Thursday, May 10, 2012

Another Medina - Another Rabat

For most travellers, the name “Medina” conjures up images of Fez, Marrakech or maybe Rabat. Of course there are other medinas in other countries, but it did come as a surprise to the team from The View from Fez to discover another Rabat – and one that also had a medina.

Medina (or M’dina as the locals spell it) is the old capital of the island of Malta and compared to the Fez, Medina it is tiny. The population is a mere 300, although it is contiguous with the village of Rabat with a population of around 11,000.

M'dina seen from the air, with Rabat in the background
Located at the centre of the island, M’dina has intact walls. However, it is there that the similarities with Fez end. Whereas Fez is car free, Malta’s M’dina has streets wide enough for car traffic and truck deliveries. Fortunately the movement of vehicles is restricted after ten o’clock every morning – except for the horse drawn carriages plying the tourist trade.

The Old Gate - the entrance to the medina

The other outstanding difference, and perhaps a surprising one given the Islamic influences that have affected Malta’s history, is the absence of a mosque. The names M’dina and Rabat (from the Arabic for “suburb”), as well as the layout of the city, reflect the Fatimid Period which began in 870 AD and lasted until the Norman conquest of Malta in 1091 AD. Sadly no buildings remain from pre-Norman times.

The medina streets can be toured in just twenty minutes

The Arab chronicler and geographer Al-Himyari recounts that in 870 AD, following a violent struggle against the occupying Byzantines, the Arab invaders, first led by Halaf Al-Hadim, and later by Sawada Ibn Muhammed, looted and pillaged the island, destroying the most important buildings, and leaving it practically uninhabited until it was recolonised by the Arabs from Sicily in 1048-49 AD.

A courtyard house with fountain

It is uncertain whether this new settlement took place as a consequence of demographic expansion in Sicily, as a result of a higher standard of living in Sicily (in which case the recolonisation may have taken place a few decades earlier), or as a result of civil war which broke out among Arab rulers of Sicily in 1038 The Arabs introduced irrigation to Malta and some fruits and cotton, The most lasting gift was language. Malti is originally a Semitic language descended from Arabic in a blend of Tunisian Arabic and the Siculo-Arabic adopted on the island from Sicily: Over the years it has evolved into Malti – the Maltese language.

While the medina  in Malta is both interesting and beautiful, in any day in the tourist numbers are so great they swamp the local culture. It is a reminder of just how precious the Fez Medina is and how important it remains that its heritage and living culture is preserved.

Story: Sandy McCutcheon
Photographs: Suzanna Clarke



sarah said...

I never made it to M'dina when in Malta - we only had a few days there. Now I'm so disappointed I didn't go! Looks lovely, and now has me earmarking Malta for a second look. Would be happy to put my feet up at the Gleneagles bar on Gozo again too...

Dáithaí C said...

Mdina "The Silent City" - only about 400 people live there - is a fascinating and beguiling place. There was a similar arrangement on Gozo where the capital Rabat is a a walled city at the highest point on the island. It is never referred to by its British name of Victoria by the Gozitans. The language, the last relic of Siculo-Norman is fascinating and is the only Semitic language in the EU. Admiral (am[imac]r-al-bahr)in English is one of the many words we get from Siculo-Norman as the head of the Norman ruler of Sicily's navy was Arabic. During Count Roger's rule French, Greek and Arabic were all used in Sicily reflecting the population mix. Keep up the good work on your excellent Blog.