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A study in Orientalist architecture

The Royal Palace, Mysore, India. Photo: Mark-Anthony Falzon

The Royal Palace, Mysore, India. Photo: Mark-Anthony Falzon

Conrad Thake:
The Ottoman Muslim Cemetery in Malta
The Author, 2016, cloth.
125 pp

On June 4, 1876, the deposed Sultan Abdül Aziz was found bleeding to death in his glorified prison at Feriye Palace. He had slit his wrists with a small pair of scissors he had been given to trim his beard with.

Eleven years earlier, a happier Abdül Aziz had travelled to Europe on a spectacular tour – the first ever Ottoman sultan to head west with honourable intentions. His top two destinations were Paris, where he visited the Universal Exposition on Napoleon III’s invitation, and London, where Queen Victoria made a rare appearance to welcome him in style.

The evidence is scant and inconclusive, but Thake suggests that the Sultan made a brief stopover in Malta on June 26-27 of 1867. Be that as it may, his tughra (calligraphic monogram) continues to greet visitors to the protagonist of the book under review.

In 1873, a rectangular plot of agricultural land in Marsa was transferred to the Sublime Porte by the British government for the build-ing of a Muslim cemetery. The new cemetery, which would be financed by Abdül Aziz, was intended to replace the old Muslim burial ground at Xatt il-Qwabar (also in Marsa) – itself a replacement of an older one that had been destroyed when the Floriana fortifications were built after 1635.

It is telling that three of a sequence of five Muslim burial grounds in Malta have been located at the water’s edge. The exceptions are the 11th-century cemetery in Rabat and the recent development in Corradino, but then they represent entirely different political circumstances.

The architect who was chosen to design the new cemetery was Emanuele Luigi Galizia (1830-1906). Galizia was well-placed on at least three counts. First, he was an Anglophile who occupied a key post in government public works – and the Ottoman commission was steeped in British colonial politics.

This book urges us to properly value a fine architect who transformed our environment into something altogether more magical

Second, he had already produced the cemetery at Addolorata, which served as a testimony to his excellent design skills and to his ability to adapt an exotic idiom to local context and topography. Third, Galizia enjoyed family and other connections with the Ottoman government.

Malta in the 19th-century was embedded in a British-dominated world system. For his part Galizia eschewed the enduring provincial love affair with baroque in favour of what we would today call cosmopolitan cultural bearings. In part, this was a result of his travels. They included an extended tour of Italy, France, and Britain in 1860-1862, as well as later trips to Cyprus, Syria, Egypt, Athens, Istanbul, and Tunis.

Girolamo Gianni, The Martyrs’ Cemetery in Malta, 1874.Girolamo Gianni, The Martyrs’ Cemetery in Malta, 1874.

As an architect, Galizia was a 19th-century bowerbird who, in the spirit of the times, tapped into an eclectic range of styles. The Ottoman cemetery, as well as two of his three houses on Rudolph Street in Sliema, are decidedly orientalist. Beyond that, they defy an easy categorization. They are broadly ‘Indo-Saracenic’ or ‘Indo-Mughal’, a style that gave us such gems as John Nash’s Royal Pavilion in Brighton (1787-1823), Sezincote House in Gloucestershire (1805), and the royal palace in Mysore, India (1897-1912).

Seen in this context, the Ottoman cemetery’s onion domes, horseshoe arches, decorative minarets, finials, and pierced screens, appear less outlandish. They are products of an orientalist imagination that lent itself to a commission for a Muslim burial ground.

It also seems to have taken rather well to its context. Galizia’s design for the Addolorata is a successful marriage between the hilly terrain and the Gothic spires. For the Muslim cemetery, Thake argues that the architect probably had in mind the hortus conclusus principle of a walled paradisiacal garden.

Judging by the way the cemetery is enclosed to effectively section itself off from its surroundings, it is hard to disagree. That said, it does not deny passers-by a glimpse of its minarets and exotic arches. It was this ability to jog the orientalist imagination that first captivated Thake as a child.

Forty-five years later, he has given us this well-researched and beautifully-illustrated book. It is a take on an article of his that was published earlier this year in the specialist journal Muqarnas. Thake discusses the circumstances (and intrigue) of the commission, locates the cemetery within the context of Galizia’s work in Malta specifically and orientalist architecture more broadly, and traces some of the characteristics and history of the place.

As in the case of Thake’s 2011 work on the British Admiralty architect William Scamp (1801-1872), this book urges us to properly value a fine architect who transformed our environment into something altogether more magical. The hope is that it will not become doubly elegiac.

If the outrageous application for a petrol station and car wash right next to it is approved, the Sultan’s commission may well become a cemetery to good architecture.

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