Malta: Back to the Stone Age

This article appeared in the premiere issue of Transatlantic Times, June 2004.



Back to the Stone Age

By Bob Guldin


            As I step into the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni, it feels as if I'm entering another world. I go through an airlock, a glass box that protects the "microclimate" of the prehistoric catacomb. The air is cool but not damp.

            I wander through the underground tomb in quiet wonder. The 32 connected chambers are on three levels and cover 1600 square feet. The rooms include graceful arches and altars, some of them unmistakably built to resemble the large outdoor temples that still stand on the islands of Malta.

            These tomb and temple-builders left a remarkable legacy in stone on these islands in the Mediterranean. (One scholar called them  "the world's first architects.") But their identity and their eventual fate are a mystery. 

            Archaeologists have figured out part of the puzzle. The temple builders were Neolithic people, that is, late Stone Age. They had no metal tools and left no written records. Between 3,600 and 2,500 B.C. they flourished on Malta and its smaller companion island, Gozo. Long before Egypt built its first pyramids, they built massive temples, which today are the oldest standing stone structures in the world.

            And then they disappeared. Some scholars believe these primitive farmers left the islands because of overpopulation and soil depletion; others think they may have been driven off by invaders with bronze weapons.

            Whatever the case, they left monuments that can still be seen -- and puzzled over -- 5,000 years later.


            My wife and I stumbled upon Malta almost by accident. We were looking for a mid-winter vacation that would be warmer than our Maryland home but far from the standard sun-sand-and-sea destinations.

            A quick spin around the Web turned up Malta. We'd never even met anyone who had been to Malta, but the more we learned, the better it sounded. Not expensive, not crowded, amazingly historical. We went.

            After flying in easily via Frankfurt, we find ourselves in the capital city Valletta, at the Hotel Castille. Housed in a fine old mansion just inside the massive city walls, it has an expansive view of the Maltese countryside.

From another side of our corner room, we gaze across a narrow street at the ornately carved windows of the Auberge de Castille, once occupied by the Knights of Saint John -- the legendary Knights of Malta. Built in the ivory-yellow limestone that is Malta's universal building material, the 16th century palace gleams in the setting sun. 

            The story of Valletta is, to a large degree, the story of the knights, whose angular Maltese crosses still adorn gates and cornices throughout the city. The knights, an international Catholic order, built Valletta as a great fortress city  against the Ottoman Turks.  (Four hundred years later, those same massive walls would help the Maltese hold out against unrelenting attacks from Hitler’s Luftwaffe.)

            But Malta, sitting strategically in the middle of the Mediterranean, had always been a prize for the great seafaring powers. The Phoenicians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Saracens, the Normans  and the Spanish had all ruled the islands. When the knights finally yielded to modernity, Britain took Malta as a colony for 160 years. As a result, virtually all Maltese speak both their ancient Semitic language and excellent English. 

            But the Knights of St. John  ruled Malta for almost three centuries, and to an amazing degree Valletta is still the city the knights built. Like the Hypogeum and several Neolithic temples, the entire city of Valletta has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which means that Malta has agreed to carefully preserve it.

            Valletta is a small city, barely a mile long and a half mile wide, and is easily covered on foot. You can walk along the great 16th century walls and bastions, and look out across two harbors--to other ramparts built of the same creamy-yellow limestone. Standing on a peninsula that juts into the sea, Valletta still looks like an armored fighter ready to take on all comers.

             Several baroque palaces of the knights are still in use and open to visitors. One is now home to the excellent National Museum of Archeology; it holds Neolithic statues like the "Venus of Malta" and the "Sleeping Lady" that may shed light on the religion of the temple builders. A fine 16th century cathedral, numerous other churches and a museum with two outstanding Caravaggios also await the explorer in Valletta.

            After getting settled in Valletta,  we head the next morning for the Hypogeum (that’s Greek for below ground). On our bus,  we serendipitously encounter Joseph Farruggia, the supervisor of the site, who explains to us the many problems of maintaining a prehistoric catacomb in the midst of the busy commercial suburb of Paola. 

            "When UNESCO named us a World Heritage Site, they gave us training and technical assistance, but there were tradeoffs. We had to establish a 75-meter perimeter around the Hypogeum. And sewage was seeping in, so we had to rearrange the sewage and water and electrical systems.”

At the same time, UNESCO found that the  tourists’ very presence  -- the carbon dioxide and water they exhaled -- was degrading the tomb. “To protect the microclimate underground,” Farruggia explains, “UNESCO gave us two choices: one was to close the Hypogeum completely to visitors; the other option, which we took, was to limit visitors to 10 per hour."  

            As a result of this restriction, getting into the Hypogeum isn't easy. We find the entrance, not much bigger than a storefront, and purchase a ticket to enter the tombs in an hour. During the summer tourist season, visitors need to purchase tickets five days in advance or more.

            A cappuccino and some window-shopping later, we are ushered into a tiny museum that serves as an anteroom to the catacombs. One by one, our group of 10 steps through the protective glass airlock, and an English-speaking guide points out the tombs, altars and ceremonial spaces.

            Some 7,000 people were found buried here when the Hypogeum was opened in 1902. Though most of those bones were scattered in careless excavations, later archaeologists found figurines of animals and people, beads, pottery and tools that give clues to the life of the temple-builders. Among their findings: those early communities seem to have been pretty egalitarian. There are no special tombs for chiefs or kings buried with luxurious "grave goods." That's a sharp contrast with the Egyptians, who centuries later would bury their pharaohs amidst great riches.

            A ten-minute walk from the Hypogeum is the Tarxien (tar-SHEEN) site, which is both exquisite and disappointing. To our delight, on an overcast day we have the place almost to ourselves. Tarxien staff tell us that January and February are the slowest times of the year, and I believe it.

            Tarxien consists of four linked temples, with curving walls of large carved stones in a cloverleaf pattern. The wall carvings here, of decorative spirals and animals, are the finest in Malta. And a massive statue of a fat lady gives evidence of fertility worship --though sadly only her bottom half remains.

            But most of the stone walls are six to eight feet high --not nearly as awe-inspiring as other ruins we will see. The location (a somewhat shabby urban neighborhood) and some sloppy concrete reconstruction work on the temple make Tarxien a less than world-class site.

            Later, a brightly colored bus takes us from Valletta to Malta's best situated Neolithic ruins -- Hagar Qim (ADGE-ar EEM) and Mnajdra (Mm-NIGH-dra). These temples stand on windswept bluffs with commanding views of the Mediterranean to the south. 

            Approaching Hagar Qim, I appreciate why they call these constructions megaliths -- literally, great stones. A complex of temples is surrounded by a wall of standing stones over ten feet high. A few of the tallest stones, especially those closest to the sea, have  been eroded by wind and salt spray over the centuries, so that they stand jagged, silhouetted against the sky.

            The entrance is through a trilithon--two standing stones topped with another great stone block (as at Stonehenge). Parts of the wall seem remarkably intact for having weathered 5,000 years of coastal storms, so we're not surprised to learn that some restoration has been done. Long ago, these temples had roofs, probably of wood, but no traces remain. 

            Inside the wall, there are several curved alcoves for worship. Small altars stand on pedestals. One alcove wall is pierced by an "oracle hole"; perhaps 5,000 years ago priests or priestesses hidden behind it received confessions or offerings and issued holy words. We can only guess.

            Five hundred yards down a neatly paved path we find Mnajdra, probably the best preserved of the Neolithic temples.  While it lacks the massive walls of Hagar Qim, it contains three temples with many features intact. We can ascend steps to an altar, and in one alcove a wall reaches 20 feet, so we almost feel inside the temple.

            Stonehenge-style trilithon arches and doorways carved into the massive stones give a sense that processions once wound through these temples. We find altars on pedestals, oracle holes and other holes into which worshippers may have poured libations.

            Mnajdra, with its relatively intact temples, makes us wonder again: What was worshipped here, and how? One thing is certain: animals were sacrificed in these temples -- hundreds of bones and horns have been found. And the many sculptures of fat people --usually recognizable as female -- lead imaginative archaeologists to believe that fertility goddesses were central to worship. Since Malta is a small island which has always had problems feeding its people, the obesity of these statues may express a longing for abundance.


            After five days on Malta proper, we depart for Gozo, a smaller, sleepier island across a five-mile strait.

            The Maltese drive on the left -- a legacy of British rule. We were sensibly afraid to try driving on the busy island of Malta, but we've decided to give it a go on Gozo. "Stay left, stay left" becomes our mantra for the next three days. Fortunately, we and the Gozitan population survive unharmed.

            We get settled at the St. Patrick's Hotel in Xlendi (SHLEN-dee), a quiet village where we have a charming view of the small harbor.

            We set off the next day for Ggantija (Ji-GANT-ee-ya), the most physically imposing of all Malta's temples. It may also be the oldest, built between 3600 and 3000 B.C.

            It's drizzling when we arrive, so the young woman at the gate decides to waive the $2.40 entry fee. Before long, though, the sun has broken through. Once again we have a fabulous site almost to ourselves.

            As the name implies, the complex is gigantic. Massive walls 20 feet high surround two well defined temples. The largest of the wall megaliths is 19 by 12 feet, and weighs some 57 tons. Unlike some of the ruins on Malta proper, Ggantija has not been marred by clumsy "restoration" attempts.

            Scattered outside the temple walls are dozens of round stones about the size of bowling balls. Scholars surmise that the builders moved the megaliths by rolling them on top of these balls.    Within the walls, the temples have the typical pattern of curved alcoves off a center aisle, like a four- or five-leaf clover. At the entrance to the larger temple stand two eight-foot-high megaliths; holes bored in them show that they probably held a door long ago.

            Beyond Ggantija, we find the small island of Gozo to have abundant natural and architectural charms. In the old town of Victoria, we wander the Citta Della, an almost abandoned medieval town with high walls and winding streets. We explore another mystery, the so-called "cart ruts" that are etched into the stone of Malta and Gozo. Who made them, and why they are so common, are still unknown. 


            One archaeologist has said that the more you visit Neolithic Malta, the more you feel the otherness of the temple builders. Up until the 1700s, many believed the temples were built not by humans but by a race of giants. The modern Maltese, devout Catholics, feel no apparent connection to those early pagan inhabitants. Neither do I.

            I remember once standing at the Acropolis of Athens and feeling a sense of exhilaration. Here, I thought, is where Western civilization -- my civilization -- started.

            But on Malta and Gozo, as I learn more, the mystery just deepens. Who were these builders? How did they worship? Why did they disappear?  After five thousand years, the temples and the questions still stand.



If You Go ... The Practical Traveler...


            Visit Malta and Gozo in the off season, between October and March, to see them at their least crowded and least expensive. Even in mid-winter, temperatures are in the 50s, quite comfortable for outdoor exploring.

            If you’re used to European prices, accommodations in Malta will seem very reasonable. Our plain but pleasant room at the three-star Castille Hotel in Valletta costs $73; it would have been $115 in high season. In Gozo, our room with a harbor view at the very comfortable St. Patrick’s Hotel costs $97.

Malta lies between Italy and North Africa, and so does its native cuisine. There are lots of rabbit and fish dishes and savory stews. Two of our best meals are on rustic Gozo. A mile above the ferry port of Mgarr is Rexy’s, a plain but warmhearted restaurant, which when we enter is crowded with local families. We start out with a big order of tomato-fish bruschetta (on the house), and move on to generous plates of chef’s salad, roast chicken and roast rabbit. It’s all very tasty and surprisingly inexpensive.

            At the other end of the scale is Gozo’s Ta’Cenc Hotel, where we find an elegantly served four-course prix fixe dinner for $23. Among its pleasures: a light vegetable strudel, fresh papardelle pasta in cream and ham sauce, grilled dott (a local fish) with red and green peppers, and a tangy lemon sorbetto. It’s all good.

            And while on Malta we eat lots of the local mandarin oranges, which have a unique perfume-like fragrance.

            Gozo is home to some of the last hand-makers of lace in Europe, and we encounter an attractive display of it in Bastion Lace, a shop located in the medieval Citta Della in the town of Victoria. The proprietor, Maria Mizzi, has been making lace since she was 13.  She proudly shows us how the intricate patterns are made, with 50 threads or more dangling down from tiny pillows and being knotted together. 

Most of the Gozitan lacemakers are over 60 now, she says, and the home industry is disappearing from the island. “Women don’t want to do it anymore,” she says. “They have jobs, they want to watch TV.”

            We gladly depart with a long  and delicate lace scarf in hand, made of white silk and rayon. That scarf took four months to make, Maria says, and we pay $160 for it. We do some quick math, and realize that with wages like that, it’s no surprise that the centuries-old craft is dying out.