Malta – April 2017
Not so far away, there are beaches. But I’d rather be here, strolling the steep, narrow streets of this tiny city. I take refuge in the shadows of the crumbling walls. I have walked the main drag, with its shops and squares and souvenir shops and sunburnt tourists. They waddle along, wheezing. Chubby hands grasp ice cream cones. One elderly woman I saw had ankles the size of my lower thighs. She paused every few seconds to catch her breath. Her blue eyes sparkled. Perpetual smile. I couldn’t help but admire her motivation and good attitude. My lack of annoyance at the crowds is surprising. Maybe it’s the gentle spring sunshine and the soft, humid breeze from the south. Or maybe the dust of my existence has finally settled.
Valletta is a flaneur’s paradise. Her story is written in the symbols that persist. That which has been left to decay. The ghost signs of one era.
The watchful statues of another. The inhabitants of these streets pause to chat with each other. The only language I hear is Maltese. I recognize the influence of Italian and English with a slight Arabic tinge. An ancient tongue colored by every culture that has passed through this tiny country. Mysterious seafarers of antiquity, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs. So many European tribes which have long since vanished or metamorphosed into the ethnicities that exist today.
Cathedral and church. Mighty knights of the Order and shipwrecked saints. The Order still exists. Sovereign and secret. An entity without a country. Secrets are not necessarily sinister or shameful. Who among us can say that we don’t have something from our past that we wish to keep to ourselves?
Such thoughts tumble through my mind as I venture out of the city. A packed local bus. I settle back in my coveted seat and observe, grateful for the newfound calm inside. It’s never too late to change the course of your story.
I get off the bus at Mdina. After a wander within the impeccable walls, I cross over to Rabat. A pastizzi shop beckons. I buy three and go in search of the obscure catacombs. It is near the more famous catacombs, those of the shipwrecked saint. So I follow the stream of tourists. There: across the street. I enter a quiet courtyard, and then step into a dark doorway. A young man looks up, shakes off his torpor.
“Is this St. Agatha’s catacombs?”
Face tight with irritation. “Yes.”
“Uh, can I see them?”
“Tour is in twenty minutes. You can visit the museum upstairs and I will call you.”
I pay the fee and enter the museum. Shards of pottery, crushed human skulls, rock specimens, and various unidentifiable detritus are displayed in glass cabinets. One room showcases a collection of antique religious art: plastic baby Jesus effigies decorated with velvet flowers. Bloody John the Baptist heads on pedestals. The centerpiece of the whole museum is a mummified crocodile in a glass case.
The guide calls me downstairs. I am the only person on the tour. He leads me through the subterranean crypt. No photos allowed. Skeletons lie exposed in their graves. The guide drones on, casting glances at his watch, but I listen to every word. St. Agatha came here to pray. She was killed for her faith. The faces of these frescoes are forever lost, purposely destroyed by the Byzantines. Here is the place for the funeral dinners. Here, way in the back, is the oldest church in Malta. The ceiling presses down, the stone walls close in. It is so very still in here. But look here: these frescoes date from the 4th century. The Alpha and Omega. The beginning and the end. All within a scallop shell, the symbol of heaven.
We ascend into the sunlight.
“Is it a slow time of year for you?”
He shrugs. “It depends. Most people don’t know about us. They go to St. Paul’s catacombs across the street instead. It’s much better promoted.”
“Well, I came to Rabat only to see these. Thank you. It was fascinating.”
A smile appears as he turns the key in the lock.
Another day, another bus. The sightseeing bus. This one is filled with tourists from the cruise ship. Shuffling senior citizens. Again, I’m impressed by the fortitude.
Relics of the deepest human prehistory are scattered across the countryside. Places of sacrifice, burnt offerings, oracles, astronomical observation. Stately monoliths resist the elements. Some delicate treasures have been unearthed intact: the Venus, a Phoenician sarcophagus. Others are shattered, almost unrecognizable. Pulverized to dust.
Everything – and everyone – that exists is the culmination of everything that has happened before. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual history. The temptation is to excavate and examine everything. Maybe it’s better to let some things remain buried. Undisturbed.
That which needs to reveal itself will rise to the surface. Some facets will merge, others will vanish.
That which remains is free to shine.