Malta Diary Melos = Melita = Malta = Land of Honey and Busy Bees
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Where did the name ‘Malta’ come from and how did it originate? Historic research has established it was given its name by the Ancient Greeks who dubbed it ‘Melita’ from the Greek word ‘melos’ meaning honey. The Romans retained the name and St Luke in his description of St Paul’s shipwreck mentions the name as ‘Melita’ and the population as being ‘barbarian’ meaning they were not Latin but Semitic speaking.
Later, following the demise of the Roman Empire, Malta fell under the Arab Caliphate for 400 years and they renamed the island ‘Malta’ and that stuck ever since.
However, history also records the Phoenicians named the island ‘Maleth’, meaning a safe harbour.
To deepen mystery, the sister island of Gozo (in Maltese Ghawdex) also came from Greece named after the island of Gaudos, a small island off Crete. The mystery is that Ancient Greece did not have any great links to Malta and the Greeks were never actually in Malta, one of the few connections being that in ‘The Odyssey’. In this saga, the Greek hero Ulysses is said to have spent several years imprisoned in Gaudos by the Greek Goddess Calypso who fell in love with him and for many years refused to give him his liberty before relenting and allowing him to return to his family in Greece.
However, back to the origins that led to the island earning the name ‘Melita’. Malta, honey and bee-keeping are as old as the Ancient Greeks, which is how long honey has been cultivated in Malta and always considered to be a great delicacy, and still is.
Like olive oil and wheat, honey was always considered to be a major trading item, used as a currency that preceded coinage. History records that in Roman times, the scribe and orator Cicero accused the Roman Magistrate Gaius Verres of having stolen several jars of honey from Malta – a primary offence at the time, the equivalent of robbing a major bank. This was in the era when Malta fell under Roman domain and was administered by nearby Sicily.
Apis Mellifera Ruttneri is a sub-species of a honey bee that is endemic to Malta but today, sadly, has virtually disappeared with the introduction down the years of various Queen strains to bolster the numbers. Equally sadly, development encroachment on open countryside, pollution and insecticides are also taking their toll on Malta’s bee population.
Maltese honey has been considered a delicacy since the beginning of recorded history, considered a major barter item and a valuable export commodity. The industrious Phoenicians (circa 1500 BC) introduced apiaries, beekeeping and earthenware storage jars to Malta and the industry strengthened during the Punic period and then the Roman. The apiaries were carved out of rocks
Remnants of Punic and Roman apiaries are still very much evident around the islands. The Maltese (i.e. Arabic) word for apiary is ‘Miġbħa’ and their most prolific evidence is at a place appropriately called Imiġbħa’ in the Xemxija area of St Paul’s Bay.
Until the appearance of glass jars and commercialisation, honey was always stored in earthenware jars which were kept stored under carob trees in the fields to avoid their exposure to the scorching summer sun.
Naturally, everything has changed now. Beehives have replaced the stone apiaries and commercialisation has been prolific but sadly the honey has not remained pure and is subject to much blending. However, a jar of really pure Maltese honey will put the pocket back a bob or two!
On a weekly basis I am inserting a Maltese saying, expression or proverb and where possible precise English equivalents that will help give insight into the Maltese psyche.
“He quenched his thirst with a salty ham”
A sarcastic remark signifying he didn’t get what he wanted or was looking for. Expected to get a positive return but in fact received a negative answer.