Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 143, entry Jan.2011 & July 2018. Revised Sep. 2019 and Oct.2020


    1. main article (directly below)   
2. language      3. archaeology    4. archeoacoustics    4. a musical curiosity    5. Mardi Gras    6. the Chistmas crèche

There are 3 main islands in the Republic of Malta:
Malta (the big one), Gozo (upper left), and Comino
(tiny one in the middle). It is 25 miles (40 km)
from the NW tip
of Gozzo to the SE tip of Malta .

malta sat shotEven Malta is related to Naples? Yes! If you look at where the nation of Malta sits, it isn't too hard to figure out why. As real-estate people tell you: "Location! Location! Location!" The Malta archipelago is only 93 km (c. 58 miles) south of Sicily, yet is actually farther north than the isle of Lampedusa, which is part of Italy. Malta sits smack in the middle of every invasion route you can think of in the Mediterranean and has been attacked, invaded, and trespassed upon by a very long and impressive succession of visitors: the "Temple Builders," the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, Ottoman Turks, and British.  From the time of the Norman reconquest of Sicily in the 1000s until 1530, the destiny of Malta pretty much ran parallel to that of her colossal island neighbor to the north, Sicily; that is, Malta was part of the Kingdom of Sicily (which then became the Kingdom of Naples). In 1530 Charles I of Spain gave the islands (part of the Spanish vice-realm of Naples) to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (called, simply, "Hospitallers") in perpetual lease. These knights, a military religious order, are now known as the Knights of Malta. (Another interesting connection is that the Hospitallers arose around the work of a hospital founded in 1023 by merchants from Salerno and Amalfi to provide care for poor, sick or injured pilgrims to the Holy Land).

Napoleon captured Malta in 1798; then, the ultimate French defeat by the British led to Malta becoming a British Dominion in 1800. During World War II, Malta was important because it was close to Axis shipping lanes, beceming independent from the United Kingdom in 1964 and retained membership in the British Commonwealth. Between 1953-1971, Malta also served as the headquarters for the NATO naval forces in the region (first known as AFMED [Allied Forces in the Mediterranean] and then as NAVSOUTH [Naval Forces Southern Europe]).

 photo- Wikipedia: M.Thyes, A.Cuerden                         

There are about 400,000 persons on both main islands of Malta (area - 300 km2). That's about 1,318 persons per sq km (3,414 per sq mile); various rankings list Malta as 7th on the list of population density (from more than 200 nations in the world). The capital city of Malta is Valletta, on the south-eastern island. The historic city (pictured above) has around 6,500 persons. The city of Valletta is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites because it is
...inextricably linked to the history of the military and charitable Order of St John of Jerusalem. It was ruled successively by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the Order of the Knights of St John. Valletta’s 320 monuments, all in an area of 55 ha [136 acres], make it one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.
(added 14 Sep '19) Although the City of Valletta is already a UNESCO World Heritage Site, UNESCO makes special mention of the vast complex of fortifications around the harbors of Malta for possible inclusion as a separate Site. It is a fortress system comprising all the harbor areas of which the fortress of Valletta was only the inner keep or citadel. (What follows is adapted from the UNESCO description):

Practically in the centre of the Mediterranean, Malta was so strategically important that maritime powers then vying for control of this sea couldn't ignore it. The island's position was ideal; apart from commanding the narrow waters between the two great basins of the Mediterranean, it possessed excellent natural harbours, secure havens for battle fleets. It was, above all, the presence of the Grand Harbour that was instrumental in attracting foreign occupation. The need to secure this anchorage from attack dictated the scope and form of the island's defenses. Thus, over the centuries, the harbour area has witnessed the building of great works of fortification designed by engineers from most of the major military power: Spanish, Italian, French and British, the result of which is one of the finest collections of military architecture in the world, "a monumental heritage... unmatched for sheer concentration and majesty." These fortifications are unique not only for their sheer scale and concentration (totalling some 25 Km in length) but also because they document the development of military architecture across a span of 400 years. The grand "star fort", Fort Manoel (image, above), was badly damaged in World War II but has been restored and is now in good condition.

The Maltese Language
Interestingly, but no surprise, is that the population is 98% Roman Catholic. Now, that has a good quiz show stumper in there, and it's too bad you've already read the title of this entry or I might ask you to name an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation that has a dialect (in modern linguistics it's better to say a "variety") of Arabic as an official language.

Indeed, Malta is a linguist's dream! English is one of the two official languages on the island; the other one is Maltese and it is the national language. Very few places in the world give linguists the chance to watch on a daily basis the rapid and fascinating evolutionary process called "creolization"—that is, the formation of a new language from a mixture of other languages. When cultures speaking different languages meet, they usually communicate in what is called a "pidgin," a 'primitive' mix (basic vocabulary with limited grammar) that has not yet developed into a true grammatical language. Think of Tarzan-speak! ("Ugh. Me Tarzan. You Jane.") Now imagine Tarzan having honed his language to the point where he now says, "Whom did you say was calling, Lady Jane? And do hand me my pipe, won't you, please?" That's creolization. Maltese is structurally a Semitic language (like Hebrew and Arabic) and directly descended from what is called Siculo-Arabic, (Siculo=Sicilian) the variety of Arabic that developed on Malta, Sicily, and even part of the Southern Italian mainland as a result of the Arab conquest of those areas in the 9th century AD. About half the vocabulary is from Italian, or the Sicilian dialect of Italian, and English. The rest of the vocabulary comes from the parent Siculo-Arabic.

From the website of  a typical Maltese newspaper. It
reproduces the published paper edition.
Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet; thus, if you feel intimidated not only by non-Indo-European grammar, but also by the Arabic alphabet, you might try Maltese first. With independence, nationhood, and increased perception of the native language as a vehicle for expressing the needs and ideas of a living people, Maltese has also had ample time to develop its own literature. Maltese is exceptional as a variety of Arabic in that it has no diglossic relationship with Classical or Modern Standard Arabic. That is to say, most speakers of varieties of a standard language are now also speakers of the standard language itself — here, as examples, Neapolitan/ Italian; Cockney/English — and switch from one to the other depending on various social factors. If a group is conversing in Neapolitan and a foreigner joins the conversation, the members of the group will probably address the newcomer in standard Italian. That is called diglossia — shifting from one variety of language to another. That does not happen in Maltese. The history of the Maltese language over centuries has made modern Arabic irrelevant. You speak Maltese, English, or Italian. Newspapers are published in Maltese; there are some in English and one in Italian. On-line journals follow that convention. You can read news in the language you want, but not on the same page; that is, they don't publish bi- or trilingually.

De Soldanis and the Study of Maltese

The first scholarly speculation and study of the Maltese language was by Giovanni Pietro Francesco Agius de Soldanis (1712 – 1770), called simply 'de Soldanis' (his mother's maiden name), an erudite Maltese linguist, historian and cleric from the island of Gozo. He wrote the first lexicon and systematic grammar of the Maltese language and was the first librarian of the Bibliotheca Publica, the precursor of the National Library of Malta. He traveled widely throughout Italy and France in the 1750s and studied at the University of Padua, graduating in law. De Soldanis had a fine library and a museum in his house and wrote several manuscripts in a number of languages, including Maltese, Italian and French. He published in Rome, Naples, Venice and Avignon but not in Malta since there was no printing press there at that time. He died in January 1770 and was buried in Valletta.

The adjacent image: a monument to de Soldanis in the Villa Rundle on Malta.

He works about the Maltese language argued that Maltese was a "Punic" language (that is, Phoenician the language of Carthage) derived from Etruscan. He was partially correct. With 2-3 centuries of hindsight, we can say that de Soldanis was wrong about Etruscan, but his ideas about Phoenician were solid. In his day, the early to mid-1700s, the first inscriptions had just been uncovered in the Middle East. There weren't that many tiny clay tablets and they have become fewer (!) from being handled so much or even stolen. So the sources are meager, and they are the
worst transmitted and least known of all Semitic languages, a large group that includes Aramaic (the lingua franca of the Middle East at the time of Christ). So, on de Soldanis' part that was solid scholarship. Maltese is
from Sicilian-Arabic, a Semitic language traceable to the "Proto-Canaanite" of a few centuries before Christ. De Soldanis also wrote a four-volume Maltese-Latin-Italian dictionary and works on history, archaeology and other topics related to Malta and Gozo. His dedication to Malta and the language was an intense labor of love and it paid off. There has been since 1961 a regularly published Journal of Maltese Studies, an official periodical of the Department of Maltese at the University of Malta. It "serves  to uphold and encourage the ongoing interdisciplinary approach to the Maltese language and literature."


Malta megalith
                Hager qimMalta is an archaeologist's delight! The islands are home to a series of prehistoric monuments. Seven of them are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (Photo, right: the Hager qim site.) From UNESCO literature on the sites:
...[these] prehistoric megalithic temples and underground chambers...are both fascinating and perplexing for there are no definite answers to how and why they were built or for what they were used...They have been described as the oldest free-standing monuments in the world...What is certain, is that several thousand years before the arrival of the Phoenicians, the Islands were the home to a remarkable culture. These people acquired the skills, and had the strength of spiritual devotion, to mobilise men and resources to build megalithic structures... This culture was to vanish from the Islands...whether through famine, fire, natural disaster or routed by invasion no one knows.


added July 5, 2018

The Temple Builders

A remarkable culture, indeed. Some structures on Malta put in place by the "temple builders" are older than the pyramids of Egypt. And when they were not building up, they were building down to produce underground shrines and necropoli, the best known of which is the Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum (image, right)(Safliene is one of the eleven phases of Maltese pre-history). It was inscribed as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1980 based on the criterion that "it bears a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared." The complete UNESCO description of the site is here.

The UNESCO description starts:

The Hypogeum is an enormous subterranean structure excavated c. 2500 B.C., using cyclopean rigging to lift huge blocks of coralline limestone. Perhaps originally a sanctuary, it became a necropolis in prehistoric times. The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is one of the best preserved and most extensive environments that have survived from the Neolithic. 

The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum was discovered in 1902 on a hill overlooking the innermost part of the Grand Harbour of Valletta, in the town of Paola. It is a unique prehistoric monument, which seems to have been conceived as an underground cemetery, originally containing the remains of about 7,000 individuals. The cemetery was in use throughout Maltese prehistory, spanning from around 4000 B.C. to 2500 B.C.

The hypogeum itself is a series of three superimposed levels of chambers cut into soft limestone. One of the most striking characteristics of the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is that some of the chambers appear to have been cut in imitation of the architecture of the contemporary, above-ground megalithic temples. Features include false bays, and doorways and windows inspired by the trilithon (a megalithic structure consisting of two large vertical stones supporting a third stone set horizontally across the top, typical sites such as Stonehenge and those in Malta.) It is a very complex space.

Objects recovered from the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum include decorated pottery vessels, stone and clay beads, amulets, axe-heads, and carved figures depicting humans and animals, most notable of which was the Sleeping Lady, a clay figure thought to represent a mother goddess (image, right). The figure dates to 4000 - 2500 BC. The Sleeping Lady of Ħal Saflieni is held in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, Malta. The Ħal Saflieni site closed in September 2016 for renovation and reopened in April, 2017.          photo by Jvdc, Wikipedia

Of particular interest is the "sumarine monolith found in the Sicilian channel."


Not mentioned in the UNESCO description of the hyopgeum are recent studies in the field of archeoacoustics (also paleoacoustics), a field that combines archeology and acoustics to study why some ancient structures usually caves but also some surface structures such as certain arenas and amphitheaters have "sweet spots"; that is, spots where even the slightest whisper carries a seemingly impossible distance. There are various questions here: (1) Is it true? Yes, soft voices or even whispers spoken within certain parts of Ħal Saflieni are heard throughout the other chambers; (2) Did the builders do it on purpose? That is a bit more difficult to verify, but the ancients consistently built amphitheaters that had good acoustics, so they presumably knew what they doing. If there was a need for soft voices and whispers to carry a long way in an underground chamber such as a shrine or cemetery, it is plausible they were built purposefully. Here, one thinks of seers and sibyls of later Greek chambers (such as at Cuma) with their prophecies; (3) Are certain vocal frequencies more conducive to enlightened states of mind than others? Is that why some religious rituals involve repetitive chanting and intoning of mantras? One theory from scholars at the Italian universities of Trieste and Siena is, indeed, that the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum was built in such a way as to create acoustics that would affect the psyche of people, perhaps to enhance mystical experiences during rituals. There is a remarkable amount of scholarly literature on sound and altered states of consciousness. There is also — call it 'farther out' very speculative literature on the possible curative powers of certain frequencies (which, of course, happily coincides with those that vibrate and resonate at Ħal Saflieni! It does make one wonder. And I wonder what happened to the temple builders.

a musical curiosity about Malta

Although most people typically respond to music first from the melody and not the lyrics or text, both popular and classical music are generally listed first by the name of the lyricist, who may, in fact, be called the "composer". (Sometimes it's the same person, but not that often.) Such is the case with the solemn hymn commonly played at naval military funerals, Eternal Father, Strong to Save (information on the lyrics is here). But you don't hear too much about the person who wrote the music, indeed a stirring hymn. It is by John Bacchus Dykes (1823–1876), an English clergyman and composer of hymns known, by melody, to many even if they are not churchgoers. His best-known hymns include Holy, Holy, Holy; the most commonly used melody of Nearer, my God, to Thee; and the hymn mentioned (and shown) above, Eternal Father, Strong to Save.

What does this have to do with Malta? His name for his melody (sometimes played as an instrumental, that
is, without the words) was Melita, the ancient name for Malta. Melita (or Melite) was an ancient city located on
the site of present-day Mdina on the larger of the two Maltese islands. It started as a Bronze Age settlement, developed into a city called Maleth under the Phoenicians, and became the administrative center of the island. The city fell to the Romans in 218 BC, and later was part of the the Byzantine Empire until 870 AD, when it was destroyed by the Arabs. It was rebuilt and renamed Medina, giving rise to the present name in the Maltese language, Mdina. It remained Malta's capital city until 1530. 'Melita' remained a common synonym for, and is clearly the origin of 'Malta.'

The first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern was published in 1861 by Novello & Co. in London. It contains the text to "Eternal Father..." and mentions that it is sung to the melody "Melita" by Dykes but early hymnals did not not show musical notation. 

The time-line is important. In 1814, as part of the Treaty of Paris, which ended Napoleon's career (except for his  flash-in-the-pan, failed comeback) Malta officially became a part of the British Empire and was an important stop on the way to India after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. In 1860 the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples ceased to exist. Italy was unified and made no claim on Malta. Malta stayed British. When Dykes wrote the melody, he knew Malta as Melita.

Mardi Gras in Malta!

                                                   Mardi Gras in Malta

Shrovetide is the period before Lent (the long period of renunciation and penitence before Easter) in the Christian faith. It ends on Shrove Tuesday (this year, 2020, that falls on Feb.25) One hallmark of Shrovetide is the merry-making associated with the last few days, particularly the very last day, also known as Carnival or Mardi Gras --French for "Fat Tuesday," a ritual of one last night of eating rich, fatty foods before the period of fasting that follows. Famous Mardi Gras festvities include those in Venice, New Orleans, Rio de Jaeiro and in many other largely Catholic regions in the world. Despite the religious origins of Mardi Gras, the festivities have become very secular; that is, everyone likes to party.

Thus, it is no surprise that they celebrate in the island nation of Malta. Carnival (Maltese: il-Karnival ta' Malta) has had an important place on the Maltese cultural calendar for five centuries. The merry-making is as you would find elsewhere: costumes, grotesque masks, floats, music, and food. They even include the bizarre game of the kukkanja (cockaigne), a free-for-all. no-holds-barred mad scramble to scoop as much as you can carry from a mountain of fooodstuffs. (More on the Neapolitan tradition of the Cuccagna at this link.)

The grander celebrations take place mainly in and around the large cities of Valletta and Floriana, however there are several "spontaneous" carnivals in more remote villages of both islands, Malta and Gozo. Some are noted for their darker and more risqué themes including cross-dressing, ghost costumes, political figures and revellers dressed up as scantily clad clergyfolk.

The festivities are promoted by the Federation of European Carnival Cities (FECC), founded in 1980 and registered in the European Court of Luxembourg. Member cities, organizations and individual members are engaged in producing popular celebrations and carnivals that represent an authentic parade of a people's cultural identity. Clearly, the goal is to promote pan-European cultural identity. The general membership meets twice a year, at the end of May and in October. Even in the short time the organization has been in existence, they have met several times in Valletta, the capital of Malta.                                                     
photo credit: Freddie Olsson


The Christmas Crèche in Malta 

Friend Peter H. of Wash. D.C. calls my attention to a remarkable new museum there. It is the Museum
of the Bible, located at 400 4th St. SW, Washington, DC 20024 (tel.1-866-430-6682). It is currently closed, but you can look at their displays on-line here.

Of particular interest for the coming season is

The Nativity Crib is a constructed model of the birth of Jesus, the Holy Family in Bethlehem. In Italian it is called a "presepe" or "presepio". The Neapolitan models are well-known and are explained here in my original entry on the subject. Malta is well-known for them. From the museum's publicity for the exhibit:
Handmade Nativity scenes set in elaborate landscapes called “cribs” is a centuries-old tradition that carries strong significance in Maltese culture. This year, in partnership with the museum, the nation of Malta sponsored a crib decorating contest. Come see the Top 10, featured in this all-new exhibition, Christmas in Malta.
The images shown (above) are two of the ten.

[See also Megaliths of Southern Italy and The Nuraghi of Sardinia.]

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