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Spin the Globe: Lisa Abend in Malta

AFAR chose a destination at random—by literally spinning a globe—and sent writer Lisa Abend on a spontaneous journey to Malta.

It turns out that the chocolate candies called Maltesers are not, in fact, made in Malta. There were indeed Maltese falcons, but the local predilection for hunting wild birds rendered the indigenous breed extinct decades ago. Which means that of the three associations I had with this tiny Mediterranean nation, located about 56 miles from Sicily and 180 from Tunisia, only one remained intact when I arrived. I would have to find a Knight of Malta.

In theory, this shouldn’t have been difficult. Charles V, who at one time ruled about half of Europe as Holy Roman Emperor, gave Malta to the Knights of Saint John in 1530 as a thank-you gift for the order’s good work trying to wrest the Holy Land from infidels during the Crusades. For the next 200 years, the Knights ran the archipelago as their personal fiefdom. In 1565 they had to repel a fearsome Ottoman invasion in the Great Siege, an event that became the defining moment in Maltese history. Aesthetically, too, the Knights did a bang-up job: The streets of the capital, Valletta, are a gorgeous showcase of Baroque architecture. Amid the array of honey-colored structures, every other building, it seems, was once a hospital built by the Knights or a residence for errant ones; the tourist office, for example, had been the Italian Knights’ auberge.

Malta is a dream of Europe past, all faith and firepower. Religion is taken seriously: Ninety-eight percent of the population is Catholic, and divorce remains illegal. Valletta alone, with fewer than 7,000 residents, has more than 20 Catholic churches. Anything that isn’t a church is some kind of military structure—a bastion here, a fortified wall there. The floor of the city’s sprawling cathedral is literally paved with knights. Each polychromatic, skeleton-bedecked tombstone honors a good Christian soldier buried beneath.

But I wanted a live one. And not just any live Knight. I wanted to meet the Knight Resident.

Across Grand Harbour from Valletta, in the town of Vittoriosa, the fort Sant’Angelo juts fetchingly into the water. Its top level is leased by the Knights, who remain an active order, and houses one of them, the Resident. I imagined him locked up there, a lonely sentinel, perpetually scanning the watery horizon for intruders. I thought he might like some company.

“You want to meet the Knight Resident?” asked Luciano, the owner of the guesthouse where I was staying. I nodded enthusiastically, and he looked at me with either disbelief or a new interest, I wasn’t sure which.

The Maltese I spoke with all knew of Fra John Critien, who was appointed to his position a decade ago after years of service to the order. None, however, had any idea how I might meet him. At the tourist office, an eager young man tried to channel my interest toward someone a bit more accessible. “How about Sant Manduca? He’s a Knight and a descendant of Knights,” he said. “Also, he’s the mayor of Mdina.”

I took one of the 1970s-era buses that passes for public transportation in Malta to the walled city of Mdina, the island’s former capital. It is, if possible, even more beautiful than Valletta. The silent streets tangled behind its thick, ornate stone gate hold more golden-hued cathedrals, porticos, and churches, and beneath them, catacombs. I waited for Peter dei Conti Sant Manduca in his bare office. He is an aristocrat with a family lineage that stretches more than 600 years into Malta’s past, but with his lightly creased face and his faded jeans and T-shirt, he looked like the cool dad at a sixth-grade birthday party.

“The Knights were like the NATO of the Crusades,” he said. “All different nationalities, each with its own specialty. The Italians were in charge of the navy, the English in charge of the horses, and the Germans had ballistics.” He told me that the Maltese language was about 60 percent Semitic in origin, descended from Sicilian Arabic, but that the Muslims had only ruled Malta for 200 years—“the shortest time of any place in Europe.” I asked him if all that crusading history hadn’t resulted in a somewhat insular mind-set. “Oh, no,” he said, shaking his dark curls. “We Maltese are very tolerant.”

I wasn’t so sure. Already I was starting to feel strangely claustrophobic, and I had been in Malta only a day. On the bus back to Valletta I met Kasib. I knew that in recent years the island had become a major point of entry to the northland for undocumented migrants from Africa, but he was the first dark-skinned person I had seen. “Where is everybody?” I asked. “They’re either in the detention center or they’ve been sent on,” Kasib replied. “To the real Europe.”

He had walked from his home in Mali to Libya, then boarded a boat that was supposed to take him to Italy, only to have it land in Malta instead. “Very difficult,” is all he would say about the detention center where he was confined for a year. Kasib wanted to reach the real Europe, too—he had his sights set on Germany—but a mental health issue had landed him in a local hospital, leaving him little chance of obtaining the visa he needed to move on. With an apologetic shrug, he explained: “I hear voices.”

Who wouldn’t? Malta is so saturated with history that it’s impossible to walk the streets without hearing the centuries echo. During my stay I counted five different historical reenactments of the Grand Siege staged or screened for tourists. A dim recollection of the cannon with which the Knights defended themselves reverberates in the Maltese fondness for fireworks; every night while I was there, Valletta’s stillness was intermittently shattered as teenagers detonated cherry bombs in the street.

What does it mean to have the past so very present? One evening, I joined a group of middle-aged women as they sat chatting at an outdoor café. For a while the conversation focused on the observations that kids were all taking drugs and immigrants were taking all the jobs. I thought I saw my opening. “Do you ever think about the Crusades?” I asked with what I immediately recognized as breathtaking stupidity. There was silence as the women looked at me with deserved scorn. Then one of them, her magenta-colored hair glinting in the fading light, spoke up. “No, you don’t think about it. It’s just there, like a tree, or this table.”

I was determined to take the matter up with the Knight Resident. The next day, I caught a water taxi to Vittoriosa. As we glided across the Grand Harbour, the driver, Laurence, pointed to a peninsula and told me that Russell Crowe had shot scenes for Gladiator there. I disembarked and walked under the burning sun to the Sant’Angelo fortress. It was closed for restoration, but I ignored the large signs barring entrance and climbed the stone ramp. There, beneath an arched gate, conservators were working. I asked the security guard if it was possible to speak to the Knight, and he surprised me by pulling a cell phone from his pocket and handing it to me. The Knight answered on the first ring.

I had imagined him inviting me in, showing me around a library filled with ancient texts, maybe serving me a glass of Maltese wine. But no, the Knight did not wish to see me. “It’s impossible,” he said, firmly if graciously. “I’m on holiday.”

I handed the phone back to the guard. My disappointment must have shown because he kindly took me outside and pointed to a series of rooms in the fortress. “There,” he said. “That’s where he lives.” I almost laughed. The absurdity of my quest hit me: I was talking to Malta’s Knight Resident on a cell phone while he was vacationing—from what, I wondered—at home. I looked up and saw that amid the mountain of carved stone was a row of windows. The shutters were all closed.