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Mdina, Ancient City of Hospitality
Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher
Mdina--yes, the spelling is correct, and it is pronounced "em deena"--is one of the oldest and finest historic cities in Europe. It was, for centuries, the capital of the island nation of Malta. The city's origin dates back over 4,000 years. Although the city has had a name-change (it was called "Melita" under Roman rule--as was the entire island), its reputation for hospitality has not changed. That reputation for hospitality is even recorded in the Bible.
The Apostle Paul, a Roman prisoner on his way to stand trial in Rome, found himself shipwrecked on the island in 60 AD. "The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold (Acts 28:2, all biblical quotations from the New International Version)." The warm behavior was unusual because typically shipwreck survivors would have been looted. Malta was under Roman control at the time, but that warm hospitality was even extended by the top official. Publius was the Roman governor and the seat of his power was Mdina. "There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and for three days entertained us hospitably (Acts 28:7)." Once there, the Apostle found Publius' father was very sick and he healed him. Tradition holds that as a result of the healing, Publius became a convert and went on to become the first Bishop of Malta. The biblical account over and over emphasizes the hospitality of the people. "They honored us in many ways and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies needed (Acts 28:10)" Once established on the island, Christianity has continued to flourish. Today over 90% of the population is named on church membership rolls.
For defensive purposes, the fortified city was built atop a hill with a view of most of the island. Malta has been dominated by many political forces, but it was the Phoenicians who built the first wall around Mdina, about 1,000 BC. Rabat, which means suburb, sits adjacent to Mdina and once was part of it. The Saracens who gave both Rabat and Mdina their current names, made a division between the two in 870 AD. They dug a moat separating Mdina from Rabat and fortified Mdina's walls--figuring that by down-sizing they could better defend the city.
In Rabat one finds the St. Paul's Catacombs, an underground limestone-hewn Christian burial place. These catacombs are unique in that they feature two stone carved "agape" (Greek word for love) tables. These were used for celebratory meals after the funeral ceremonies. The catacombs were located outside of the city walls that existed during the time of their construction. Roman law forbid their location inside city walls. Also in Rabat is St. Paul's Grotto. This small cave is said to be where Paul lived during his three month stay on the island.
After the Saracens made the changes to Mdina, the city's parameters have remained unchanged, although there have been changes to the interior structures. There are many historic structures, however, some dating from the 1200's. One structure of seeming constant interest is the Cathedral of St. Paul. The site is said to have been the location of the Roman governor Publius' house. There was a small church built on the site in the fourth century, but it fell into disrepair. After the ousting of the Muslims, Count Norman ordered that the small structure be repaired and enlarged in 1090 AD. A part of that remodeling project can still be seen today. A door, over 900 years old, made of Irish bog-wood serves as the door to the Sacristy in the cathedral. The church again underwent expansion in 1490. However, a devastating earthquake in 1693 severely damaged the church and leveled many other structures. The church was again repaired and redesigned. Built in the Baroque style the new church was dedicated as the Cathedral of St. Paul in 1702. Inside one finds a stained glass depiction of the healing of Publius' father, and a fresco depicting St. Paul's shipwreck. The Cathedral Museum houses many artifacts from Punic and Roman times. Of course there is a wonderful collection of religious art, including an ivory cross owned by Pope Pius VI.
Mdina remained the capital of Malta until the mid-1500's. In 1530 the island was ceded by Emperor Charles V to the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, better known as the Knights of St. John. The knights were a military and religious order of the Catholic Church. After withstanding the Ottoman siege of 1565 the knights, no longer valuing Mdina, wanted another capital. Under the Grand Master Vallette a new capital was designed and built--today's Valletta.
Visitors to Malta interested in history shouldn't miss Mdina. One enters Mdina by crossing a bridge over the moat and entering the current city gate which was constructed in 1724. One will not see many vehicles inside the city's walls. For one thing, motor vehicle use is banned, except for the residents. For another, the narrow streets built centuries ago simply cannot withstand vehicular traffic. Every now and then one does see a horse and buggy acting as a taxi or touring vehicle--though everything is well within walking distance. A walk along the city's wall offers an incredible view of the island. The beautiful architecture is understandably a major attraction.
A rather odd attraction for many is the door-knockers of Mdina. These are such an attraction that there is even a photo book dedicated to them, and they come in all shapes and designs. Most are heavy brass objects weighing several pounds--which was a necessity if the residents were to hear guests' knocking on the thick wooden doors. Of course the natural temptation for tourists is to give the knockers a try. It became such an aggravation to residents that most door-knockers today are merely ornamental. They have been screwed in place to prevent the incessant knocking.
The hospitality of the Maltese people is still evident today, whether one is seeking directions or asking a resident to pose for a photograph. Most are more than helpful often actually showing one the location rather than merely giving directions.
Most of Mdina's restaurants take advantage of the mild Mediterranean climate and feature an outdoor seating option for those interested. On the hilltop location there nearly always is a soothing sea breeze blowing.
Lovers stroll the threadlike streets, arm-in-arm, viewing the ancient structures and shuttered windows as untold generations have done before.
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