Malta is a trea­sure store of an­tiq­ui­ties, writes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

RA John Cre­tien is not every­one’s idea of a knight al­though he is cus­to­dian of a cas­tle. The chain-smok­ing, suave, ex-English teacher from Pisa — im­pec­ca­ble shoes and jumper slung ca­su­ally around the shoul­ders, Ital­ian-style — is a pro­fessed knight of the Cru­sader hospi­taller Sov­er­eign Or­der of St John of Jerusalem. As the cus­to­dian of Fort St An­gelo in Val­letta, Malta, Cre­tien has the for­mi­da­ble task of pre­serv­ing and restor­ing one of the world’s great her­itage sites.

The fort, in a com­mand­ing po­si­tion at the har­bour’s en­trance over­look­ing the mag­nif­i­cent panorama of the for­ti­fied city, is still owned by the knights of Malta and has em­bassy sta­tus. Cre­tien plans on giv­ing it a 21stcen­tury func­tion.

Grind­ing out yet an­other cig­a­rette on the an­cient bat­tle­ments, he ca­su­ally re­marks he is con­sid­er­ing a plan to con­vert part of it into re­tire­ment units for old knights or per­haps a spa for the Euro-rich who moor their yachts in the walled seclu­sion of Val­letta har­bour.

Any­way, what­ever we do with St An­gelo, it must be in keep­ing with the char­i­ta­ble spirit of the or­der, which has mor­phed into a huge in­ter­na­tional aid or­gan­i­sa­tion, and hope­fully make a bit of money for our present-day work,’’ he says.

Some of the Aus­tralian lay knights who have ac­com­pa­nied me on the climb to the bas­tion look faintly ap­palled. The knights built Val­letta in 1530 af­ter their ex­pul­sion from Rhodes and it was from the bat­tle­ments of St An­gelo that they fa­mously re­pelled the Turk­ish in­va­sion fleet. In fact, orig­i­nally they were re­luc­tant to ad­min­is­ter Malta, de­scrib­ing it as a bar­ren rocky place, with a bad wa­ter sup­ply and peo­ple who spoke a form of Ara­bic.

The city is per­me­ated with the knights’ pres­ence. The mas­sive for­ti­fi­ca­tions sur­round the har­bour and even over­hang the swim­ming pool at the mar­vel­lously gen­teel Phoeni­cia Ho­tel. Built in 1939 to house vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries and re­opened as a ho­tel af­ter World War II, the Phoeni­cia, with its wrought-iron bal­conies and ter­raced gar­dens, is that rare thing th­ese days: a ho­tel with a feel of place.

In the baroque palaces of Val­letta, the dour faces of knightly grand mas­ters, topped with their in­con­gru­ously silly mad-hat­ter black hats, stare down from their por­traits. Then there is the fab­u­lously dark, golden ro­coco basil­ica hon­our­ing St John, the knights’ pa­tron. This St John’s cathe­dral even boasts an im­por­tant Car­avag­gio, The Be­head­ing of St John the Bap­tist . The painter was him­self a knight un­til he was kicked out for his brazenly non-knightly habits of se­duc­ing, brawl­ing and mur­der­ing.

It is hard not to be im­pressed by the legacy of the knights of Malta and easy to un­der­stand why med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als form a large part of their mod­ern ranks. The in­fir­mary where the cru­sader wounded were cared for be­fore be­ing shipped back to the fight would be the envy of many mod­ern health ad­min­is­tra­tors. The vast main ward boasts the long­est vaulted hall in Europe with the walls punc­tu­ated by sup­ply cup­boards where the hospi­taller knights kept solid sil­ver ser­vices from which they fed the sick and niches where the pa­tients were kept, most ec­cen­tri­cally for their day, one to a bed.

One can be for­given for think­ing that noth­ing much hap­pened in Malta be­fore the ad­vent of Jean de Val­lette. But dur­ing my nine days in Malta it be­comes ob­vi­ous that there is a lot more: al­most 7000 years more. As well as the city of Val­letta, Malta’s arche­o­log­i­cal sites are unique and World Her­itage listed. I am in a part of the Mediter­ranean that has con­tained pos­si­bly ev­ery one of th­ese civil­i­sa­tions in one small area: Ne­olithic, Me­galithic, Greek, Ro­man, Phoeni­cian, Byzan­tine and Ara­bic.

Af­ter the knights came the French and then English, from whom the Mal­tese get a fond­ness for stodge and their sec­ond of­fi­cial lan­guage, spo­ken with a pre­ci­sion and cor­rect­ness rarely man­aged by its na­tive speak­ers. Malta pro­vided the lo­ca­tions for films such as Troy and Gla­di­a­tor . You can even see the bar where Oliver Reed died, just off Mer­chant Street. Out­side there is a no­tice board with a news­pa­per cut­ting and a se­ries of mes­sages from be­reaved Pom­mie fans. The Malta Ex­pe­ri­ence, a mul­ti­lin­gual IMAX-style film screened in a the­atre in the bas­tions of Fort St Elmo, out­lines Malta’s his­tory and cul­ture. It is an ex­cel­lent way to get my head around the is­lands’ his­tory and pre­his­tory.

From there I go by pub­lic bus to the great mega­lith of Ha­gar Qim, perched on a clifftop over­look­ing the sea. As I ap­proach with the late af­ter­noon sun bur­nish­ing the stones of the main tem­ple’s mas­sive en­trance gate, two jar­ringly ir­rev­er­ent thoughts mar my ap­proach: the first is of The Flint­stones (Haga Qim’s en­trance gate is so cleanly built) and the sec­ond is of Stone­henge (which has noth­ing on this).

Malta’s mega­liths are more in­ter­est­ing and older. (On Malta’s twin is­land, Gozo, they are older than the pyra­mids.) In­side Ha­gar Qim there are the re­mains of al­tars and niches, and even parts of the con­cen­tri­cally con­structed roof, as well as carved dec­o­ra­tion, par­tic­u­larly the huge stone legs of fer­til­ity god­desses much ad­mired in Malta.

The an­tiq­uity of civilised mem­ory is made con­crete by th­ese struc­tures and I con­tem­plate this as I me­an­der down­hill when I am abruptly re­minded of a long­for­got­ten haz­ard of trav­el­ling as a lone fe­male in the Mediter­ranean: the pesky an­cient Lothario. He doesn’t seem to care if my legs are fat or thin, so I speed up, slid­ing down the road, and spend 10 min­utes hid­ing in the bus shel­ter be­fore get­ting a taxi to my ho­tel.

The head knight in my group has tick­ets for the great­est of Malta’s arche­o­log­i­cal sites, the unique un­der­ground Hy­pogeum, which is booked for months in ad­vance be­cause only 10 peo­ple at one time are al­lowed. A quick sur­vey es­tab­lishes that the knightly per­son­nel are too tired, too hy­per­ten­sive, claus­trophic or, oddly, un­in­ter­ested in some­thing 7000 years old. So I set off by taxi to a sub­urb of Val­letta with a group of more cu­ri­ous women. We are left, con­fus­ingly, on the foot­path out­side what looks like some­one’s front door.

The Hy­pogeum was dis­cov­ered un­der a se­ries of houses. I can’t help think­ing that this ap­proach isn’t ex­actly ri­valling the Pyra­mids, when a man pops out of

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