Malta – The National Museum of Natural History

Natural history can be defined as being ‘the study of natural objects… the study of plants, animals, and sometimes ancient human civilizations’ (Merriam Webster Dictionary). This encompasses scientific research, but is not limited to it, being an ever-evolving discipline stemming back from the studies of Aristotle and other philosophers in the ancient world, continuing during the Middle Ages, and being further defined with the onset of scientific biology and disciplines such as zoology, palaeontology, botany and geology, amongst others.

In Malta, those interested in learning more about our islands’ origins and local natural history, can visit the National Museum of Natural History located in the old fortified medieval city of Mdina, that is the old capital city of Malta, which is situated in the Northern region of Malta. This museum is to be found within Vilhena Palace, also known as the Magisterial Palace of Justice or Palazzo Pretoria. This is a French-Baroque 18th century building named after Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhen, who originally commissioned it. The Palace was further used as a temporary hospital during a cholera outbreak in the 19th century and converted into a sanatorium by the British military during the 20th century. The sanatorium was closed in 1956, after which the Palace was opened to the public hosting Malta’s National Natural Museum, in 1973.

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The collections exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History include samples of flora and fauna, fossils, rocks, minerals, and dioramas of Maltese habitats. Display areas within the museum cover topics such as Maltese geology and palaeontology, exotic mammals, marine fauna, insects, shells and birds and other topics like human evolution. One hall focuses on the skeletal anatomy of vertebrates, one is dedicated to birds of the Maltese cliff habitat, and one shows the diversity of animals that frequent valleys. Another interesting display highlights the ecological importance of the islands of Filfla, Fungus Rock, St. Paul’s and Comino.

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The national bird; the Blue Rock Thrush (il-Merill), and the national plant of Malta; the Maltese Centaury (Widnet il-Baħar) are focused upon in a special section of the museum. There is also a reference library on natural sciences with over 4,000 titles mainly dedicated to the eighteenth and nineteenth century publications.

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The museum also houses historically important collections with over 10,000 rocks, 3,500 birds, 200 mammals, eggs and nests, over 200 types of fish, thousands of shells and insects from Malta and abroad and a very impressive fossils collection. The current display not only covers insects, birds and habitats but also human evolution and the marine ecosystem.

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Whether you are a local, or a tourist, there are many reasons to visit the National Museum of Natural History. Apart from the educational value inherent in the exhibitions, with interesting features covering various aspects of Maltese wildlife, the impressive Baroque style of the Palace itself is more than enough to make such a visit worthwhile.

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The Museum can be found at: Vilhena Palace, Saint Publius Square, Mdina, and it opens for the public from Monday to Sunday, from 9.00am to 5.00pm.

For more information, please visit – https://www.facebook.com/National-Museum-of-Natural-History-Mdina-MALTA-152354261490652/

This article was written by me and originally published on LivinginMalta.com

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The Mediterranean Island of Gozo – A Real Haven!!

Gozo (‘Għawdex’), which is the second largest island in the Maltese archipelago, is a perfect holiday destination all year round. Although Gozo is found only a few miles away from its sister island of Malta, it is quite a distinctive island, having its own geographical treasures, its own monuments, its own history, and even its own identity.

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Gozo is more rural and unspoilt than Malta, in fact it is well-known for its rolling green hills, beautiful countryside and resplendent sandy beaches. The pace of life in Gozo is more tranquil and peaceful compared to the more modernized Malta. Most of the land is still virgin, which means that one can appreciate a number of picturesque views, especially during the winter season when the fields are cultivated. Here, one can even find some old traditions which are no longer found on Malta. Gozo in fact has its own spate of religious traditional festas, its own unique crafts and artisan products, as well as being famous for its yearly Carnival celebrations and local cuisine. If you want a taste of this, you must surely try out some Gozitan cheeselets (ġbejniet).

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As of early 2014, the island of Gozo hosted a population of around 37,300 people. Gozo has a rich history and one can find a huge number of historical places, ranging from Neolithic to modern times, on this small island. One can hardly fail to mention the megalithic Ġgantija Temples, which, after the Temples of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, are the oldest man-made temples in the world.

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Another important spiritual structure is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu, otherwise known as the Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary, first built in 1545 and then restored in 1730. This Catholic Sanctuary, located in the village of Għarb, is well-known to hold the prayers, vows, and votive offerings given by those who maintain to have been miraculously helped after praying to the Virgin of Ta’ Pinu. This church is in fact linked with many miraculous healings.

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Apart from its deeply spiritual heritage, Gozo also holds some of the Mediterranean’s most breathtaking natural wonders. There’s a number of pristine sandy beaches like Xlendi Bay, Marsalforn Bay, as well as Ramla Bay, just off Xagħra, which according to mythology, is believed to have been the site of the nymph Calypso’s abode. Gozo in fact, is theorized to be the mystic island of Ogygia, which featured prominently in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ as the island where Ulysses was held captive for seven years. Near the beach, one can also visit the so-called Calypso Cave, high up on the cliffs.

Gozo is also home to a large number of medieval coastal towers built by the Order of the Knights of Saint John, like Isopu Tower in Nadur and Xlendi Tower in Xlendi, as well as innumerable tiny churches and chapels which are gems of medieval and baroque architecture. Traditional architecture can also be admired by going to Victoria (ir-Rabat), Gozo’s capital city, and taking a look at the historical buildings, niches, balconies, aqueducts and churches, not to mention the Medieval Citadel, iċ-Ċittadella, which is a unique small fortified town situated on the promontory of Victoria.

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It is easy to arrive in Gozo, one simply has to take the ferry-boat from Ċirkewwa on the north-west side of Malta. The crossing takes approximately 25 minutes and is quite enjoyable. Truly a destination not to miss!

This article was written by me and published on LivinInMalta.com. To view the original article, please go here.

Għajnsielem and Fort Chambray

Għajnsielem, found on the southern coast of the island of Gozo, is the first village one meets as he leaves Mġarr Harbour towards the capital city of Victoria. The name of the village means ‘Peaceful Spring’, in reference to a number of natural springs in the area which were probably the reason why people settled here in the first place.

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Għajnsielem became an official Parish in 1855, with its Patron Saint being Our Lady of Loreto, and the village feast being celebrated each year on the last Sunday of August. It is also interesting to note that the island of Comino falls under the responsibility of the local council of Għajnsielem.

Though Għajnsielem is not large, it contains many popular places of interest, most notably the Prehistoric Temples of ‘Tal-Imrejżeb’, ‘Tal-Qigħan’ Prehistoric Temple, Lourdes Chapel, Mġarr ix-Xini Tower, Saint Cecilia Tower and Chapel, and Fort Chambray amongst others.

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Fort Chambray is an old fortress built at the top of a hill called ‘Ras it-Tafal’, or Blue Clay Point, which is situated between Mġarr Harbour and x-Xatt l-Aħmar. It started to be constructed in the year 1722, during the reign of Grand Master Antoine Manuel de Vilhena (1722 – 1736) of the Order of Saint John. Originally, the idea for building the Fort was for it to be a starting point to build a new capital city to replace the Citadel (Ċittadella), however this plan never came to fruition, and in fact the actual completion of the fort was shelved for some time due to lack of funds. It was in 1749 that a Norman Count of the Order of Saint John named Francois Chambray offered to finance the full expense of the construction, which is why the fort was named after him. During that time, the islands were under the governance of the Grand Master Manuel Pinto de Fonseca (1741 – 1773). The Fort was built in order to safeguard the island of Gozo from pirates, and it was finally completed in 1758. It was used to house the Government’s Palace, administration buildings, and a chapel.

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In 1798, Fort Chambray saw its first military use, during the French invasion of the Maltese Islands. The knight De Megrigny, who at the time commanded the Fort, offered it as a place of shelter for many Gozitans, who took refuge inside with their livestock and possessions.

Unfortunately, the Fort was later forced to surrender, after which it was manned by a French garrison. Months later, the Gozitans rebelled and re-took possession of the Fort…

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This article was published on LivingInMalta – to read the rest of it, please go here.

The History of the Maltese Carnival

Carnival in Malta has a long history. The word itself originates from the Italian phrase ‘carne vale’, which means ‘meat is allowed’, since Carnival itself is usually celebrated before the start of Lent, during which meat consumption was not permitted by the Catholic church.photo-by-photocity-3-copy-1100x616

Although the origins of Carnival themselves have pagan roots, tracing back to the follies of the Roman Saturnalia and beyond, we first find actual traces of it in the Maltese islands as of the 1400s, as records were found at the general hospital which indicate that patients were given special meals for this festivity. Food and drink in fact are an important aspect of Carnival, as is the wearing of masks and costumes, signifying the suspension of the normal order of things where social class was all-defining. During Carnival, everyone could make merry. It was a time for jokes, laughter and pranks.

Carnival festivities increased during the time of the Order of Saint John, and the traditional ‘parata’, the sword-dance marking the victory of the Maltese and the Knights against the Turks during the siege of 1565, was introduced. The ‘kukkanja’ was also introduced at this time, this was a sort of game whereby all sorts of food and sweets were tied to a tree-trunk, and the general public was allowed to run and climb the trunk to pick items of food as presents.

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Carnival started to decline during the 19th century when the British governed the islands, as it was not part of British culture, however it still managed to survive. ‘Veljuni’ or masked balls were held in major theaters around Valletta, and even the British governor used to take part in the revelry. When Malta was granted the Constitution in 1921, Carnival evolved even further. Since 1926, outdoor Carnival festivities started being organised in Valletta by special committee. Carnival started to include a défilé of floats, carts and cabs featuring imaginary colorful figures, manned by young people in costume who would blow whistles, throw colored confetti, sound horns and jeer at the crowd while wearing beautifully crafted costumes. Shops or organisations sponsored these floats and they used the event also as an advertisement for their products. In fact, carnival boosts business since street hawkers, vendors and shopkeepers, not to mention bakers, start to plan for it well in advance.

Up to 1974, a part of Valletta’s main square was fenced to create an enclosure which offered space for dancing. Later, the enclosure was relocated to Freedom Square, however when this was closed for the building of Parliament, the enclosure was taken back to Saint George Square.

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Many people could be seen masquerading through the streets as of pre-war days. Some dressed up as ghosts, demons, clowns and fairies, while others simply wore masks. The Maltese Carnival always contained an element of political satire. Grotesquely costume masquers, not to mention floats or ‘karrijiet’ which derided and caricatured particular events and prominent figures, were and are plentiful during this time.

This article was published on LivingInMalta.com – a complete version of it can be found here.

Valletta – Malta’s most Precious Treasure

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I like to think of Valletta as a stately elderly Dame. Alone in the early mornings, she waits gracefully, bedecked with sumptuous jewels and laden with the memories of generations. Her straight, narrow streets are the wrinkles on her brow. The doves, cooing on the balconies, precede the droves of people which visit her every day. Lady Valletta – old and proud, and yet resplendent in her unique glory. No matter how many times I visit her, I always learn or discover something new. She is a real Maltese matriarch.

Valletta – a medieval historical city filled with grand palaces, museums, inspiring architecture and heritage sites. But it’s also a social hub sporting a shopping mall, professional offices, tasteful restaurants and chic coffee shops. It’s a nightlife spot and a place where one can purchase or sell any daily need imaginable.

Valleta is THE place to visit in Malta. Want to read the rest of my article? It was published on eve today – http://www.eve.com.mt/2016/07/04/valletta-our-most-precious-treasure/

Knights in Shining Armour. Do they really exist??

‘In movies, knights in shining armour are the order of the day. Be they the metaphorical knights in love stories, who save damsels in distress from semi-perilous or uncomfortable situations, or actual medieval knights jousting during festive tourneys or challenges.

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Real war however, is very different. Actual knights during medieval times were war machines. They were men trained to kill, men trained to obey orders, men following a cause. Training to murder someone in the name of honour is a paradox. At least, that’s how we perceive it in this day and age – when the death penalty is a subject which promotes controversy, as are issues such as suicide and euthanasia. At the time, it was the most common thing in the world however – something which, I think, people of our age can never fully comprehend. That is how much the concept of killing has changed.

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From the youngest age, Maltese children are all taught their historical background as Maltese citizens at school. We are told about the glorious Knights Hospitallers of Saint John, who came to Malta after battling in the crusades, and established the different auberges in Birgu and then in Valletta. Most importantly, we are taught about the Grand Siege, when the Knights and the Maltese battled against the Turks, who wanted to invade our islands. These are our roots and it is what we are made of. The blood and the sweat of those who fought in the name of freedom, will never be forgotten. And yet, do we really know what that means?

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Yesterday, I started researching and reading a bit about the Order of Saint John in Malta, and I remembered certain things which at the time, did not seem important to a child’s mind, but which now have different connotations. I read and remembered that they are the oldest Order of Knights still in existence, that they were rivals with the Order of the Templars, and that while they were in Malta, since a large percentage of their income had been reduced for a number of reasons, they turned into smugglers and corsairs, that is pirates who raided Turkish towns upon the coast of North Africa, and then sold the plunder they took.

Knights turned pirates, warrior monks battling Turks …’

This article is original and copyrighted. Want to read the rest of it? Please visit –

http://www.eve.com.mt/2015/02/08/knights-in-shining-armour-do-they-really-exist/

Thanks!! Would be interesting to read what you think about it too. You can comment here or on eve.com

Church Massacres 7,000 in the name of Catholicism

No, it did not happen today. It did not happen yesterday. It happened more than 800 years ago in 1209. Does that make it ok?

While we still bemoan awful events like the 9/11 twin tower bombings and the disappearance of Madeline McCann, society in general seems to have conveniently forgotten the atrocities done in the name of Catholicism, preferring instead to foist all the blame and religious fanaticism on Islamic belief.

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In 1209 the then-current Pope declared a ‘crusade’ against a sect of the Catholic church known as Cathars, branding them as heretics because of their differences in practiced creed. Papal knights and delegates were sent to Southern France to exterminate and eradicate all of the Cathars (of which there were thousands), while confiscating their properties, palaces and money.

When they arrived at the outskirts of Beziers, a city in the County of Languedoc, the Papal legate wrote a list of 222 names and sent it to the Mayor, demanding that these people would be sent over to him to be hanged, or else all would die. The city as one refused. After a siege, the ‘Papal knights’ entered the town slaughtering men, women and children right and left. The routiers rampaged through the streets, killing and plundering, while those citizens who could run sought refuge in the churches — the cathedral, the churches of St Mary Magdalene and of St Jude. Yet the churches did not provide safety against the raging mob of invaders. The doors of the churches were broken open, and all inside were massacred. It is estimated that 7,000 people died in the Church of St Mary Magdalene alone.

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The building of the church itself was not even respected as sanctuary… which goes to show what the ‘Papal legate’ and his ‘knights’ were really after.

After the massacre it came to the distribution of the city’s spoils. The crusader knights became enraged that the rabble of the army had already taken the plunder. They took control of the situation, chased them from the occupied houses and took their booty away. In turn, the angry and disappointed soldiers responded by burning down the town.

Nice.

Real religious and brave.

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The cherry on the cake? The papal legate himself knew that there were many innocents being killed – that is, non-Cathar worshippers. He is known to have told the knights to kill everyone anyway. His famously cited words were:

“Kill them all, God will know His own”

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I will be going to the Languedoc region and visiting Cathar castles and other related places next month. Can’t wait to learn more about them.

Lazy Sundays – Castles in France and Cuddles

I love lazy Sundays – in a world where every day is a constant battle with time, they are a real jewel. After working full time for five days, Saturday is always a hectic day too since all the chores and friend/family stuff tend to take place then. However Sundays are days to laze around with one’s partner, enjoy hours in bed, then getting up for lunch, and, in my case, play PS4 or read or watch a favorite T.V series.

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THIS particular Sunday we have some homework to do. However it is an exciting type of homework.

1. Measure furniture in order to be sure it will fit in the new house, when this is selected.
2. Plan for our Valentine’s week holiday to Southern France. We’ve already selected the spots we wanna see, but now we’ve gotta decide how we are gonna visit them in sequence, depending on their location and opening times, as well as insert the details into the SatNav.
3. Peruse a number of links of house-selling sites and talk about whether we should go view them or not.

There – that’s the kind of ‘homework’ I like 🙂

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Btw, this is one of the castles we are DEFINITELY gonna visit. It is one of the castles which belonged to the Catholic sect of the Cathars. Never heard of them? Perhaps it’s because, since their creed ‘differed’ from the main accepted Catholic one, they were hunted down, eradicated and burned by the Roman Catholic Church first in a trumped up crusade, and then for heresy. Hint: all the wealth, castles, lands and money belonging to the Cathars was ‘confiscated’ by the Church when these massacred them… tolerance and love aye? lol

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In an aside, the Cathars had women priests and thought that males and females were of equal importance and should have equal opportunities and power in life… obviously, for the ‘accepted’ Church, this too was heretical… righttt…

The Languedoc, which is a region in the South West of France, is full of Cathar Castles, which are the most beautiful castles in France, since the region itself was one of the most rich and fruitful (obviously, since the Church took so much bother and killed so many innocent people to get to it).

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Searching for Knights

Pennons float, then snap in the conquering winds.
Shiny helmets flash in the meandering sun
Dappled horses sweat and paw at the ground
Strong hands grip somber cruel lances

The dust flies, the blood rises
steel meets flesh in a bath of cries and screams
Killer or killed, victim or destroyer
One and all – monsters and gods

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Yesterday I started my research for my latest writing commission (I had written about it here – https://ddmoonsong.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/new-freelancing-job-writing-about-medieval-malta/). Since part of what I was asked for was a rendition of the history of the Order of Saint John in Malta, I started reading a lot about it, and it brought it all back to life. Blessed be my unbound imagination.

Although I had learnt a bit about the Order of Saint John in my history class at school when I was quite young, most of it seems to have slithered past me since those years. Reading in detail about it, with the mind of an adult instead of a child, put everything in a different perspective. I remembered certain things which at the time, did not seem important to a child’s mind, but which now have different connotations. I read and remembered that they are the oldest Order of Knights still in existence, that they were rivals with the Order of the Knights Templars, and that while they were in Malta, since the Church had been stopping a large percentage of their income, they turned into smugglers and corsairs, that is pirates who raided Turkish towns upon the coast of North Africa, and then sold the plunder they took.

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What does that do to the concept of the ‘Knight in Shining armor’? Knights who fought for their honour, became nothing more than pirates when they lacked money. Not so heroic is it? Most girls dream of the perfect hero to come and sweep them off their feet, only to encounter the harsh reality – that no man is perfect, and that when one is in love, they have to put up with compromises if they want their relationship to work.

That, I guess, is called growing up.

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