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Something old, something new

It would be the adventurous driver indeed who made an attempt to navigate this old Roman road up Xemxija hill in Malta. Judging by the dearth of visitors on a fine, sunny Sunday, this heritage site is either not well publicised in the tourist guides or is of little interest to the masses. For me, it was fascinating. To walk along a road on which Roman centurions had walked more than a thousand years ago was quite the experience. I felt something similar (but a lot more gut-wrenching) when I walked down to the gas chambers from the main gates of Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. That sense of trodding in the footsteps of history and wondering what my life would have been like had I been born into that era.

I don’t know why I expect older civilisations to be primitive. Perhaps because I’ve been brought up on the back of progress, constantly treading the wheel of continuous improvement. Anything older than now can’t possibly be better if everything we invent is an improvement on what has gone before. And yet at almost every turn in the trail, I saw evidence that has stood the test of time. There was something a little surreal standing in front of an ancient Roman burial cave while looking across the water at modern high-rise developments.

And when those buildings border on ugly, it’s pretty difficult to appreciate the esthetics of progress. I know things can’t stay the same – that we have to move forward. But part of me wonders how much we have destroyed along the way – what is the true price of progress?

Looking down into the burial cave, I can imagine the body being entombed and the stone being rolled in front of the opening to seal it inside. I wonder when the break came – when these underground tombs were replaced by headstones marking the passage of lives and the passage of time. That, in its day, would have been seen as progress.

I remember walking through a flea market with my mother in Dublin many years ago. She was horrified to see the prices being asked for stuff she and her sisters had thrown out when her mother moved from the family home to the gatehouse. What she had thought of as trash was now being touted as part of history and attracting a price commensurate with this responsibility. I look around today at my ‘stuff’ and for the life of me, I can’t imagine anyone seeing any value in any of it in 100 years time – except for the stuff that I have which is already 100 years old.

Roman bees

He asked – are you free on Sunday? I said – sure. He said – I’ll pick you up at 10 am. I said – grand. He said – I want to show you some Roman beehives. I thought to myself – mmmm… heaps of rocks with a hollow centre. How exciting (not!)

I was visiting Malta for the umpteenth time with Air Malta and looking forward to seeing more of what the islands had to offer. But Roman beehives weren’t high up my list. I was more than surprised when we happened on a series of Roman apiaries at Xemxija, dating back to about 1000 AD. My dad keeps bees. I have  a vague idea of how it all works. I saw Bee movie.  But nothing I’ve seen or read prepared me for these apiaries and once again since I first started coming to Malta, I found myself marvelling at how clever those Romans were…

The ‘hives’ are pottery cannisters secured behind the open slots in the apiary. The hives had a small hole to the outside, which the bees used, and a larger one to the passage inside the cave which was blocked with a tile until the beekeeper removed the honeycomb. Amazing stuff when you think about it.

The Maltese honey bee, Apis mellifera ruttneri, is a sub-species of the Western honey bee and is native to Malta. The name ‘Malta’ is most likely derived from either the Greek or Roman word for honey. And a working bee may have to visit as many as 500 flowers in order to produce just a single teaspoon of honey. A lot of work for very little return. Just as well those boys are not paid by the hour.  I’m not much into honey myself but I have it on good authority that Maltese honey is amongst the finest there is. It’s got something to do with the abundance of wild thyme, clover and carob.

Interestingly, after watching the Irish Sci Fi 100 mornings last weekend and musing to my companion that were I to be stranded and left to forage for food from the land, I’d be damned picky about who I was stranded with, I ate my fill on this trek to the apiaries – wild beans, peas, and asparagus. The carob  I could have done without.

There’s no substitute for chocolate

The fruit of the carob tree is being touted as a replacement for chocolate. ‘Carob is a wonderful substitute for chocolate. It tastes great with a chocolate-like flavor but without the health risks, additives, or contamination that comes with chocolate.’ So I went and found a carob tree – not just any old tree but one that is reputed to be over 1000 years old. And I found some of the ripe and ready brown fruit. And I tried it. And yes, it has a faint taste of chocolate but it is terribly, terribly, terribly sweet.  Despite the associated health benefits, and no matter how much it is dressed up and labelled as ‘good for me’, it will never, ever replace chocolate.

I used to work in the shadow of Cadbury’s chocolate factory in Coolock and on those rare occasions when Ireland had a sunny summer, the smell of the chocolate was a tad overwhelming. But that was as rare as a Irish suntan. When I was in  the States, and even now that I’m spending a lot of time in Budapest, the one thing guaranteed to raise my spirits and endear you to me for life, was/is a bar of Cadbury’s plain chocoate. Forget Lindt or the other fancy chocolatiers, a plain bar of Cadbury’s, preferably straight from the fridge, is one of the simplest pleasures in my life.

In my search for reasons why carob is supposedly so much healthier than chocolate, I found this interesting assertion: The seeds inside the pods were also traditionally used to weigh diamonds, which is where we get the word carat from. Who’d have known, eh? My life is now a little more complete. That said, the carob tree I saw in Xemxija in Malta is fairly amazing. The translation of the Maltese verse  with its new word – propably – is inspiring. To my mind, anything that can stand in one place for over 1000 years deserves a little credit – even if the fruit of its boughs is nicer to look at than to eat.