21 January 2022

In search of a lost synagogue
in the ‘Silent City’ of Mdina,
the mediaeval capital of Malta

Carmel Street is a narrow street the heart of the former Jewish quarter of Mdina … the Carmelite cloisters on the left and the ‘Old Jewish Silk Market’ on the right (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Mdina was the capital of Malta for hundreds of years. At one time, about one-third of the inhabitants of the city were Jewish merchants and their families. So, when I visited Mdina on a rain-dampened morning this week, I went in search of the former Jewish quarter and the site of the mediaeval synagogue during.

Mdina is known as the ‘Silent City,’ and with a population of about 300 residents, a hush descends on the walled city when darkness begins to fall on the Dingli Plateau and the last day trippers and tourists leave.

But Mdina dates back to antiquity. The walls have been compared to the walls of Jerusalem, and the Roman town of Melita included present-day Mdina and parts of the neighbouring town of Rabat.

In time, the Arabs captured Malta from the Byzantine Empire in 870, and rebuilt Roman Melita, dividing it between Mdina and Rabat.

The Arabs were followed by the Normans from Sicily in the 12th century, and they in turn extended and reinforced the walls of Mdina.

The Normans were succeeded by the Hohenstaufen dynasty in 1194, and Malta then passed to the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon in 1282. Spanish-ruled mediaeval Mdina had a thriving Jewish community. But when the Spanish Inquisition ordered the expulsion of Jews from all Spanish territories in 1492, life became precarious for the Jews of Mdina.

The Main Gate of Mdina … the Spanish Inquisition was housed nearby (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The main gate was built in the baroque style as recently as 1724, on the orders of the Grand Master Antonio Monoel de Vilhena, and was designed by the engineer Charles Francois de Mondion.

The Spanish Inquisition was located behind the main gate, and many Jews who became conversos but continued to practice their Judaism secretly were tortured in the cellar.

When the Spanish conceded the Maltese islands to the Order of Saint John or Knights of Malta in 1530, the Jews of Mdina had long disappeared. The knights moved the capital from Mdina to the newly-built town of Valletta, although the old families of the Maltese nobility remained in Mdina.

The doorway into the ‘Old Jewish Silk Market’ inin Carmel Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

I wandered through the narrow, rain-dampened streets and alleyways of Mdina yesterday in search of any signs of the city’s former Jewish community, which once made up a third of Mdina’s population and was self-governing, ruled by the Universitas Judeorum and located in the quarter known as Gewwa r-Rokka.

The narrow main street of Mdina, Triq Villegaignon, is only 230 metres long and runs south to north, from the baroque main gate to Bastion Square. It is lined with former palazzi, tourist shops, churches and convents. Halfway along the street, Saint Paul’s Square leads into Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which remains Malta’s official cathedral, although the knights built Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta in the early 17th century.

As I strolled along the street, and stepped into the small squares and side alleyways, I failed to find any of the traces of mezuzoth said to be still visible in the stone frames of the front doors here and there.

The Carmelite Church in Mdina … some sources say it stands on the site of the mediaeval synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

A little further north along the main street, the Carmelite Church towers above the other buildings. No architectural or archaeological remains or features of the synagogue have been found, although some guidebooks suggest the church stands on the site of the medieval synagogue.

However, other sources suggest the synagogue stood on Triq il-Karmnu or Carmel Street, a narrow alleyway running along the north side of the church and the Carmelite cloisters.

A sign in English and Hebrew identifies one crumbling building behind a red door on Carmel Street as the ‘Old Jewish Silk Market.’ It is a reminder of the importance of the Jewish community in the economic life of mediaeval Mdina. Another doorway on Carmel Street also reminds visitors that at one time the city also had a thriving Greek community.

At its north end, Villegaignon Street opens into Bastion Square. There too a large building fronting the square is identified by some sources as the site of Mdina’s mediaeval synagogue. But there is no plaque or marker to support this suggestion.

Bastion Square … could the house on the left stand on the site of the mediaeval synagogue? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In the neighbouring Rabat there is a compound of catacombs caves, quarried out about 2,200 years ago. Engravings of a menorah can be seen on some of the tombs, although in some cases, it has been asked, whether these may indicate not that the dead person was a Jew but that he person had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Most of the menorahs are with rounded arms, and some have diagonal arms.

During World War II, the catacombs were used as shelters, and people scattered the contents of the graves. Rabbi Reuven Ohayon of Malta sought permission from the Ministry of Tourism to collect the scattered bones and place them in the tombs next to them. But, the government response was to lock the Jewish burial caves and for years, the Jewish catacombs were closed to the public.

A compromise was reached when a permit was given to collect the scattered bones and to bury them in a mass grave in the Jewish cemetery.

Later on Thursday afternoon, I continued on north to Saint Paul’s Bay, and then returned along the east coast of Malta through St Julian’s and Sliema to Valletta in the evening.

Shabbat Shalom

A doorway in Carmel Street is a reminder that Mdina once had a large Greek community too (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

With the Saints through Christmas (27):
21 January 2022, Saint Elmo (Saint Erasmus)

Fort Saint Elmo in Valletta takes its name from Saint Erasmus of Formia, also known as Saint Elmo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I have been in Valetta this week, where it seems as though every street – or every second street – inside the walls of the capital of Malta is named after a saint. I am due to fly back to Dublin this morning, and then to return to Askeaton. But before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

I have been continuing my Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during the Season of Christmas, which continues until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February);

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

For the rest of this week I am reflecting on saints and their association with prominent churches or notable street names in Valletta. This morning (20 January 2022), I am reflecting on Saint Elmo, or Saint Erasmus, who gives his name to Saint Elmo Bay on the north side of Valletta and to Fort Saint Elmo on the north-east tip of Valletta, and also to ‘Saint Elmo’s Fire.’

Saint Erasmus of Formia, also known as Saint Elmo, was martyred ca 303, and is regarded as the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain. He is also one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, saintly figures of Christian tradition who are venerated especially as intercessors.

Saint Erasmus was the Bishop of Formia in Italy. During the persecution against Christians under the emperors Diocletian (284-305) and Maximian Hercules (286-305), he left his diocese and went to Mount Libanus, where he hid for seven years. However, an angel is said to have appeared to him, and advised him to return to his city.

On the way, he met some soldiers who questioned him. Erasmus admitted that he was a Christian and they brought him to trial at Antioch before the emperor Diocletian. After suffering terrible tortures, he was bound with chains and thrown into prison, but an angel appeared and helped him escape.

He passed through Lycia, where he raised from the dead the son of an illustrious citizen. This resulted in a number of baptisms, and in turn drew the attention of the Western Roman Emperor Maximian who was ‘much worse than was Diocletian.’

Maximian ordered his arrest but Erasmus continued to confess his faith. They forced him to go to a temple of the idol, but along Erasmus’s route all the idols fell and were destroyed, and fire then came from the temple and fell upon many of the pagans.

These actions angered the emperor, who had Erasmus enclosed in a barrel full of protruding spikes and rolled down a hill. An angel healed him from these wounds. When he was recaptured, he was brought before the emperor and beaten and whipped, then coated with pitch and set alight, yet he still he survived. When he was thrown into prison with the intention of letting him die of starvation, Erasmus escaped.

He was recaptured and tortured in the Roman province of Illyricum, after boldly preaching to and converting many pagans. Finally, according to lore, his abdomen was slit open and his intestines wound around a windlass.

Saint Erasmus may have become the patron of sailors because he is said to have continued preaching even after a thunderbolt struck the ground beside him. This prompted sailors, who were in danger from sudden storms and lightning, to claim his prayers. The electrical discharges at the mastheads of ships were read as a sign of his protection and came to be called ‘Saint Elmo’s Fire.’

Saint Erasmus is the patron of Gaeta, Santeramo in Colle and Formia, and gives his name to Fort Saint Elmo, a star fort in Valletta. It stands on the seaward shore of the Sciberras Peninsula that divides Marsamxett Harbour from Grand Harbour, and commands the entrances to both harbours along with Fort Tigné and Fort Ricasoli. It is best known for its role in the Great Siege of Malta of 1565.

The fortified watchtower was already on the tip of the Sciberras Peninsula by 1417. When the Aragonese built a watchtower on Saint Elmo Point in 1488, it was dedicated to Saint Erasmus of Formia or Saint Elmo.

The Order of Saint John or Knights of Malta reinforced the tower in 1533 because of its strategic location. After Ottoman raid in 1551, when the Turkish fleet sailed into Marsamxett Harbour unopposed, the tower was demolished and a new star fort was built. It was designed by a Spanish engineer, Pietro Pardo.

When the Ottomans invaded Malta once again in 1565, Fort Saint Elmo was the scene of some of the most intense fighting. It withstood massive bombardment from Turkish cannon deployed on Mount Sciberras that overlooked the fort and from batteries on the north arm of Marsamextt Harbour, the present site of Fort Tigné. The initial garrison of the fort was around 150 knights and 600, the majority of them Spanish, and 60 armed galley slaves.

During the bombardment of the fort, a cannon misfired and hit the top of its parapet, sending shards in all directions. Debris from the impact killed the gunner and mortally injured the corsair and Ottoman admiral Dragut, one of the most competent of the Ottoman commanders. The fort withstood the siege for 28 days, falling to the Turks on 23 June 1565.

None of the defending knights survived, and only nine of the Maltese defenders survived by swimming across to Fort Saint Angelo on the other side of the Grand Harbour after Fort Saint Elmo fell. The long siege bought much needed time for the preparation of the other two fortresses and the arrival of reinforcements from Spain.

After the siege, Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette decided to build a new city on the peninsula. The construction of Valletta started in 1566, and Francesco Laparelli designed the fortifications, and the ruined Fort Saint Elmo was rebuilt and integrated within the city walls.

In 1775, 13 rebel priests captured Fort Saint Elmo and Saint James Cavalier in what became known as the Revolt of the Priests. The order’s flag was lowered and a banner of Saint Paul was raised instead. When the order recaptured Saint Elmo, the rebels in control of Saint James also surrendered. Three of the rebel priests were executed and the others were exiled or imprisoned.

British forces modified the fort in the early 19th century. The hospital at Saint Elmo was the venue in 1917 for the first heart operation to be performed on a soldier. During World War II, the fort was the site of the first aerial bombardment of Malta on 11 June 1940. Parts of the fort were severely damaged during the war. Since the mid-20th century, Fort Saint Elmo has housed Malta’s police academy.

The World Monuments Fund placed the fort on its Watch List in 2008. Major restoration works out since 2009 have included restoring Upper Saint Elmo and the Carafa enceinte. Lower Saint Elmo has been cleaned from waste that accumulated over the years.

When the fort was used as a media centre for the Valletta Summit on Migration in 2015, foreign journalists said it was possibly ‘the most stunning venue which ever hosted an EU summit.’

Saint Elmo or Saint Erasmus is celebrated on 2 June.

Mark 3: 13-19 (NRSVA):

13 [Jesus] went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, 15 and to have authority to cast out demons. 16 So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. Then he went home.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (21 January 2022) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for ecumenical initiatives, both in Bangladesh and across the Anglican Communion. May we recognise that we have more in common than that which divides us.

Yesterday: Saint Lucy

Tomorrow: Saint Publius

Fishing boats in a small fishing harbour in Saint Elmo’s Bay, beneath Fort Saint Elmo in Valetta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org