Is-Santwarju tal-Madonna tal-Herba

The Maltese are a busy bunch and almost each and every one of the 450,000+ islanders spends a lot of time driving along narrow roads which sprawl over every inch of the vastly urban landscape that covers the rock.

It’s a mysterious, impenetrable maze built out of new concrete and old limestone, and it holds many secrets.

Birkirkara is not one such secret. It’s a super massive town which the neurons in my brain connect to that local cathedral of sporting goods Eurosport, simply because when I do happen to be in Birkirkara it’s because I need to buy a new pair of football boots. But the last time I was there, I discovered something quite different from the latest Nike Mercurials: a quaint old chapel known as Is-Santwarju tal-Madonna tal-Herba.

While I advise the gentle reader not to trust my Maltese-English translation skills, ‘Herba’ means something similar to ‘destruction’. No one knows why the sanctuary is called this, though there are a number of legends which I shall not elaborate on because bizarre legends are a dime a dozen around these parts.

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Concealed in a dead-end alley close to the far larger St Helen’s Basilica (Santa Liena), the sanctuary is easy to miss. In 1575, it was already known as a place of worship though it wasn’t expressly referred to as Tal-Herba until later.

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The sanctuary, seemingly unimpressive from the outside, contains a number of treasures and interesting features, not least among them being this beautiful sculpture (above) done in the rococo style. I couldn’t find any information about who the sculptor was, but it is undoubtedly a work of art of the highest quality.

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Pride of place has been given to the above ‘thing’. It looks like one of those yellowing fake flower bouquets you’re likely to find in the storage room of the Manoel Theatre, but what it actually is (according to the friendly sacristan who’s more than happy to show people around) is a gift from Grand Master de La Valette. Churches and chapels all over the islands make boastful claims of this sort. It’s the old ‘my piece of the true cross is bigger than your piece of the true cross’ fixation. Whether it is true or not, objects such as these add character to such places of worship.

Elsewhere in the church, the sacristan took me into a rather splendid room with walls that were absolutely covered by ex voto paintings, the majority of which had a maritime theme.

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Ex voto paintings are paintings which are painted following a prayer as the fulfillment of a vow. Viewing them made me feel connected to the community of worshipers who found solace and comfort inside this sanctuary.  They represent their fears brought to life, but each of the hundreds of paintings tells the story of a loved one who came home or was saved, and the chamber is therefore a testament to the resounding sense of hope that the devotees found in their faith.

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The best feature of this church, however, was the sacristan. A pleasant, generous man who is willing to share his profound love of the church with anyone who shows an interest. Continue reading

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Armoury, Grandmaster’s Palace, Valletta.

Throughout history, the Maltese have often found themselves engulfed in the wars of foreign powers which over time have turned us into the warlike nation of hobbits we are today. In this more benign age, we are still constantly divided on matters of politics, sports and religion; and so, deep within the hoarding, bastion-clambering, church-going, saint-loving, football-obsessed, partisan-minded brain of the Maltese is a deep-rooted siege mentality which never really left our collective psyche.

We do love a good siege, especially the long, drawn-out, bloody variety. We love them because we’re good at them, and when we win a siege – which we invariably do – we don’t shut up about it, ever.

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Promotional billboard leading up to Malta vs Turkey football match, 2007.

The suit of armour, such as the one in the billboard shown above, is a powerful expression of the quasi-mythical Knights of St John, often described as ‘warrior monks’, who were given lordship over Malta in 1530 by Charles I of Spain in exchange for a yearly tribute which included a Maltese Falcon. These Knights hailed from some of the noblest families in Europe, and therefore could well afford to be clad in the finest armour, some of which is today housed at the Palace Armoury in Valletta. The collection gives us a unique glimpse into certain aspects of 16th, 17th and 18th century warfare.

Snapshot of the Gardens of the Presidential Palace

Snapshot of the Gardens of the Presidential Palace

The previous location of the armoury up until recently dated from the 18th century and the rebuilding of the Palace under the rule of Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonsesca (1741-1773). This armoury was described in the 60s as “one of the biggest single halls for housing armoury in existence”. Few armouries around Europe can boast of being housed in their original setting. Unfortunately, the decision was made to move the items on display to their current location, a process which (I’ve been told by reliable sources) led to quite a few items being lost (stolen) <facepalm>. What was originally the Armoury is now the hall where the Maltese parliament convenes. When it comes to Malta’s heritage, one quickly acquires the skill of drawing a line at past sins, and concentrating on the present.

My visit to the armoury proved to be fascinating, and some of the objects on display were truly remarkable. The items were contained within two halls, with no thematic distinction between the two that I could pick up on. All the exhibits were professionally presented, with many displayed in protective glass showcases. The audio guide that was included in the price functioned perfectly, and provided a commentary for the more significant objects on display. Some of the cannons had intricate designs on them, such as the one shown below which seems to bear some sort of coat of arms. I’m sure that each individual cannon had a story to tell, which wasn’t explained, but the richness of the cannon in the photograph below does indeed speak for itself. It speaks to us of glory, god and power – and a world where a hail of cannon fire was considered to be a more effective solution to a dispute than diplomacy.

‘Beautiful Cannon’, said no invader of Malta, ever.

‘Beautiful Cannon’, said no invader of Malta, ever.

One of the most interesting exhibits at the museum was the collection of Ottoman swords, armour and apparel, given pride of place in a very prominent and imposing showcase. The 16th century ottomans (generally referred to by the Maltese as it-Torok) are deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, though they are often caricaturised as in the carnival parata,which reduces the glorious and bloody violence of the great siege to a rather camp display of kids hopping about in circles, brandishing foil-covered cardboard swords.

Maltese parata; enough said.

Maltese parata.

The colourful silk fabric, wicked-looking curved swords and circular shields are apparently not far off the mark, though the reality was far more badass:

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Ottoman armour and weapons.

Much of the average Maltese person’s body of knowledge from this period is focussed on the knights. To see this ottoman armour and weaponry up close gives one a glimpse of a past culture whose destiny was interwoven with that of our land and ancestors. In all probability, whoever used these weapons and armour died a long way from home, on our shores fighting in the great siege. Their bodies have become a part of the fabric of our soil, and their stories a part of the fabric of our mythology. Maybe I’m over-thinking things but these are the sort of thoughts that resonate so deeply with me, and make museums (to my mind) such important places for our culture and society.

Beyond the impressive ottoman armour display and elaborate cannons were numerous showcases displaying equally fascinating objects. I was very disappointed to have missed out on the opportunity of seeing a breast plate that was worn by none other than La Vallette – (or de Vallette, or de la Vallette – no one seems to be sure) – as this was temporarily being displayed at the Museum of Archaeology, but there were plenty of other objects which made up for this:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but a long sword in the hands of a trained swordsman will decapitate me with a single swipe.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but a long sword in the hands of a trained swordsman will decapitate me with a single swipe.

‘The best a man can get.’

‘The best a man can get.’

According to the descriptions, these swords were used in the great siege, and are to my mind among the most enduring symbols of Medieval Christian warrior knights. I’ve always found it strange how ottoman swords differ so greatly from their Christian counterparts. I recall reading an apocryphal tale about a meeting in the desert between King Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. The two monarchs were comparing their swords (as men do), whereupon to show off his blade’s superiority, Richard called for a mace to be placed before him. He drew his sword and with a mighty swing split the iron handle of the mace in two. Saladin, seemingly unimpressed, drew from his pocket a silk handkerchief, which he nonchalantly tossed up into the hot desert breeze. Before the fluttering handkerchief had time to settle onto the sand, Saladin’s sword was drawn and with a quick flourish had sliced through the silken cloth. Thus, the characters of the two blades were aptly illustrated, and it was agreed that the size of a sword isn’t as important as how you use it.

Beyond the undoubted richness of the exhibited items themselves and the professional way in which they were presented, I feel that more effort could be put towards establishing the objects within a narrative, with key moments such as the Knights’ expulsion from Rhodes, the Great Siege and the arrival of the French clearly explained (preferably through audio-visual means), but if that’s not possible, then placards similar to the one shown below would suffice.

Placard which greets visitor on entering Armoury.

Placard which greets visitor on entering Armoury.

Creativity is not necessarily a quality most people would associate with museum curation, but in fact, modern museums are constantly on the lookout for ways and means of giving their visitors exciting and interactive experiences. In light of the notoriously poor budgets afforded to Maltese museums, a little must be made to go a long way, and the exhibit shown in the photograph below is a wonderful example. Two stone weights placed in front of the exhibit allow the visitor to feel the difference in weight between the two cannon balls. It’s simple but effective. I doubt whether a single person walked past this exhibit without curiously comparing the different weights. Humans love touching things, picking them up, examining them, poking them, and constantly staring at objects through glass can be frustrating.

Difference in weight between lead and stone.

Difference in weight between lead and stone.

In my opinion, the more bells and whistles a museum has, the better – for instance, another addition which could be added to the Armoury might be a small screen with a basic animation or slideshow showing how cannon is loaded and fired. I’m full of great ideas like that. All in all, however, I was pleased with the Malta Palace Armoury and thought that it did justice to the warrior legacy of the order. The fanatical patriot in me would like to see more than just two rooms devoted to weaponry. If one considers this rendering of the original armoury by Brockdorf in the 19th century, one can safely assume that the armoury has been slightly whittled down over the years.

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F. Brockdorff: A general view of the Armoury (19th century watercolour).

 Sir Guy Francis Laking wrote up the first inventory of the armoury in 1927 – and even then, a lack of detail in the object descriptions means we are not totally sure of whether objects were lost since 1927, particularly during the 1974 transfer. Most looting was done by Napoleon’s troops during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

However, there’s no real need for such bleak ponderings as the Armoury is today still a jewel of Maltese heritage that I would recommend to anyone. If medieval battlefield paraphernalia is what gets you off, then you’ll love this museum. If you’re an Iron Man fan, you might also be interested, but mostly, if you’re fascinated by the military might of the Order of the Knights of St John, then plan a visit to the Palace Armoury as soon as you possibly can.

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Malta Maritime Museum, Birgu

Malta, a tiny island located between the Italian peninsula and North Africa, is drenched in a rich and varied Maritime tradition.  If one were to pin labels onto a timeline of Malta, most would in some way be related to the islands’ sea-locked identity: the arrival of the first settlers in prehistoric times, the use of its harbours as Phoenician trading hubs, its transformation under the knights of St John into a bastion of Catholicism from which sea raids were launched against the enemy, its colonial role when it earned the moniker ‘island fortress’ and served as the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet – you name it; the sea is a fundamental part of our identity. In light of this, one would be forgiven for assuming that the Malta Maritime Museum would be something special, so with this in mind, I set off on a sunny Sunday afternoon to visit it.

I walked towards the museum through Birgu’s ancient alleyways. Somewhere in the vicinity, an enactment of some battle or other was taking place, (tourists have money burning in their pockets and are notorious suckers for grown men in period costumes). I was struck by how intimidating and savage the sound of gunfire was, and it gave me a sense of the terror that ancient defenders of the very city in which I was walking must have felt. It’s always a pleasure to walk through Birgu and I feel the city is admirably suited to house the museum. The price of a ticket at the Maritime Museum is five euros per adult.

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Man walking along a Birgu alleyway.

Starting off the tour is a dead-end corridor with (amongst other objects) impressive Punic and Roman stone anchors, including the largest Roman anchor ever found.

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Section containing Punic and Roman items.

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Largest Roman anchor ever found (weighing more than 4 tons).

There were questions in my head at this point –Why not start the exhibition by giving the visitor an idea of how prehistoric people travelled to and fro, between Malta and Sicily, trading goods and acquiring precious items and valuable commodities such as red ochre and obsidian? Once a chronological approach to the museum’s layout has been adopted, then prehistory might be the place to start. The corridor was interesting though, so I wandered back in cheerful spirits, and wasn’t grumbling too much at this point. In fact, I was eager for what was to come.

I left the dead-end corridor and found myself staring at something that looked suspiciously like an internal combustion engine. Evidently, a few minutes into my visit I was already lost. I’ve lived on a tiny island my whole life, and I’m still hopelessly dependent on a GPS to get around (I don’t even care, I find it hilarious when I get lost), so I put the oddness of this down to my hopeless sense of direction. Below shows the point at which I got confused.

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Took a wrong turning at the stone anchor.

The receptionist soon set me straight and directed me upstairs. If you like models of boats and pictures of ships, you’ll love this museum. They have models and paintings in vast abundance, in every nook and cranny. I wandered past quite a few of them before I found myself staring at a photograph of a tapestry depicting the Conquest of the Sea Fortress of La Goletta.

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Photograph depicting conquest of Sea Fortress of La Goletta.

The museum map provided confirmed that I was standing in the Knights’ section. Museums usually give one a sense of travelling through time, but this felt more like hurtling through time on a jet ski, and my journey thus far was rather shuddery and bumpy, but on the bright side, I was standing in the Knights’ section! I think most Maltese people are obsessed with the Knights of St John, and I’m no exception, and indeed my favourite item in the whole museum was to be found here. It’s an iron chest that might easily have been nicked from the Game of Thrones’ prop department.

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Iron chest requiring three separate keys to open.

Other (more subtle but no less interesting) objects could also be found in this section, including a collection of dice fashioned out of bone. Gambling was against the rules aboard ship, so sailors would carve their own dice on board, and once the ship returned to harbour, they would toss any incriminating evidence overboard. These dice were recently retrieved following harbour dredging.

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‘Are you sure you carved this die properly? I keep losing.’

This marble waterspout, which was used to fill ships with fresh water, was also quite unique. It used to project from below the wall of the old fish market. Around its mouth is the Latin inscription which states the following: “Why are you afraid small boat? There is no fire here, and water in place of shot.” The inscription proves that even sombre Christian warrior monks had a sense of humour.

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The Knights’ version of the supersoaker.

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In spite of these remarkable and wonderful objects, there is significant room for improvement in the way the exhibitions are organised and presented. I feel like a stricter chronological sequencing of the visitors’ passage through the museum would improve things considerably. Often times the connection between the exhibit and the period under scrutiny is unclear and left unexplained, and there seems to be a lack of a coordinated and organized effort to give the visitor a sense of Malta’s evolving role as a Maritime entity. The impression that came across was one of a collection rather than a museum – a collection of things connected in some way to the Knights (however tenuous that connection is). It was as though the visitor was assumed to have an in-depth knowledge of Malta’s history.

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A painting.

The single most abhorrent thing about the museum, however, was the English used in the PC-printed bits of paper that were placed beside the objects, but also the descriptions on the placards. Virtually every bit of written English in the museum could be improved. It’s as though someone was being forced to type English at gun point.

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… ‘ a French armada invested the Maltese Islands.’

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Some kind soul has corrected this one.

Poor quality English was wide-spread at the museum. I feel like there is no excuse for this – it doesn’t take much money to write and correct descriptions, especially since many of the write-ups were printed on computer paper.

On a positive note, I did like certain features in the museum that tried to give the visitor a more interactive learning experience. This is something which I always relish when visiting museums abroad. For instance, I recall a visit to the maritime museum in London where I was able to use some navigational instruments in relation to dots around a room (representing stars and planets) in order to simulate navigation. In the London War Museum, I was able to sit inside an actual portable WWII bomb shelter that was distributed extensively in wartime London. In the Malta Maritime museum there were similar efforts to give the visitor a realistic hands-on experience. For instance, on one occasion I walked into an interesting section of a wooden ship with a cannon poking out through the gun port.

It was fun to walk through it and wave at a confused German tourist through the window (probably wandering what section she was in), and hear the wooden floorboards creak beneath my boots; 10 points for effort. At another point during my walk through the museum I came across a beautiful sea-themed bar which appeared out of nowhere. As a Maltese national, I’m assuming this was a recreation of a typical bar which used to be found in the infamous Strait Street, which catered for sailors (mostly British). There was no attempt to explain this and to place the bar within the context of its section; but again, the bar in and of itself is beautifully presented.

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Cute.

Overall I found the Royal Navy Hall particularly boring, mostly because it was far too reliant on huge placards densely packed with poorly written English accompanying the odd photograph.

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Lots of text accompanying a rather sorry-looking cannon.

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The widespread annihilation of envelopes means we know absolutely nothing about the mysterious Post War.

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Just a few paintings and photographs are all that remain of Malta’s wartime legacy. NB: The WWII painting is of the HMS Revenge dated 1930.

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What on earth is this? (no info)

Of course, while I’m sure the curator and all those who (like myself) would love to have a Maritime museum that reflects our vast heritage, I understand that there are serious limitations that hinder this – foremost among these are budgetary issues, but equally worrying is the deep lack of interest prevalent among the Maltese. Most Maltese people would never consider a visit to a local museum as being a suitable way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and there is a perception that museums function primarily as tourist attractions – or as an effective means of shoving culture down students’ throats. Our museums deserve greater respect, and our maritime legacy deserves a better interpretation than what this museum currently offers.

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