On a hilltop near the center of the Mediterranean island of Malta stands the old walled city of Mdina. I first visited Mdina in 1978 and found a strange absence of noise and people. It made me want to cry out “where are you all?” at the top of my voice. As to the people of Mdina, there is alleged to be a population of about 400, yet one does not see them.
Certainly, they are not to be found in the narrow streets that run through the city. There is no traffic, since only residents are permitted to bring vehicles within the great walls that surround the city and few residents have cars. I guess that the people just stay home.
The houses have magnificent doors with elaborate knockers. Some tourists were tempted to use these door knockers simply to reassure themselves that the city had not been abandoned. It is said that residents responded by screwing the knockers to their striking plates, thereby preserving the silence of the city. That is how the city is known – “the silent city”. The great walls of the city certainly keep the noise away. Visiting Mdina is like going back in time.
One approaches Mdina across low lying fields. Looking up to the hilltop, one first sees the great walls enclosing the city. Looming over the top of those walls, one then sees the dome of Mdina’s famous cathedral – St Paul’s. St Paul is the patron saint of Malta. This magnificent dome, with its red and white stripes, dominates the skyline. Unlike the rest of the Mdina, St Paul’s Cathedral is not that old. The original cathedral was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. The present cathedral was built between 1697 and 1702. The cathedral stands on the site of the house of Publius, the Roman governor of the island nearly 2000 years ago. It is claimed in the New Testament that St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta for three months and that, during that time, he converted Publius to Christiantity. As one would expect, the interior of the cathedral is also spectacular and contains many of the works of art that survived the earthquake.
Mdina was for many years the capital of Malta. The walls were built on the hilltop in about 1000 BC. The area inside the walls was named “Malet”, which means place of shelter. Then the Romans arrived and renamed the city “Melita”. By 900 AD, the Arabs had taken over and called the city “Mdina”, which is Arabic for “walled city”. By the year 1250, the Arabs had been expelled from Malta, but the name “Mdina” was retained. Under Christian rule, Mdina continued as the capital of the island. The ruling elite lived there and built their palaces within the city walls. It’s fortunate for them that they did, because for hundreds of years, the island suffered from pirate and Muslim invasions. Mdina itself was under siege from the Moors in 1429 and the Turks in 1551. In both cases, those great walls enabled the defenders to withstand the siege. But times were changing.
Malta fell under the protection of the Knights of the Order of St John who had a fleet to take care of. A walled city in the middle of the island was of little use to them. So, in the late 16th century, a new capital city was built on the coast and named Valletta. Power shifted to Valletta and the population of Mdina was drastically reduced. But Mdina and St Paul’s Cathedral still had one more important role to play. What was yet to happen in Mdina would lead to the island falling under British rule, instead of French, and to the Maltese becoming so fluent in English.
What happened was that, in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte kicked the Knights out of Malta and claimed the island for France. Malta, including Mdina, at first capitulated with little resistance. The French then began to loot the cathedrals and churches of Malta and to use church silver to finance Napoleon’s military campaigns. In particular, they tore the rich damask from the cathedral walls in Mdina and attempted to auction it. This so outraged the locals that a revolution against French rule broke out in Mdina, where the French garrison was simply massacred. Fearing French reprisals for the events in Mdina, the locals quickly looked around for a friend to protect them. They knew that the Knights were too weak to protect them. After all, had they not just been kicked out by Napoleon? Therefore the Maltese invited Napoleon’s enemy, the British, to assume control of the island which they quickly did. For nearly two centuries, Malta was then a British Crown Colony until it became an independent sovereign state in 1964, a few years before my visit.
There is much that I could have written about Malta, about its sister islands and about its heroic record in World War Two. I could have written about the bustling capital of Valletta and its great harbor, once home to a huge British Mediterranean fleet. But the memory that is foremost in my mind is of the silent city of Mdina, steeped in thousands of years of history and quite unlike anywhere else.