in this photo, about 45 degrees right of the peak of the dome, where the windows are.

From Mosta I went back to Mdina and Rabat, since they are just a few miles away. At a small cafe not far from Mdina's main gate, I bought a cup of tea and some potato chips, to supplement my tuna and applesauce, and sat outside to have my lunch. Then I headed down into Rabat to find St. Agatha's Catacombs. After buying a ticket, one is directed first to the Museum, which houses religious objects, coins, pots, Egyptian ushabtis, and artwork. Some of the items are clearly donated, but if most were found in Malta, then the Greeks must have had some kind of presence here, though most of what I have seen so far seems to go from the Carthaginians directly to the Romans. The Greeks founded a number of cities in Sicily, but they may have found Malta not worth the bother. I'm just not sure.

The catacombs are, of course, the main draw, not the Museum, some of which the L.V.Stockard girls (appearing alphabetically: Lou Ann, Melanie and Sheila) would have described as "tooky". The stairway/entrance down to the catacombs is in the plaza right outside the church, which was closed today. According to the brochure, visitors can only enter 1/10 of the catacombs, which cover more than 4000 square meters. They are interesting and creepy. There is a good bit of wall art--whether it's technically fresco or something else, I don't know. It's all damaged to some degree, but still colorful and impressive to see. The catacombs themselves go back as far as the 2nd century C.E/A.D., though much of the artwork was added later. From the main foyer, as it were, at the bottom of the stairs, one can see the main altar, only a few hundred years old, and another alcove, which has the look of a small chapel. The entrance to the open section of catacombs is to the right. One goes up a short set of stairs, and then starts winding down into the catacombs. Narrow walls, low ceilings, and open burial places characterize them. In some of them there are bones; whether original or replica, I don't know. Others are empty. There are small wall niches, perhaps for the burial of children or for ossuaries, as well as the longer "coffins" carved right out of the rock, judging by appearances. One winds around and down, from one "room" to another. At the end of the point that visitors are allowed to go is a small "church" cut into the rock. If one looks toward what I presume to be the front of this chapel, there is a carved alcove to one's back, with a restored decoration featuring doves and, according to the booklet, the Chi-Rho (the first two letters of Christ in Greek), though I wasn't sure what to look for to spot them. Or perhaps they are simply too damaged. Without the low lights in those winding hallways, one might wander lost for a long time. Definitely a claustrophobic sensation.

Next I went to St. Paul's Grotto, which is supposed to be the place that Paul lived while preaching for 3 months in Malta after being shipwrecked there. There is a small, rough cave, carved (like the catacombs) from the rock, where Paul is believed to have lived and where there is a statue of the apostle and a beautiful hanging lamp made of silver in the form of a sailing ship (commemorating the shipwreck and made in about 1980, I think the guide said). There is also a larger room featuring burials in the floor (as at St John's and the Mosta Dome) as well as small chapels or nooks with artwork, including an alabaster statue of St Paul, which is quite impressive, although its whiteness can be too close to the whiteness of the walls if one takes a photo with a flash! (I got a photo of it, though my program is, so far, refusing to download it, as with the Mdina cats. Some kind of glitch which happens for unknown reasons from time to time.)

I also visited the Domus Romana/Roman Villa museum, which is another Heritage Malta site. This museum contains and explains the ruins of a first century CE Roman villa which was later covered over by a Muslim cemetery. The most important features of the villa are several large statues, damaged to various degrees, and the remains of several quite beautiful mosaics. The statues are presumed to be of the Emperor Claudius (his statue is in the best condition) and his family, and this is taken to indicate that the family who lived in this villa had important government connections--perhaps this was even the home of the governor of Malta. There is apparently no written evidence, since the Museum's statements are all couched in conditional terms. The surviving mosaics are mostly geometric rather than representational, though there are some representations, perhaps most notably two maenads attacking a satyr. The most complete and beautiful floor features primarily a lozenge pattern which resembles an ascending or descending stack of cubes (like visual "tricks of the eye" and recalling M.C. Escher's art) which really does look three-dimensional the farther away from it one is. After going through the fairly small museum, one exits to the back, where stone remains of the rest of the villa have been exposed. You're not allowed to walk among these, however.

I then visited Mdina again, mostly just strolling around. Here is a photo of a doorway, which I'm thinking must be someone's house:

And here is a shot of some bouganvilea, not far from that same doorway:

I got off the bus back to Valletta near the cemetery in Floriana and took a longish walk back to the hotel from there, sort of reversing the walk I took on Wednesday. Along the way I found a street I have been wanting to see ever since I stumbled across it on the map a couple of days ago. It's only one block long, and only block off the main street that goes along one of the harbors, and can hardly help but be dear to an old English major:

Triq means street, and the cemetery attendant (whom I spoke with on Wednesday) told me that the q is not pronounced, but indicates a glottal stop. Most of the street names are given in Maltí, sometimes with English translation, sometimes not. One hears Maltí spoken all over the place, even though most folks also speak English quite well. I haven't quite figured out what the situation is. The English took over from Napoleon in either 1799 or 1800, so the English overlay is strong. Prior to Napoleon, who controlled the island for only a couple of years, there were the Knights who ran the place, and who came from many different countries with many different languages (although English was probably not prominent since England was principally Anglican beginning with Henry VIII). There were also two periods when the Muslims were in control of the island, and before that control was Roman/Byzantine all the way back to 218 B.C.E. Maltí is a form or derivative of Arabic, according to what I read, and yet I haven't gotten the impression that there is much of a Muslim religious presence. Catholic churches are everywhere. Somehow it seems that the language survived here, but the religion mostly did not. Maltí itself is written with the Roman alphabet, with some variations, and the Maltese accent is pronounced and quite different from what we consider an English accent. At times I have a great deal of difficulty understanding someone speaking English.

(I checked the phone book. There is one Islamic center listed; one "Jewish community"; a Baha'i group; and everything else is Christian, the huge majority of which is Catholic.)

Anyway, there are many monuments and commemorative plaques which are written in Maltí only, not in Maltí and English, or sometimes in Maltí and Latin, appropriate to the ecclesiastical history of the place. The tombstones of the Knights in the various churches, as well as those of the bishops, are of course in Latin.

The architecture is beautiful. Limestone is obviously plentiful here, and the buildings constructed of it are quite lovely. Facades have a Mediterranean look, and I wonder if this is something like what old Greek/British Alexandria in Egypt (or perhaps even Beirut) looked like a century ago.

I've seen quite a few school kids, and like in America, the high school students stand out more because of their dress and sense of style. They seem to be quite as style-conscious as American kids, and in many of the same ways: black hair with bleached highlights on both boys and girls; boys with their hair moussed up on top into the faux-hawk; pierced ears; and so on. The other day in Valletta, on the other hand, I walked through what seemed to be an elementary school bunch on field trip. They were in fairly serious uniforms--white shirts and the whole bit--and looked much like parochial school kids. Later that same day, I think, I saw some other kids also in uniform, but more of the American public school look--polo shirts in two colors, rather casual in appearance.


This evening, after I went out briefly for a walk (the wind is up and it's chilly again), I asked the cook in the little restaurant here in the hotel if it was possible to get a cup of tea. The hot water pot which is always on for breakfast (with tea bags and instant coffee to add to it) was turned off, and--as it turns out--the restaurant had actually already closed. But he took me back to the kitchen, put some water in a hot pot, and made me a cup of tea. And wouldn't let me pay for it either! The folks here are really nice.

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