Yes, I’ve been sadly derelict in keeping this blog up-to-date. As I dispatch this post into the interwebs, the tally of countries in which I’ve karaoked stands at 59. There’s work to be done to catch you, my loyal readers, up on my adventures. That work starts now, as I reminisce about a trip that took place in July 2017. Prince Harry was still over four months away from proposing to Meghan Markle when that trip took place.
To reach the half-century mark for countries in which I’ve karaoked, I wanted to choose somewhere special. The nation that I settled upon was the Mediterranean archipelago of Malta. That tiny but picturesque and history-rich country turned out to be a spectacular selection. Malta was like nowhere else that I’ve been to. And in addition to enjoying an idyllic vacation there, I did reach the milestone of 50 countries on my World Karaoke Tour.
Introduction: the geography and history
Placing Malta in space and time
Malta consists of three inhabited islands – Malta, Gozo, and Comino (rendered in Maltese as “Kemmuna”), in descending order of size; and a smattering of unpopulated isles. I lodged on the island of Malta and also day-tripped via ferry to Gozo. The archipelago is situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, some 100 miles south of Sicily and just over 300 miles north of the African nation of Tunisia.
As with many locales in and around the Mediterranean, history on the islands that comprise Malta goes way back. The island chain was first settled over 7,000 years ago. We’ll have more to say about some of the earliest reaches of its extensive past. However, two of the most notable aspects of its history revolve around events and institutions of the most recent millennium.
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta: Maltese in name only
What many people think of as the Knights of Malta is an organisation whose full title is the “Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta,” referred to in shorthand as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM). Founded in Jerusalem during the Crusades, circa 1099, as the Knights Hospitaller, its roots date back even further, to a hospital established in Jerusalem in 1048. To make things even more confusing, the SMOM is actually headquartered in Rome. Despite being a chivalric order rather than a nation-state, it’s an elective monarchy that maintains diplomatic relations with 108 countries; possesses Observer status at the United Nations; mints its own currency; and even issues its own passports. All this despite lacking a single square inch of land.
You may wonder what the SMOM, which as mentioned was founded in Jerusalem and is based in Rome, has to do with Malta. Well, the SMOM hasn’t always lacked for physical territory. At one point, the SMOM held the Mediterranean island of Rhodes. In 1523, it lost Rhodes after a siege by the Ottomans. (In 1947, Rhodes would become part of Greece.)
A bizarre avian tribute
Then, in 1530, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (whose other titles included King Charles I of Spain) and his mother, Queen Joanne of Castile, granted to the SMOM the islands of Malta and Gozo (but not the other islands that today comprise the nation of Malta), as well as the city of Tripoli, which in modern times is the capital of Libya in north Africa. No less a personage than the Pope himself (an office occupied at the time by Clement VII) approved this land transfer. Attached to this territorial grant was a rather unusual condition: the SMOM agreed to pay to Charles V and his mother the annual “Tribute of the Maltese Falcon.” Once a year on All Saints Day (November 1), the SMOM was required to deliver to the Holy Roman Emperor and his mom, in their capacity as Monarchs of Sicily, a Maltese falcon. That’s “falcon” as in the bird. Yes, Maltese falcons were a thing centuries before Humphrey Bogart was making movies. (More on the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon below.) Two Mediterranean islands with an African city thrown in, all for the cost of one bird per year; doesn’t sound like a bad deal. (Some additional provisos were also included in the transaction that gave inception to the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon. For example, the SMOM had to agree to non-aggression against the then-Kingdom of Sicily; to a refusal to confer immunity upon fugitives; and to arbitration of disputes. But the only material price the SMOM had to pay for the island of Malta was the above-mentioned one bird per annum.
The SMOM becomes a landless nation
The SMOM lost Tripoli to the Ottoman Empire in 1551. But it continued to flourish, and it even briefly colonized some Caribbean islands in the 17th century. It held Malta and Gozo until 1798, when Napoleon and his French military forces expelled the Order from those islands. Following a Maltese rebellion, the British seized Malta in 1800; Malta became a British colony in 1813 pursuant to the Treaty of Paris (which had nothing to do with the 1783 treaty of the same name that ended the American Revolution). In 1964, Malta gained independence as a sovereign nation. By then the SMOM had long ceased having a physical presence on Malta’s islands; it’s been landless since the Napoleonic invasion of 1798 (after which the SMOM stopped paying its annual tribute of a falcon to the Holy Roman Emperor). Today, the SMOM’s 13,500 Knights, Dames, and auxiliary members (and yes, it perpetually maintains its total membership at exactly 13,500) are dispersed throughout the world. Nevertheless, the SMOM has permanently retained “Malta” in its name. In modern times, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta doesn’t own any land in Malta (although under a treaty ratified in 2001 the Maltese government granted it possession of the upper part of Fort St. Angelo on Malta’s main island; the Maltese government retains some control over that slab of turf, which legally has extraterritorial status.) The SMOM performs humanitarian functions, renders medical assistance, and organises social functions.
The siege of Malta: it was – wait for it – legendary
Although the Ottomans grabbed Tripoli from the SMOM in 1551, the Order performed far better when the Ottomans sought to wrest Malta from it in 1565. In what has become known to history as the Great Siege of Malta, a ragtag force of some 6,100 soldiers (consisting of SMOM troops augmented by conscripts from the civilian population and allied forces from Greece, Italy, and Sicily) outlasted a siege and vanquished an Ottoman force that greatly outnumbered them. Contemporary accounts of the number of fighters that the Turkish armada brought to Malta vary greatly, but it’s reasonable to place their total count at somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000. The onslaught and siege by the Ottomans lasted nearly four months before they retreated, having failed to take the island.
This heroic stand by Malta’s defenders garnered fame throughout Europe, to the point where the great French writer Voltaire asserted, “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta.” Conversely, the failed siege dealt a crushing blow to the Ottomans and helped spark a shift in the balance of power in the Mediterranean, as the Ottomans declined and Spain became ascendant. Meanwhile, the SMOM continued to occupy the islands of Malta and Gozo for over 200 more years, until Napoleon showed up.
The island of Malta: Gorgeous buildings and the deep blue sea
A few images can do more to convey the aesthetic splendour of Malta’s principal island than any words I could possibly write:
The Mdina: what it lacks in vowels, it makes up in architecture
A highlight of any visit to the island of Malta is a stroll through Mdina (known also as Città Vecchia or Città Notabile), a walled city that served as the island’s capital in ancient times. Among Mdina’s claims to distinction, St. Paul (as in, that guy in the New Testament) allegedly resided there in the year 60 A.D. after being shipwrecked.
Have a look at some views of Mdina (pronounced “EM-deena”). The detailing on its buildings is stunning, and its narrow streets and alleys are also quite pulchritudinous:
The hard-to-pronounce village of Marsaxlokk
Marsaxlokk is a tiny, old-fashioned fishing village on the main island of Malta, and is known for the colourful boats that put out from its harbour. Like so much of Malta, Marsaxlokk has ancient antecedents; its port was used by the Phoenicians! That would be the same Phoenicians who invented the first alphabet well over 3,000 years ago. (Earlier writing systems such as hieroglyphics asren’t considered alphabets; but I digress.)
Gozo: this island hits a Homer
Gozo is the 2nd-largest of Malta’s 3 principal islands and is easily reached by ferry from the island of Malta. Legend holds that Gozo is the island on which Calypso held Odysseus captive for a number of years in Homer’s Odyssey – an island named in the epic poem as “Ogygia.” However, the legend identifying Gozo as the real-life counterpart to Ogygia is of dubious validity and may be more of an urban legend. This site on Greek mythology states, “Where the island was is still unknown, and there are many versions of its possible location . . . . [T]he common belief among many historians and scholars is that Homer’s locations were mostly fictional, mythical, so this one was too. Some believed that the island was located in the western Mediterranean Sea, or more precisely – in the Ionian Sea [which would be well to the east of Malta].”) Still, despite the questionable veracity of Gozo’s claimed tie-in with Homer’s tale, whilst on Gozo I felt compelled to grab lunch in a restaurant called Odyssey. 🙂
A temple built by giants?
The highlight of my day-trip to Gozo was my exploration of the ruins of the Ġgantija temple complex – a megalithic temple complex that was built circa 3,600 B.C., making it over a millennium older than the Egyptian pyramids! (Architecturally speaking, to call the edifices at the site “megalithic” is to signify that they were constructed of large stones without the use of mortar.) The site was dubbed Ġgantija because at one time before the advent of modern archaeology, it was believed to have been constructed by a race of giants.
When we talk about the deep history in Malta, Ġgantija is a prime example of how far back human civilisation stretches on those tiny islands. (You can find two temple sites of similar antiquity on Malta’s main island.)
Tilting at windmills
Whilst walking around on Gozo in the vicinity of Ġgantija, I stumbled upon a nearly 300-year-old windmill – which, of course, is a whippersnapper compared to the nearby heaps of stones.
A broken window: the sad collapse of one of nature’s masterpieces
Until March 8, 2017, one of the principal attractions on the island of Gozo was the Azure Window, a natural limestone formation in the shape of an arch. But on that date – less than 4 months prior to my visit to Malta – the Azure Window collapsed. The arch had weakened in preceding years, and it finally fell apart in bad weather last year. Here’s a stock photo of how the Azure Window appeared when it was still intact:
Karaoke: the Maltese weren’t cross at me
Perhaps round numbers are overrated. Nevertheless, it was with much anticipation that I entered Cork’s Irish Pub in St. Julian’s on the island of Malta, seeking to sing karaoke in my 50th country. I’ve often said that I don’t have a “go-to” song (here you can find the extensive list of songs that I’ve karaoked over the years); but when I handed in my song slip to the KJ at Cork’s, the song title I’d inscribed on it was “La Bamba.” That song invariably gets crowds fired up, and has consistently elicited favourable audience responses when I perform it – most memorably in Panama City, Panama in November 2013. Let’s see how it went over in Malta:
You’ll notice that a portion of the song is missing towards the end of the video. What apparently happened is that, due to poor product design by Samsung (the manufacturer of my smartphone), a message popped up on the screen – during the transmission of my live Facebook video of the song – stating that I was almost out of cloud storage space (as if that were a matter of the direst urgency). The appearance of the message interrupted the streaming and recording of the video. Fortunately I was quickly alerted to the issue, and was able to run over to my videographer and close the idiotic and unwanted pop-up message. This enabled the resumption of the Facebook streaming just in time for my patented leg kick with which I close out all my performances. Thus, most of the song was captured on video.
And that is how, on July 2, 2017, Malta became the 50th country on my World Karaoke Tour! Yeah, I’m aware that July 2 of the year before this one was a long time ago; but I’m finally writing about it, so give me some credit. 🙂 The KJ, by the way, was a woman named Shailey, and she ran a great show.
A (k)night at the movies: The Maltese Falcon
The 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, based on the novel by Dashiel Hammett, contains a plot point with a tenuous connection to Malta, thereby bringing it within the scope of this blog post. A prototypical film noir, the movie boasted some high-caliber talent; it was directed by John Huston, and Humphrey Bogart memorably portrayed Detective Sam Spade. Together with his role in High Sierra, which was also directed by Huston and had been released earlier in 1941, Bogie’s performance in The Maltese Falcon trebucheted him to superstardom. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, who would go on to appear with Bogart in Casablanca the following year, were among the other cast members.
In the flick, which takes place in San Francisco, Spade is investigating a couple of murders. During the course of his investigation, he gets caught up in the efforts of some ruthless characters to gain possession of the valuable titular object (although the subject of their quest is never actually named in any dialogue as the “Maltese Falcon”). In one scene, Greenstreet’s character, Kasper “Fat Man” Gutman, tells Spade the backstory behind the “falcon” that Gutman and others are pursuing:
“What do you know, sir, about the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, later known as the Knights of Rhodes and other things? . . . In 1539, these crusading knights presented Emperor Charles V to give them the island of Malta. He made but one condition: that they pay him each year the tribute of a falcon, in acknowledgment that Malta was still under Spain . . . .
“Have you any conception of the extreme, the immeasurable wealth of the Order at that time? . . . . They were rolling in wealth, sir. For years they had taken from the East nobody knows what spoils of gems, precious metals, silks, ivory, sir. We all know the Holy Wars to them were largely a matter of loot.
“The knights were profoundly grateful to the Emperor Charles for his generosity toward them. They hit upon the happy thought of sending him for his first year’s tribute not an insignificant live bird, but a glorious golden falcon crusted from head to foot with the finest jewels in their coffers . . . . They sent this foot-high jeweled bird to Charles, who was then in Spain. They sent it in a galley commanded by a member of the Order.
“It never reached Spain. A famous admiral of buccaneers took the knights’ galley and the bird.”
As further explained by Gutman, over the centuries the statuette wended its way through various European cities; and at some point it “acquired a coat of black enamel, so it looked like nothing more than a fairly interesting black statuette.” In what appears to have been the present day as of the time of the film’s 1941 release, Gutman and others were hot on the trail of the disguised golden falcon.
Fact-checking The Maltese Falcon
We can accept for purposes of dramatic license the fiction that for the initial annual payment of tribute, the SMOM dispatched a gilded statue of a falcon rather than a live bird (although in reality, no such substitution was ever made). And “Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, later known as the Knights of Rhodes and other things” is a reasonable paraphrase of the former and present monikers of the SMOM. However, the details that Gutman relates regarding the origin and purpose of the annual tribute paid by the SMOM to Charles V contain two principal inaccuracies. First as mentioned above, the island of Malta was in fact just one of three territories vouchsafed to the SMOM, along with Gozo and Tripoli. Second, the granting of those territories to the SMOM, together with the inception of the annual tribute to Charles V, happened in 1530, not 1539. (Hammett’s novel correctly identifies all three of the territories granted to the SMOM; but, like the movie, it wrongly gives 1539 as the year.)
The movie contains a much bigger howler at its very beginning. Immediately after the opening credits, the following text – presumably intended as a condensed version of the backstory later told by Gutman to Spade – scrolls up the screen:
“In 1539, the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a golden falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels – – – – – but pirates seized the galley . . . .” (emphasis added)
The Knights Templar (full name: the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon) were a Catholic military order that formed during the Crusades, but was totally distinct from the Knights Hospitaller from which the SMOM evolved. Moreover, the Knights Templar dissolved in 1312 – more than two centuries before the SMOM agreed to pay the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon beginning in 1530.
Still, while the film The Maltese Falcon gets some of its factual underpinnings wrong, it is surely no worse than many other Tinseltown productions in that respect. Notwithstanding the above-mentioned inaccuracies, The Maltese Falcon stands as an enduring classic of the silver screen, an exemplar of Hollywood’s golden age. In 1998, the American Film Institute (AFI) named it no. 23 on its list of the 100 greatest movies. In an updated version of the AFI’s list in 2007, it slid to no. 31. Still, 31st-best of all time ain’t too shabby.
Conclusion: the stuff that dreams are made of
Not only has The Maltese Falcon itself gained immortality in the world of film, but so has its final line: detective Spade, when asked what the prized statuette is, answers, “The stuff that dreams are made of.” (In 2005, the AFI honoured that line as the 14th greatest quotation in cinematic history.) So too, as a destination for travellers, the nation of Malta is the stuff that dreams are made of. A jewel of the Mediterranean, steeped in history and set in impossibly blue waters, Malta is truly a magnificent place. It was a worthy country for my World Karaoke Tour to reach the big 5-0 in.