The Culmination of Everything

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.

53 thoughts on “The Culmination of Everything

  1. You write so seductively, Julie. I follow your every footstep. I’ve never been to Malta, though long ago wrote an undergrad dissertation on the prehistoric temples there – contents of which both forgotten and lost. I’m feeling now that I need to go. The island was such a nexus. A crossing and a meeting point, but still its own place. I do remember that the ‘temples’ were like no other known prehistoric remains, and that at the time when I did my essay no one could account for why the structures were as they were.
    This phrase struck a big chord ‘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.’ Splendidly understated but so resonant.

    • Thank you, Tish. Anyone who has read my blog for a while knows how much unease I feel around crowds. So the serenity was so very welcome. Your dissertation sounds fascinating. Too bad it has been lost. Malta is so unbelievably complex in history. I think you could spend decades trying to learn about it all. I visited a couple of the temples, but unfortunately the Hypogeum was closed during my visit.

  2. I liked your Maltese observations, Julie, and preference to let some mysteries be, rather than leave everything to archaeological excavation.

  3. A fascinating place and journey. You must have been ecstatic to have the tour on your own, allowed to experience it without the whispers of others around you. Surely that experience is the culmination of a great trip.

    • Yeah, that was a pleasant surprise. I think it helped me tune in better to the tour. I usually stand in the back if I’m in a group and so I miss a lot of the info. It’s not so much the whispers of others that distract me, but the blank stares.

    • I only had 2 and a half days to explore, and I feel like I saw a lot, but there were so many things I missed, too. If I’d had one more day, I definitely would have spent it on Gozo.

  4. You are the second writer to bring Malta to my attention recently. Everything about your warm, soft photos says old and established; I think the dust of Malta itself seems settled and maybe that rubbed off on you. I always enjoy your investigations of the hidden and eerie – bones and skeletons, mysteries and secrets, murders and funerals – but my perky self particularly loves your ending shots of those wonderfully colorful boats under the Maltese sun!

    • I went to that village just to see those boats and eat an overpriced, but very fresh, fish lunch. Malta is on many travel itineraries, because it’s heavily promoted, very easy to get to. It’s a fascinating place, but where you stay makes a big difference. A quick bus ride through the tourist ghetto on the other side of the harbor was traumatic enough. So many high rise hotels crammed together. It’s so worth it to pay more and stay in Valletta or some of the other villages.

  5. As Tish says, you write very seductively, and draw your reader in…to the hidden and the eerie! I have once been to Malta, on business so I saw very little of Valetta. A number of people have been mentioning Malta recently, so I think I need to go back

  6. Excellent and unusual tour, Julie. You found parts I did not reach but I was only there for two days on business. It was the ride into work on the local buses I remember most – packed and straight from the Indian subcontinent.

    • Thank you, Robin. Your local bus ride sounds a bit different than my experience. It was all Maltese and tourists on the one I took.

  7. I was happy for your tour guide, Julie. He found himself an appreciative audience. πŸ™‚ I’ve always been fascinated by the Knights Templar and am not sure how I’ve managed to avoid Malta. Badfish has beaten me to it! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

    • Hi Jo- I was surprised he managed to crack a smile at the end. I imagine it must get so tedious to repeat the same information over and over and to be just some offbeat attraction right next to the world famous one. I’m surprised that you haven’t made it to Malta either! Given your travel preferences, I think you’d like it.

  8. It’s always a pleasure to read your little vignettes. Statements like “maybe the dust of my existence has finally settled” closely followed by a term like “flaneur” (a word I only learned about a year ago) prove written expression can be a refined art form. And Malta has always seemed slightly mysterious: ancient, dripping with history, with knights of old seemingly just around the next corner. Thanks for the visit.

    • Thank you, Dave. I only learned the word “flaneur” a few years ago, and was surprised to find that there is a word to describe what I naturally like to do both at home and while traveling. Malta is saturated with history. Layers and layers of it.

  9. What a gorgeous little glimpse… a window into Malta which like so many places remains “on my list”

    The list is long, and the reasons they appear are many, but at least I can get a taste through you ever wonderful words and images

    • Thank you, Chris. You must have made a huge dent in your list, judging from all of the places you’ve been. But, like almost everyone, there are always places to add to it.

  10. Thanks Julie. Your travels and elegant prose fulfill my yearning to see other worlds. Love the photos … The green accents of the first three reveal your artistic eye.

  11. “Malta is a flaneur’s paradise” is a phrase that, by itself, makes enticing an island that I so far associated to summer schools of English, package holidays and by the attitude of its Navy to ‘fail to see’ the boats of migrants passing her by, in the knowledge that eventually ships from Sicily would be picking whoever was left up. The Valletta tourist board owes you one, Julie!

    • Yeah, I kept my expectations realistic. It seemed a little too mainstream, but I’m not one to pass up a trip to a place I’ve never been to. I also made sure to do research before I went so I could find the relatively offbeat places to visit.

  12. “The dust of my existence has finally settled”? Nicely coined Julie.
    I wish that were true for me.
    Thank you for those words, nonetheless. I always enjoy your “take” on the world.
    A bientΓ΄t.

  13. wonderful reflection, JD!
    makes me happy
    & appreciative
    having endured
    my little detours
    to come to this place
    of taking it all in,
    the touching words
    and vivid images πŸ™‚

  14. I love your sentence: “Or maybe the dust of my existence has finally settled.” You have a way of bringing out the mysterious in every destination which fascinates me. As a traveler I am always trying to unearth the secrets of a place, but I do wonder if it wouldn’t be nice to know that a place exists with all its mysteries intact.

    • It’s probably natural to want to unravel mystery. Organize and label it so that we are comfortable in its presence. The older I get, the more I am able to let it be.

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