I usually eschew stage-managed cultural or historical festivals. They tend to be put on for tourists and offer little for locals who don’t just want an excuse to waste time with the kids somewhere, or grab a beer and a take-away. But, I was pleasantly surprised by the annual Mdina Medieval Festival, held last weekend (18-19 April). It turned out to be a warm-spirited affair – damp, unseasonal weather aside.
Mdina, Malta’s medieval walled city, once the islands’ capital, was the ideal fortified backdrop to showcase crafts, sword-fighting, local produce and pageantry of yesteryear. More on those in another post, because the highlight of the day for me, friends and kids in tow, were the birds of prey and the falconry displays.
Two falconry outfits entertained us, flying several species of bird of prey in a make-shift arena in the ditch around Mdina: the Siggiewi Falconry Centre; and a falconry club, Fredericus Rex. We squatted down on our benches as the majestic birds swooped low overhead with precision accuracy, and so closely that we felt the air from their flight path on our hair. Both falconry teams ‘set out their stall’ in squares in Mdina, so visitors could view the mighty talons of eagles, falcons, hawks and owls up close and personal; some children even stroked the less nervy birds, such as sociable harrier hawk.
Think Malta, and a lot of people think of The Maltese Falcon, the novel, by Daschiell Hammett, which was immortalised into a film noir classic of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart. Few realise that Malta has a more regal association with the falcon. When Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted the Maltese Islands to the Knights of St John in 1530 after they were driven from Rhodes by the Saracens, he requested two Maltese falcons in annual rent: one for himself; the other for the viceroy of Sicily.
Malta was renowned then for best-of-breed peregrine falcons, and was, until the mid 20th century, still a place where they nested, albeit in meagre numbers, on Gozo’s Ta’ Cenc cliffs. But, instead of being prized as hunting birds, they themselves became hunted to near oblivion. The last resident pair was shot in 1980. It’s probably fitting then that the Maltese falcon of Hammett’s novel is a statue.
Little wonder then that the art of falconry died a death when the Order left Malta. It wasn’t practised again until the opening of the Siggiewi Falconry Centre in autumn 2007. In fact, the founder, Renee Scicluna, is an erstwhile hunter – ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’, so to speak. He and his wife Doreen, along with Matt Richards – a master falconer from the UK – dedicated family and a corp of newly-trained local falconers, have achieved almost the impossible with their professional centre and aviary on the outskirts of Siggiewi.
“I wanted to set something up that could help us understand these fascinating creatures,” says Renee. “Something that could also be a focal point for the education of our children, and for conservation.” They’ve had some of their display birds shot, just over the wall from their centre. But, if the popularity of the falconry displays at the Mdina Festival are anything to go by, slow, but sure progress is being made in educating us to the beauty of these raptures.
Perhaps, one day, history will come full circle in Malta and the falcon will be prized living, rather than dead.
Photos: Amanda Holmes