Being the paradoxical island that it is, Malta presents a number of wonderful examples of its larger than life nature. In spite of its minute dimensions, in a Lilliput-like fashion, the island features most of the elements found in larger countries but in miniature.
Take the matter of cities for example. Already a miracle for some that the island actually sustains a sophisticated capital in lieu of some sorry excuse for a city, it becomes amazing when one is confronted by the fact that Malta actually has two capitals: an old capital and a (relatively) new one!
Mdina and Valletta: two cities, two capitals. Both walled-cities but otherwise opposites in many respects. Different worlds, although a mere twelve kilometres apart. The first in splendid isolation, embraced by countryside, on high ground and as far away from the sea as possible, the second right on the coast between two great harbours and surrounded by an expanding conurbation. Mdina is the traditional historical settlement with a millennial history and with layer upon layer of different eras sitting on top of each other. Valletta is the quintessential fruit of the Renaissance: a new city built totally on plan where nothing existed before.
Melita, Mdina, Citta Vecchia, Citta Notabile, the Silent City: names that evoke images and memories of the past rulers and colonisers who built this city and adapted it to their needs and realities across the centuries. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Castilians, Aragonese and the Knights. A city which at its peak extended up to St Paul’s church in Rabat with the line of catacombs in its suburb establishing the line of the original city wall, given that the Romans only allowed burials outside the walls of their cities.
The city was capital of Malta, and the centre of its administrative and religious life, until it was eclipsed by the new city of Valletta, il-Belt, Citta Umilissima, that started to be constructed after the Great Siege of 1565, in which the Maltese and the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem emerged victorious after a four and a half month siege by around 30,000 Turkish Ottoman troops sent to capture Malta by the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
The building of Valletta shifted Malta’s seat of power from the geographical centre of the island to its major harbours, signifying a huge change in attitude towards the outside world. Mdina signified an inward looking Malta, a citadel located on high ground as far away as possible from the coast and the danger of sudden raids by corsairs. It protected the countryside and the peasants, ready to seal itself to the outside world and weather out a siege. On the contrary, Valletta was a port of call, open and welcoming to trade and shipping. Whilst similarly defensive in nature, it stood prominently visible, guarding the gateway to Malta rather than lurking inland, as if trying to hide from trouble.
Over the past four and a half centuries, the two cities established a practical modus vivendi. Each has retained a respective element of importance vis-à-vis the other. Valletta became the seat of government and commerce. Mdina retained the seat of the Catholic Church and remained the base of the Maltese nobility. Malta being one diocese means that it has one Bishop. One bishop normally signifies one cathedral. Mdina and Valletta each possess a distinct Roman Catholic cathedral: St Paul’s and St. John’s respectively. But it is the one in Mdina which is the actual cathedral. Valletta’s St John’s merely bears the inferior title of co-cathedral. This, in spite of its opulence and grandeur. The fruit of the historical tensions between the Knights and the local church which saw the former entrench themselves in their new city and the latter remain in the old city.
These two historically-linked cities continue to play a very important role in Malta today. They are two of Malta’s most visited tourist locations and both are benefiting from European funds aimed at restoring them to their former glory. The ravages of time and the results of barbarian insensitivity are being slowly purged and removed. Mdina is already almost totally car-free and pedestrianised and has had all its cabling and wiring transferred underground. Valletta poses greater challenges owing to its greater size and more vibrant activity. However, it too is undergoing a strong transformation which will give it a new lease of life as the 21st century historic capital of a modern European state.
Malta is indeed privileged to have not one but two capital cities. Not an old capital in ruins replaced by a modern one, but two living, functional cities, each of which is an architectural gem and a historical marvel.
Citta Notabile and Citta Umilissima, L-Imdina and il-Belt Valletta, the old and the new. May they long continue to be protected, preserved and embellished for future generations.
Photos: Leslie Vella