MALTA DIARY: Mdina – an oasis of peace amidst a sea of clamour – the Silent City
My brother Edward is just back from Munich and Salzburg and is lamenting on the contrast between the relative peace and tranquillity of these two cities as compared to the noise, rowdiness, traffic and hustle and bustle of Malta!
Malta undoubtedly takes some getting used to and those that treasure tranquillity would be better off staying in Gozo and making occasional trips to Malta where the vast contrast is immediately apparent.
Remember, Malta is a Central Mediterranean country and it’s small. Traffic is jam-packed and never-ending; Mediterranean people are boisterous, speak in loud tones, appear to be arguing all the time (not so, but the Semitic guttural tone gives you that impression), music is high decibel, being quick-tempered and highly strung is par for the course and one has to be prepared for all this.
Yet, amidst this sea of clamour, Malta has a golden “Silent City” where normally you can hear a pin drop. This is the minute city of Mdina in the country’s northern region, with a population of just under 300 people, a stone’s throw away from the larger town of Rabat, both place names obviously denoted by their Arabic influence.
Its origins go back to 800 BC when the Phoenicians first landed in Malta. Their settling in this area is highly unusual for sea-farers preferring to be close to their boats at sea. However, the district has a long tradition of art and crafts and was therefore a lucrative trading depot. Additionally, they settled on the crest of a hill – one of Malta’s highest considering the few small hills in the northern region – but high enough to get a virtual total view of the island and with the obvious advantages that brings.
They called the small city “Maleth” and when eventually the islands fell into Roman hands it was renamed“Melite” in line with the Greek word melitte for honey, the origins of Malta’s name as a whole. When Malta fell into Arab hands, the city was again renamed, this time “Madinah” to match the holy Islamic city of Medina and eventually became Mdina.
The city grew in importance – if not in size because although since the Phoenicians it had grown slightly, the Arabs once more shrank its size! – and became regarded as the island’s capital and when the Arabs left and Malta reverted to Latin connections, it became known as “Citta Notabile” (the noble city) and also became known as “Civita Vecchia” (the old city). Whether the Arabs were responsible for the shrinkage is a matter of debate, one theory being they wanted it to be easier to defend, another theory being that after the Arabs left it was reduced and became highly fortified to prevent Arab and later Ottoman invasions.
Mdina became the desired residence of much of Malta’s nobility (hence its elegance) and when the Knights finally assumed responsibility for Malta in the early 16th Century, they first chose Vittoriosa as their capital but then transferred to Mdina and there followed long periods of litigation between the noble families and the Knights, both aspiring to be ‘the big boss’.
Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valetta put an end to this nonsense when following success during the Great Siege of 1565 he decided that Malta needed a capital city on an easily defended shoreline and hence the birth of Valletta which since then became Malta’s capital city.
Mdina itself is a treasure of baroque structures with its silent and tranquil narrow lanes overawed by the magnificence of many of the larger buildings resided in by the rich and noble.
Very wisely, a number of years ago the Malta Government decreed that traffic and noise is to be totally banned from Mdina. Traffic is not permitted to enter unless for emergency reasons (i.e. ambulance, police, fire engine), residents are permitted very limited parking and the only traffic is the horse-drawn karozzin. In addition a great ban was placed on too many opening of shops and establishments such as restaurants and bars, souvenir shops and other tourist attractions.
Nevertheless, besides the tranquillity and peace, the visual and historic beauties remain outstanding, dominated by Malta’s main cathedral dedicated aptly enough to St Paul. There are a number of magnificent palazzos, the Palazzo Vilhena now the National Museum of Natural History, Palazzo Falson, Palazzo Costanzo and the Palazzo Gatto Murina.
Besides the Cathedral, for good measure, Mdina also has St Agatha’s Chapel (strains of Catania in Sicily), St Nicholas’s Chapel, the Carmelite Church and convent for cloistered nuns (an austere and prohibitive looking building) and the Benedictine Monastery.
Certainly worth a visit if you are in Malta or Gozo. It has an amazing history for such a small city and a get-away refuge from the general noise and rowdiness where the only noise is the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves and the generally hushed whispers of residents and tourists.