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Reflections on Malta’s connection with Mycenaean culture

The filming in Malta of Troy from Homers epic poem, the Illiad, written about 850 BC, brought to my mind the world’s most famous abduction so masterly described by Homer, the father of European literature. Throughout the years, this historical event left a deep impression on me, particularly as I discovered some literary connec­tions, albeit tenuous ones, with the Maltese islands.

This famous scene was im­mortalis­­ed by the great Eliza­bethan poet Christopher Marlowe, no stranger to Maltese history, with his famous lines on the enchanting beauty of Helen of Troy: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burned the topless towers of Illium?/Sweet Helen make me immortal with a kiss/O thou art fairer than the evening air/Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.”

In this brief interlude I would like to underline the signifi­cance of Marlowe’s focus on Malta in the 16th century. This should not go unnoticed since his high drama in The Jew of Malta, is still performed along with Shake­speare’s play The Merchant of Venice at Stratford-on-Avon.

The Jew of Malta has such strong connections with the maritime city of Birgu where, in 1492, the Jews of the city presented a petition to the Sicilian viceroy staying in the Castrum Maris, because their synagogue in this ancient city was not well protected. It would be a fitting occasion to reopen the historic Castrum Maris with a performance of this play.

Marlowe’s four plays were all influential, particularly Dr Faustus and The Jew of Malta. Marlowe based his latter dramatic play on a contemporary historic event, namely the Siege of Malta of 1565, whose fortunes were followed throughout Europe by means of siege maps published in many European cities. In his play, Mar­lowe disregarded a well-known historical fact, presenting the Turks as the victors in order to make the Jew Barabbas the Governor of Malta.

The dramatist, who was mystified with the beauty of Helen of Troy, was quite familiar with the riches of Oriental trade in the 16th century Mediterranean with Malta as the centre of commerce and intrigue as galleys passed by the shores of nearby Crete: Laden with spice and silk now under sail/Are smoothly gliding down by Candy-shore/To Malta through the Mediterranean Sea.

After my fascination with Marlowe, who died in 1593 at the young age of 29 in a London tavern brawl, I subsequently delved deeply into any literary work connected with Homer’s aus­picious events. I vividly recall reading the autobiography of the eminent German archaeologist Heinrick Schliemann, who after a series of adventures, deceit and wanton negligence, finally dis­covered ancient Troy (then on Turkish territory) in 1870, with the acknowledged assistance of a special correspondent of the Malta Times based in Constantinople.

Since at that time Troy was part of the Ottoman Empire, Schliemann was facing many difficulties with the Turkish authorities to continue his excavations on the Trojan plains, now called Hissarlik (Turkish for fort). And here again we encounter another strong Malta connection as Schliemann had to rely on the support of the British ambassador in Constantinople, Sir Austen Henry Layard, an amateur archaeologist himself, previously the Malta Times correspondent in the Orient.

I am still fascinated by Homer’s account in The Odyssey, mainly based on maritime adventures relating to the wanderings of Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) after the fall of Troy, tossed by the rough seas to remote Ogygia, reputedly the island of Gozo

In his book, Road to Niniveh – The Adventures and Excavations of Sir Austen Layard, N.B. Kubie underlines the fact that the Malta Times “was an excellent paper which was read in the Levant”. Undoubtedly, after his discovery of Niniveh, the Biblical symbol of cruelty and decadence, Layard’s reports were largely responsible for “the chorus of praise which the British ambassador received from England and the continent”.

Another important indication about Malta’s indirect connection with Mycenaean culture emerges from the fact that Schliemann – betraying his insatiable lust to amass more treasures similar to the gold masks and diadems unearthed in Mycenae, where hero-kings preserved quantities of decorated gold cups, jewellery and other personal adornments in their tombs – cast his envious eyes on Malta.

In February 1832, he sent to Malta one of his closest collaborators in Troy, Archibald Sayce, later professor of Assyriology in Oxford, in order to assess, study and report back to Schliemann “the spiral decorations on the northern island of Gozo as these reminded him of those in the Mycenaean tombstones”.

In a letter to Schliemann dated January 15, 1833, Sayce remarked that “the treasures of Mycenae and Orchomeno [in Ancient Arcadia], the tombs of Sparta in Attica and the Phoenician [sic] temples of Malta were all constructed on the same prin­ciple”. Sayce concluded: “Truly, the Phoenicians were the architec­tural teachers of the early Greeks”.

Recently I was fascinated by a remark by famous American novelist and adventurer, Paul Theroux in his book The Pillars of Hercules – A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean: “You cannot do better than use the authority of the Odyssey to prove that your home town was once important.”

It is comforting to know that since the third century BC, the Maltese islands have been closely associated with the Odyssey of Ho­mer, who around 850 BC, re­corded in verse the oral tra­ditions based on much older events per­formed by the adven­turous My­ce­naeans, whose empire lasted from circa 1,600 to 1,200 BC.

I am still fascinated by Homer’s account in The Odyssey, mainly based on maritime adventures relating to the wanderings of Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) after the fall of Troy, tossed by the rough seas to remote Ogygia, reputedly the island of Gozo.

Here, in the magical splendour of green orchards and the shim­mering sea, the nymph Calypso for seven long years exercised all her charms on the homesick Ulysses, but to no avail.

Sizzling with imaginative energy, Homer’s other epic poem, the Illiad, mainly depicting territorial adventures, carries the reader irresistibly just as it must have done when it was launched by the greatest narrative historian about 2,850 years ago.

I still have the dog-eared five-shilling paperback of my youth, my name written in a spindly hand along with the date and home address, the marking annotations reeking of adolescent angst.

In 1948, when I first read Homer’s Illiad, I was still mystified by the romantic poet John Keats’s eulogy to George Chapman for his translation of Homer. My first reading of Homer certainly altered my life, sharpening my enthu­siasm for literature and feeding my penchant to search for truth and beauty.

It should be pointed out that until the 16th century, Malta still had commercial ties with Crete and the Peloponese; in fact, a contemporary map places Malta in the Ionian Sea.

As I write, I visualise a famous painting, the work of Jan Brueghel (1568-1625), son of the renowned Flemish painter Pietre, representing Ulysses fondling Calypso’s breast in an amorous encounter inside a fantastic cave and landscape, with a typical Maltese dog in attendance. This painting reinforces the theory that even in the 16th century the legendary cave of Calypso was located on the Maltese islands. Calypso’s vain attempts and Ulysses’s determination to go back to his beautiful wife Penelope in Itacha underlines the many battles of conscience man has to struggle against in life. These bitter feelings are beautifully expressed in a very sad lament, in one of the many moving passages in the Odyssey.

The heroic tales of Homer immortalised the Mycenaeans, who emerged as a superpower around 1,650 BC and became the effective political rulers of the Mediterranean. After eclipsing the peace-loving Minoan civilisation in nearby Crete, the Mycenaeans developed a powerful and wealthy Bronze Age culture of their own throughout the Mediterranean, as evidenced in the Temple of Hera­cles, unearthed in Marsaxlokk.

A famous candelabra dedi­cated to this great Greek hero, often equated with the Phoeni­cian god Melkart, was discovered in this same locality. This remarkable candelabra, with an inscription in Greek and Punic, made it easier for linguists to decipher the Punic language.

The search for Homer’s epic voyage continues to the present day, when a few years ago, the Mesogeios, a modern replica of the vessel used in Homer’s time, sailed to the western Mediterranean in search of archaeological and navigational evidence relating to a historical reality.

The Mycenaeans developed a powerful and wealthy Bronze Age culture of their own throughout the Mediterranean, as evidenced in the Temple of Heracles, unearthed in Marsaxlokk

Prof. Anthony Bonanno of the University of Malta, in his interes­ting scholarly contribution in Hyphen – A Journal of Melitensia and the Humanities, Vol IV (1983), makes some impor­tant histo­rical and literary obser­va­tions in connection with Malta’s affinity with Ulysses’s adventures. He argues that the identification of Gozo as the legendary abode of Ulysses is no modern concoction but it was initiated by the Alexandria poet Callimachus (c. 305-245 BC). He also notes that another Helle­nistic poet, Appolo­doros, de­fen­ded the position taken by other geographers.

Other known historians point out that the origin of the Gozo location dates back to Hesiod, considered to be the father of Greek didactic poetry and a contemporary of Homer. Some of Hesoid’s works survive to this day, and a recent edition includes a song contest between Homer and Hesiod at the Funeral Games held in honour of King Amphidamas, killed by Patrocolos, for whom the great Achilles hero of the Iliad also organised the Funeral Games, possibly on a Maltese seashore.

The significance of the My­cenaeans sporting ethos deserves to be widely discussed.

In accordance with Schlie­mann’s will drawn up in January 1889, the remarkable collection of gold from the lost city of Troy was bequeathed to the Ethno­logical Museum of Berlin. To­wards the end of World War II, this priceless treasure was sent to the Berlin Zoological Gardens. When the Russian Red Army entered Berlin in the spring of 1945, they dis­covered the rich haul and secretly they immediately des­patched it in special crates to Moscow.

For many years the Soviets de­nied any knowledge of it until, in 1993, the new Russian govern­ment officially acknow­ledged that the famous gold treasures from Troy were indeed in Moscow at the Pushkin Museum. To my know­ledge, the inestimable riches of Priam, King of Troy during the Trojan War, have not yet gone on public display.

(To be concluded)

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