Tag Archives: Malta
Rain is rare in Malta. For most of the year, the archipelago is a cloudless, sunny idyll for vacationers. But since I like to photograph public spaces before they fill with people, I woke early morning and walked to Saint George Square. Valletta wasn’t awake yet, and I had the square to myself. It rained during the night, leaving the square largely a mirror of the surrounding architecture.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but the lovely square was once used as a car park for members of the House of Representatives. But fortunately, someone realized that this square, at the very center of Valletta, had a nobler calling. These days, it’s adorned with a fountain whose jets of water are in time with classical music. When the sun is up, children will dart in and about those streams of water as sunlight dances off their hair.
It’s such a rarity to see Valletta drenched in rain that I decided to try and capture the Grand Masters Palace reflected in the tiles of Saint George Square. To do this, I had to lower my tripod nearly to ground level. Then I used a panoramic technique to try and exaggerate the feeling of the place, the wide open square devoid of people. At this hour of the day, the square couldn’t be lovelier.
Though the Knights Templar may be the more famous, the St. John’s Knights, or the Knights Hospitaller, were an equally formidable military order.
Originally formed to treat the wounded and infirm, the Knights became an order of warrior-monks, and spent much of their early history fighting the anti-christian forces in Jerusalem and Holy Land. Among the Knights Hospitaller, Jean de Valette, Grand Master, soon emerged as a stalwart defender of Christianity, defeating Ottoman forces in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.
As a result of that victory, de Valette became a beloved figure in Europe, and was offered the position of cardinal. He refused the offer, ostensibly because of both his modesty and his desire to be free from the papacy. Instead, he began the construction of a new city in 1566, reportedly laying the first stone himself. The new city was to be called Valletta and was located near Mount Sciberas, where much of the Ottoman army fought and died. De Valette would never live to see the completion of the city that bears his name, however; he suffered a stroke and died in 1568. The warrior remains here, entombed in a sarcophagus in St. John’s Co-Cathedral in the city he founded.
I wanted to see the city as de Valette and his Crusaders would have seen it, the ancient stronghold they held for nearly three hundred years. I woke early one morning, intending to see Valletta before the modern city came to life. The sun was breaking over dense clouds, and the effect was striking. Even at this hour, it was impossible to capture the city without cars and other evidence of modern life, but I felt that with the clouds forming an ethereal backdrop for its ancient architecture, Valletta must look for me much the way it appeared when it was a Crusader stronghold.
From 1530 until Napoleon’s arrival in 1798, Malta was under the control of the Order of St. John, or the Military Knights Hospitaller, an order founded to care for religious pilgrims and the infirm. In time, however, they joined their Crusader brethren in fighting, and the island remained a Crusader state long after other military orders lost their strongholds.
I think of this as I take in an evening view from the top of the Hotel Juliani. There’s so much history in such a small part of the world. Its location in the Mediterranean has made Malta a crossroads of sorts between European, Middle Eastern, and North African cultures, and like many of the world’s crossroads, its history has often been one of invasion and conquest. Invaded by Arabs and Normans and bombed by Axis forces during World War II, the island now faces a different kind of invasion — tourists.
From my vantage point on top of the hotel, my head swims a bit at the thought of such a long and storied history. Looking out over the curiously-shaped Spinola Bay, I was struck by the juxtaposition of Malta’s long history with its modern incarnation. It was dawn, St. Julian’s was beginning to come to life, and the city’s skyline was streaked with the headlights of passing cars. I found a spot that allowed me to capture the unusual curve of the bay, and framed the shot to catch as much of Malta’s past and present as one photograph would allow.
Looking at the beautiful Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, it’s difficult to imagine that Malta was once the province of Crusaders, the last one, in fact, and the most impregnable bastion of Christianity in the Mediterranean.
The St. John Knights, in return for fighting anti-christian forces, were given the island by Charles V in perpetuity as long as one condition was met — they were to send him a falcon once a year. They held the island for nearly three hundred years, until overwhelmed by Napoleon’s forces.
The church, perched above a series of steps leading to Balluta Bay, exists in the written record as far back as 1601, when a visiting bishop recorded that it was built in 1580. But that was simply a church on the same site; the present-day structure has been rebuilt or enlarged three times since the 1800s. The most recent incarnation, a striking Latin construction, was completed in 1958.
The church would be striking in any environment; in St. Julian’s — which is really just a fishing village at heart — it’s breathtaking. I struggled to find just the right angle to capture it. Ultimately, I settled on photographing it from the vantage point of a gentle curve in the steps, which focuses the eye on the church and the glittering reflection of the lights of St. Julian’s in the bay.