How experiencing things left behind spurs a diverse understanding of places, and human nature.

Safe harbor for pirate ships, a bustling multi-use harbor today in St. Julian’s

In August 2006, I traveled to the islands of Malta and Gozo in the Mediterranean Sea. I arrived after some research with an open mind. I went away with an inquisitive attitude I hope never to lose, and an unforgettable sense of how multi-layered landscapes — and personalities — still await our dissection.

A blast of heat came first, and then the dry, rocky terrain, punctuated by colorful banners that distracted from and brightened the background monotony.

Where the Royal Navy played in Valletta

I was guided by rudimentary preparation. Malta was a party place, I knew, and European Union membership had just begun. It was subtext to Sicily in history but more, with pirates and sieges, and many masters: Phonecians, Romans and Arabs, the Norman invasion, Hospitaller Knights fleeing Turks and then standing their ground. “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta,” wrote Voltaire.

Later came France, Britain, another great siege during World War II, and Prime Minister Dom Mintoff’s maverick independence that left Queen Elizabeth behind.

Most importantly, these cultures and events have left marks through a melting pot of megaliths, fortresses, and the Maltese language, an Arab dialect uniquely written in Latin script. In each instance the creators are gone but a unique stratigraphy remains.

For more than a week, I learned more about — and dissected — this stratigraphy. I experienced these overlays as a live history, sensing in real time how one era informed the next. Layers, clues, and stories demanded a summary musical score. Not a musician, I engaged the parallel medium of photography.

The true nature of a place — perhaps like people — is often not easily seen or understood. What we see is just one small puzzle piece. We, like places, are multilayered, with our own unique histories and experiences shaping who we are.

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