Simanaitis Says

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MY PRIMARY knowledge about the Mediterranean island of Malta was pretty much limited to its falcon and detective Sam Spade. However, this knowledge expanded considerably upon reading “Malta, Where the West Was Born,” by Claire Messud, The New York Times Style Magazine, November 30, 2017. This in turn got me searching out Maltese references on my own bookshelves and, wouldn’t you know, I learned even more.

The dome and belfries of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina, Malta. Image by Alex Majoli, The New York Times Style Magazine, November 30, 2017.

My most concise Malta reference is in A Volume of Places, a 1957 compendium of world venues, arranged alphabetically, each described in a few paragraphs. Once identifying Malta being an island of 122 sq. miles, 70 miles south of Sicily, 200 miles north of Africa, the book reports that “Malta is one of the most densely peopled areas in the world.”

Also, its archaeological riches include megalithic temples older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids. And, “… in the sunlight, the brilliance of a Catholic procession winds through bannered streets. Every day, in some part of Malta, there is a fiesta, and at night the sky is studded with man-made stars and thunderous with the crack of murtali, a kind of explosive rocket.”

More recently, Claire Messud’s article notes that the apostle St. Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 A.D. Subsequently, he converted the Roman governor and locals to Christianity, “making the Maltese among the earliest Christians and the island a profoundly Christian state.”

For the pious, or especially curious, Malta’s 16th-century Church of the Shipwreck of St. Paul is said to contain as a relic his right wrist bone.

As for the Maltese proclivity for festivities, Messud quotes a waitress: “It’s a big deal. We Maltese love a party and we love fireworks.” In fact, today with a population of 400,000, Malta has 35 fireworks factories.

The Messud article’s subtitle cites Malta’s principal invaders up to around 1530: “The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans—all left their mark on what is one of the most bewitching, most visited (yet least known) palimpsests in the Mediterranean sea.” Her article gives details of these and others, but here I turn to one of my collection of old guidebooks.

If we’re talking far enough back, history hasn’t changed in the last mere 127 years.

Tracing the Maltese Falcon, we must go back to 1118 and the founding of what became the Knights of Malta. This founding occurred in Jerusalem during a period when the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, was a Frenchman. (His brother, Baldwin of Boulogne, was the first King of Jerusalem, assuming we count only Europeans. There had been other Biblical ones.)

Raymond du Puys, aka Puy, was rector of the Order of St. John at the time. And, according to Murray’s, he pitched the king with a proposal “to convert his peaceful fraternity into a band of warrior monks, who, without abandoning either their vows or principles, should add thereto the further obligation of combating on behalf of their faith.”

Murray’s continues, “… before many years had passed, the white cross banner of the Order of St. John had waved over many a field of strife, and had spread terror and dismay amidst the ranks of many an infidel host.”

The Crusades sure showed ‘em Christianity at its finest.

However, what with one thing and another, this new aggressive Order of St. John kept losing its headquarters to those infidel Turks. Indeed, the order’s full name, the Sovereign Military Hospitalier Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, confirms this.

The Maltese Islands. Image from Murray’s Handbook of the Mediterranean Part I.

In 1530, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, 1519–1556, gave the Order of St. John the island of Malta and its dependencies. In return, the Order’s Grand Master had to deliver an annual tribute: “… the sole payment of a falcon; which every year, on the Feast of All Saints [November 1], shall be presented by the person or persons duly authorized for that purpose….”

Less publicized is what the Maltese people themselves thought of this land-grab.

For the rest of this story, my authority is Caspar Gutman, one of the heavies in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon. Or, if you prefer the best of several movie renditions, check out the one with Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre, and Astor.

The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook, Jr., Warner Bros., 1941.

A final tidbit: Napolean’s troops swarmed Malta in 1798, but Lord Nelson (huzzah!) beat them fair and square. Having survived extensive Nazi bombing in World War II, Malta remained British until 1964. Now it’s a proud card-carrying member of the European Union, which is more than might be said of Britain after March 29, 2019.

Valletta, Malta’s capital, seen from across Marsamxett Harbour in the neighboring town of Sliema, which takes its name from the Maltese word for “peace.” Image by Alex Majoli from The New York Times Style Magazine, November 30, 2017.

The Times Style Magazine’s Messud sums up, “Although tiny, they have more of everything—more history, more religious devotion, more invaders, more dropped bombs, more resilience, more jokes, more parties, more life. Malta is unique: Whether or not the world pays heed, its citizens celebrate the fact.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Michael Rubin
    December 11, 2017

    The Maltese fireworks unfortunately extends to car bombs killing nosy journalists looking into corruption.

    • jlalbrecht64
      December 12, 2017

      Yeah, that was horrible.

  2. jlalbrecht64
    December 12, 2017

    Enjoyed this! I’ve never been, but my son has multiple times and says it is very nice. I love the Bogart movie, and the Hammett book.

  3. simanaitissays
    December 12, 2017

    Agreed, the horrific corruption climate of Malta appears to be nowhere as stable as its physical climate.

  4. Gordon Craig
    December 13, 2017

    My parents came of age in Scotland during WWII. I was born in ’46 and we came to America in ’50. Mom and Dad always told me of how Malta resisted the Nazi bombardments and fought back in those dark days, indeed, the entire island population was awarded the Victoria Cross for its valor and forbearance . Mom and Dad were very grateful and took heart that another island nation in peril and about to be invaded took resolve against such overwhelming odds and eventually triumphed. Best Wishes, gordon

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