After a few days catching our breaths and enjoying the pleasures of Valletta, it is time for an expedition. Today's destination will be Malta's oldest city, the former capitol of the island, Mdina. Set on a hillside, about 15 kilometers west of Valletta, Mdina was the center of Maltese affairs for centuries until preempted by Valletta.
Mdina is much smaller than Valletta, bounded by yellow limestone walls and interlaced with winding, smooth-faced alleys. The city's name is Arabic. During the Roman period, it was called Melita.
The girls decided to take in a short informational movie about Mdina, while I wandered the streets and alleys. I do not know the precise dimensions of the town, but ten minutes of brisk walking would allow you to take in most of the streets. The buildings are not nearly as tall as those of Valletta, and they have a smooth, sculptured appearance which contrasts with the more angular Valletta.
After the girls return from their movie, we visit the city museum and cathedral. The museum is mostly devoted to art, a fine collection of paintings, as well as woodcuts and engravings from the hand of Albrecht Durer. I particularly like his Passion of Christ series, a montage of scenes from the passion narrative.
There is just enough time, once we conclude our tour of Mdina, to hurry across the street to the town of Rabat. Rabat grew up outside the walls of Mdina, and its principal claim to fame is the belief that the Apostle Paul wintered here after he was shipwrecked in Malta.
The New Testament account (Acts 27:13—28:11) provides a framework for this belief. Paul was on his way to Rome in chains after appealing for an audience with the emperor. Winter had arrived and despite his warning, the ship he was on had set sail from Crete. A vicious Mediterranean storm caught the ship and they battled for their lives for fourteen days before striking a reef in a Maltese harbor. The men abandoned ship and were treated hospitably by the Maltese. According to the Bible, Paul stayed on the island for three months, before departing on a ship bound for Sicily.
Maltese legends state that Paul lived in a cave in Rabat, near a Roman prison, while he was on the island. This cave was our destination. But before we reached the cave, we went into the catacombs that are located south of Paul's cave. This underground cemetery, carved out of Maltese stone, was fascinating. The only drawback to our visit was the short amount of time we had for exploration. They were preparing to close, so we could only spend twenty minutes wandering below.
As in Rome, the catacombs were hewn out of tufa stone, a local soft lava. Coffins — sarcophagi — and simple platforms for bodies were carved out of the stone, creating rooms which were then occupied bu the dead. The catacombs were poorly lit and the girls had a terrific time scooting through the aisles and winding passages, popping out at each other and playing hide and seek.
We had passed the church built over Paul's cave on the way to the catacombs, so we simply retraced our steps. Like the catacombs, Paul's cave is underground. You walk down a flight of steps and enter a stone chamber. Ahead is a grotto carved out of the gray stone, which, we are told, once served as a Roman prison. We could see notches carved in the stone overhead that once held prisoners in their chains.
To the right is a cave. Today it contains a large marble statue of the Apostle Paul, but it surely would have been undecorated during Paul's day. The Maltese assert that Paul stayed in this cave for three months (although it is not clear why he didn't stay in someone's house). The Maltese also believe that the Publius mentioned in the New Testament account was the Roman governor of the island (the New Testament simply states that he was the chief man of the island), and that after Paul had healed his father, Publius became a Christian and ultimately the first bishop of Malta.
The Maltese are very proud of the great antiquity of their faith, and the New Testament does give some support for their claims. There is an information gap between what the Bible says about Paul's three months on Malta and the more-developed legends of the Maltese, but you certainly can't assume that these are nothing more than pious myths. Paul would have had to stay somewhere while he was on Malta. Mdina was a Roman colony and the principal city on the island for centuries. It is certainly plausible that Paul stayed here.
After finishing our tour of Paul's cave, we load up the car and head back to Valletta. I'd like to say that navigation is getting easier, but it is not: Malta has some of the worst road signage I've ever seen, often on the order of: “the turn you just passed was the road back to Valletta.” Oh well, it does give us a chance to exercise our blood pressure as well as see more of the Maltese countryside.
Dinner was on the opposite side of Valletta's spine, in a small cafe I picked out near the Anglican cathedral. Pleasant food, a balmy evening, a stroll through the dying light, home to bed.