Fate has been exceptionally generous with Gozo's idyllic Ramla l-Hamra, endowing it with outstanding historical, archaeological and literary connotations not least its association with one of the greatest works in European literature, namely Homer's Odyssey.
"You cannot do better than use the authority of the Odyssey to prove that your home town was once important," says Paul Theroux, the well-known travel writer and novelist, in his book The Pillars Of Hercules - A Grand Tour Of The Mediterranean.
The recently planned rape of picturesque Ramla l-Hamra revamped in my mind's eye some interesting connections with Homer's epic The Odyssey. I am still fascinated by Homer's account of the wanderings of Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) after the fall of Troy to remote Ogygia (reputedly the island of Gozo) where the nymph Calypso for seven years exercised her charms in vain upon this immortal adventurer.
Sizzling with imaginative energy, the Odyssey still carries the reader irresistibly along , just as it must have done when it was first launched by the father of European literature, and the greatest narrative historian, about 2,800 years ago.
I still have the dog-eared five-shilling paperback of my days of youth, my name written in a spindly hand along with the date and address, the marginal annotations reeking of adolescent angst. In 1948, when I first read Homer's Odyssey, I was still mystified by the romantic poet John Keats' eulogy to Chapman for his translation of Homer, experiencing the poet's elation feeling "like a watcher of the skies/when a new planet swims into his ken". My first reading of Homer certainly altered my life, sharpening my enthusiasm for literature and feeding my penchant for searching for the true and the beautiful. What a revelation it was that sport (agon) featured prominently in Homer's epics mainly in the form of funerary games, some of which might have taken place on the red sands of Ramla l-Hamra.
Since the third century BC, the Maltese islands have been closely associated with the Odyssey of Homer who, in c. 800 BC, recorded in verse oral traditions based on much older events, performed by the adventurous Mycenaeans, whose Empire endured from c 1600 to 1200 BC. Gozo is frequently represented as the Homeric romantic abode of the nymph Calypso, a lesser goddess expert at seduction even offering Odysseus immortality.
Anthony Bonanno, author of various scholarly works on the subject, reveals that the identification of Gozo with the Homeric Calypso is not a modern concoction but was initiated by the famous poet and grammarian Callimachus (c. 305 - 245 BC.). Prof. Bonanno also notes that according to another classical scholar, G.D. Ippolito, in his academic paper Malta nell'Odissea (1976) the origin of Gozo's location dates back to the Greek poet Hesiod in 8th century BC.
As I write I visualise a famous painting, the work of Jan Brueghel (1568-1625), son of the renowned Flemish painter Pieter, reproduced in the award winning book by F. Ventura L-Astronomija f'Malta (Kullana Kulturali). It represents Odysseus (Ulysses) fondling Calypso's breasts in an amorous encounter with a fantastic cave landscape, and a typical Maltese dog in attendance. The painting reinforces the theory that even in the 16th century the legendary cave of Calypso was located in the Maltese archipelago. Homer waxes lyrical in describing the Arcadian landscape in this idyllic paradise:
"Thick, luxuriant woods grew around the cave, alders.
And black poplars, sweet smelling cypress too, and there birds roosted, folding their long wings owls and hawks, and the spread beaked ravens of the sea, black skimmers who make their living off the waves.
And round the mouth of the cavern trailed a vine Laden with clusters, bursting with ripe grapes.
Four springs in a row, bubbling clear and cold,
Running side by side, took channels left and right.
Soft meadows spreading round were starred with violets,
Lush with beds of parsley. Why even a deathless god,
Who came upon this place would gaze in wonder,
Heart entranced with pleasure."
(Homer: The Odyssey V,71-82 (Eagles Translation.)
Calypso's vain attempts, underling the carefree happiness of the superhuman man struggling against matters of conscience, are beautifully expressed in a very sad lament , one of the many moving passages in the Odyssey.
Whether Gozo was actually the remote island of Ogygia or whether the Odyssey should be considered more as a navigational treatise has, from time to time, offered a first-class battle ground for scholars and academics. However, the well-known German archaeologist Henrick Schleimann, no stranger to Malta, discoverer of Troy in the 1870s, was guided by Homer's description of the Illiad. "If there is a real Troy," argues Michael Sedge in his contribution In The Footsteps Of Ulysses (1995), "why not real places described in such detail in the Odyssey?"
For the purpose of this humble contribution, it suffices to highlight the impacts that Homer's epics have made on the imagination of writers, poets, dramatists and artists who all represented Ulysses as the archtype of the eternal wanderer, "the questing spirit of man". His adventures are an eloquent symbol of man's craving for "a secret backdoor to another world, the great escapist dream common to us all".
Heritage Malta has just concluded a high-powered seminar entitled Voyager et Voir: I Viaggiatori del Gran Tour. It would be ironic if at this point in time the Ramla l-Hamra site where the most famous traveller in history, the epitome of the eternal wanderer, was shipwrecked, is irretrievably lost.
The proposed development on this sacred site, which is definitely outside the development zone, is a blot on our national character. At this stage no ballad is more fitting than the sad lament of "nothing is sacred any more" as we witness the impending doom. This hallowed place, a testament to the beleaguered virtue of quietness in a functioning rural culture, was for centuries considered an essential part of our national conscience, the sacred abode of the gods. Regrettably, after parting with the family silver we are now selling our soul to the devil and like the damned Faust we will pay the price of damnation.
As this Greek tragedy unfolds with its frightening nemesis, a distant choir pleads for the peace that comes from feeling part of something bigger, older and more potent than oneself.
Lino Bugeja is president of the Ramblers' Association of Malta.