The Buskett Forest and the Maltese Falcon

When the Knights were given the Maltese islands they were asked to pay tribute of a Maltese Falcon every year to the monarch of Sicily. It’s a strange request, and there are colourful stories around this tribute.

Technically, the Emperor Charles V granted “Tripoli, Malta and Gozo” to the Knights. [1] We like to think it was just the islands but there was a fair amount of land in northern Africa included in this deal.

And, if we’re being picky, there were several conditions to this grant including a non-aggression pact with the Kingdom of Sicily. The token price of one Maltese Falcon is the only unusual request in the list. The Knights had to pay one falcon every year on the 1 November (All Saints’ Day) to “the viceroy or president of Sicily.” [1]

A photo of Buskett forest - Siggiewi, Malta

Buskett Forest – Siggiewi, Malta

Unlike the situation today, Malta was covered in woodland at the time. People cut trees for ship building or for agricultural purposes decimating the lush scenery which our ancestors knew. The Knights realised something needed to be done. [2] They planted trees in an area now known as ‘Buskett’, derived from the Italian word ‘Boschetto’ meaning ‘forest’.

The area had been used for pagan rituals around the summer solstice. In the post-Roman period, locals held orgies in Buskett. The Roman Catholic Church incorporated these rituals into their own. The feast of St Peter and St Paul is now celebrated in the area on 29 June. The orgies are no longer part of the festivities though!

Apart from planting Aleppo pines, carob trees and Italian cypresses, the Knights embellished this zone in many ways. They imported soil from Sicily for their terraced gardens, planted groves of fruit trees and ensured fresh water stream to irrigate the place. Here they trained falcons which were then used as tribute to the King of Sicily. [4]

A photo of the orange grove in Buskett - Siggiewi, Malta

Orange grove in Buskett – Siggiewi, Malta

But why did the King ask for a falcon before the Knights trained falcons there?

The Maltese had practised falconry since the thirteenth century, right in this area. Falcons used to migrate from Morocco and stop here which is how the Maltese encountered these majestic animals. This was when they were ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, King of Aragon. Frederick was an avid hunter and even wrote treatises about the sport. [4]

Such was the high regard for falcons trained in Buskett that a special Knight would travel with the bird by sea on its way to Sicily. On occasions when the bird died in transit, the news caused international horror. [4]

A photo of Buskett forest - Siggiewi, Malta

Over the foliage

Maltese falcons were legendary long before the Knights arrived in Malta¬†and were used by the Knights during their stay. Today you’d be hard pressed to see birds of prey flocking to the area – and most people would think of Bogart’s 1941 film before they’d mention Buskett.

Have you visited Buskett in Malta?

References

[1] Wikipedia, Tribute of the Maltese Falcon, 2016-08-03
[2] The man who went to Malta, Buskett, the lungs of Malta, 2011-12-07 (as archived)
[3] Wikipedia, Buskett Gardens, 2017-04-04
[4] Splendour of Malta, Shirley Jackewicz Johnston, New York 2001.

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