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The Ghosts of Mdina, Malta's Silent City

The Ghosts of Mdina, Malta's Silent City

By Linda C. Eneix, The OTS Foundation

It's the ghosts that keep Mdina quiet.

They say the lack of city noise has something to do with narrow curved streets designed to stop arrows (and coincidentally not admit automobiles) or towering stone walls with the power to muffle 10,000 footsteps. But the primary reason is the ghosts. With their presence sensed all about, respectful silence just seems to be the order of the day.

Here in this walled citadel, perched in the middle of an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the ghosts come from a club sandwich of history. For 1,100 years, Mdina has kept the name given by Arab Saracens who set out her present

street plans. In Arabic, the word simply means "city." Malta is a small island that had only one town for a very long time, so the generic Saracen name didn't confuse anybody.

(Before the Arab occupation, the island was called "Melita," a Roman word for honey. Plenty of honey-drinking Romans left their ghosts in the city, you can be sure.)

Much later, long after Romans and Saracens, Mdina acquired the ghost of the French General Masson, who was hurled from a balcony when his troops tried to pillage the Carmelite church to fund the war efforts of Napoleon. The Maltese were furious.

Then there is the ghost of American actress Geena Davis, left in Mdina during the course of location shooting for the embarrassing film, "Cutthroat Island." Although at the time of this writing Ms. Davis is, thankfully, still corporeal and still working, her screen ghost is one of many that are abundant in Maltese limestone. Authentic architecture rising from original pavements, fantastic light and an English-speaking population are good incentives for Hollywood, so Mdina has stood-in for many of the world's ancient places. Other parts of Malta have represented Rome in Gladiator, Turkey in Midnight Express, France and Elba in The Count of Monte Cristo, Sweethaven/Canada in Popeye, Byzantium, New Brazil, and most recently Greece in the epic movie Troy.

One will not find in Mdina many of the ghosts of the legendary Knights of Malta, (more officially known as The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of the Knights St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta). Most of the Mdina ghosts from that period are Turks, one of whom was hung on the city walls every morning during the Great Siege of 1567.

When offered the island of Malta by Emperor Charles V in 1530, the Knights didn't want it ? even if the taxes on it were only one Maltese Falcon per year. But the order was homeless at the time and being chased by the said Turks. Eventually the Knights gave in and accepted. They built spanking new baroque cities, closer to the sea than Mdina, where they could anchor their fleet in the deep harbors and prepare for the big confrontation.

For the most part, the Knights stayed busy with their own affairs, such as the sanctioned plundering of Turkish ships, and left Mdina alone. (A notable exception is the ghost of Grand Master Lascaris, which has lingered for centuries after the women of Mdina ferociously attacked him with brooms and ran him out of town when he prohibited the wearing of masks at Carnival time.)

The Roman governor Publius had his seat in Mdina when the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 A.D. The ghost of Paul resides in the cave where he spent three months on his way to Rome for trial. After converting to Christianity, Publius became the first Bishop of Malta. No one knows how many ghosts come from the 4th-century catacombs that riddle the area outside Mdina's massive stone walls. Both early Christian and Jewish spirits mingle in a wide collection of underground stone passages and tombs.

Millennial ghosts

There were already pagan ghosts in the area before the Romans came. This same steep hilltop has been the site of human settlement for more than 4,000 years. Phoenicians (Canaanite merchants trading around the Mediterranean on their way to becoming known as "The Sea Peoples") had their own name for the city that they built here in about 900 B.C. They called it "Malet" which loosely translates as "shelter" or "protected place" in their ancient Semetic language.

The Phoenicians were undoubtedly haunted by the ghosts of Bronze Age warriors who, in their day, had a fortified settlement in the same location. And did those Bronze Age builders incorporate the remains of earlier Stone Age constructions left by the most mysterious ghosts of all? It's likely: The remains of megalithic monuments that are a thousand years older than the pyramids can be found all over the Maltese islands. The culture that created these prehistoric temples disappeared without explanation at about 2,500 B.C., leaving behind some very haunting artifacts.

Noble families of medieval aristocracy built the palaces that fill the silent city of Mdina today. While ladies cooled themselves with lace fans in secret walled gardens, workers farmed the fields during the day and retreated behind the city's massive walls at night. They could sleep protected from the pirates and slavers that swept across the island from time to time.

Descendents of those noble families still live in the palaces, quite at peace with the ghosts. Many have enterprisingly converted space for gift shops and tea-rooms catering to the tourists that flock to Mdina for a walk in the old world. Residents are careful to lock their giant private doors; visitors sometimes think the entire city is a museum open for browsing ? much like the marauders of old.

Actually, Mdina is not totally silent. During the daytime one can hear chanting through the doors of a cloistered convent, or a bell tolling from the tower of the cathedral . . . or a groaning tourist coming up from dungeons decorated with gruesome wax figures. Yet there is a quality that is undeniably muted even when the place is teeming with tour groups.

At night... ahh. At night Mdina is magical. Iron lamps cast spooky light on the crumbly stone buildings; the wind howls down empty streets; bougainvillea vines nod over shuttered windows. The ghosts are everywhere and they welcome you.

Most Mediterranean cruise ships calling at Malta offer a shore excursion to Mdina. The city is easily reached by public bus from the main terminus outside Valletta. Visitors who drive themselves will need to find parking outside the walls of Mdina.

For readers who may have surmised from the above that there is more to see in Malta than a quick stop can deliver, we recommend a professionally escorted program of at least eight days. Malta is serviced from the U.S. by Alitalia, Lufthansa, British Airways and Air Malta, which has connections from European cities.