There are different stories to the origin of the name “Malta”. Some say it was the Phoenicians, that built a wall around its former capital and called it “Malet”, which means Safe Place. Others say it was the Romans that called the island “Melita”, meaning honey, which then was and still is a amber coloured and tasteful treat.
Fact is, that the Arabs changed the name of the capital to “Medina”, when they occupied the islands in 870 AD. Later, when the Normans conquered the island, Roger the Norman, count of Sicily, decreed the building of a cathedral in the capital and it became the medieval seat of civil, military and religious authorities.
When Medina in 1429 withstood the Saracens’ attempt to conquer Malta, the ruler Alfonso V of Aragon gave the city the sobriquet of “Cittá Notabile”, Noble City.
This name lasted until the arrival of yet another star on the scene of Maltese history: the knights and their completion of their new capital, Valletta. The old one was then rechristened “Cittá Vecchia”, Old City, to distinguish it from the new.
The Maltese, corrupting the Arabic, preferred “Mdina”, and because there’s no point in resisting the public opinion, the name stuck.
Nowadays, Mdina is lovingly called “The Silent City” and it’s postulated that even in the busy tourist season, the streets of this fortified, yellow sandstone jewel are quiet. This was certainly the case when the ETM Travel Team visited the city off-season in February.
Skillful town planning
Whether the curved streets were designed to effectively ventilate the streets, to prevent arrows from flying far and so making the capital easier to defend, or to silence unwanted noise, is a matter of debate. One could argue, that they were designed so in order to achieve all these benefits. We benefited from it when a school class – noise-wise easily comparable to a hoard of bloodthirsty Saracens – at one moment was noisy and the other moment reduced to imperceptible mumble. Thus blissfully silenced by The Silent City.
Just as different names are part of this small yet great city’s legacy, so is the architecture: from the old fortifications and the medieval palazzos to the Baroque cathedral, which was named after St. Paul, which was said to have shipwrecked on Malta on a ship from Turkey. Unfortunately, many of the old buildings were destroyed in the great earthquake in January 1693, that shook the entire central Mediterranean. Because of that, much of the architecture we see today in Mdina is Baroque; the cathedral of 1699, the main gate of 1724 (which doubled as the gate of King’s Landing in Game of Thrones), the Pallazo Vilhena (housing the National Museum of Natural History) from 1733 and many other lovely buildings.
Trading in coins
The ticket to visit the cathedral was 5€ and also gave access to the cathedral museum, where we found the coin collection to be very interesting: to get a feeling of the history of Malta and especially the world around it based on coins, that have been found and excavated all around the island. Yet another sign, that Malta might be considered on the fringe of Europe, but is in its very heart of history.
Another peculiar, small but informative museum the tickets gave access to, was the Museum of Tools, Trades and Traditions in the basement of the neighbouring Palazzo de Piro. These 4 rooms exhibit practical tools used during not-so-old times: different hammers, keys, irons, planers etc. Although lacking enlightening descriptions the small exhibition was still educational and interesting.
The day was made perfect with a visit to Palazzo Falson’s cafe of the top floor. The weather didn’t invite us to sit outside, which must be lovely when warmer, but the view onto the atrium was just as picturesque as the view on the landscape. The cheesecake might have had a say in our exhilaration!
If you’re visiting Malta and want to discover more, visit the cool Fortifications Centre museum in Valletta. It’s free!