Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photography by Manos Angelakis and Barbara Angelakis
Hypogeum photograph courtesy of the Malta Tourism Authority
Malta: Sacred to the Gods
In the very heart of the Mediterranean Sea ̶ south of Sicily, north of Libya and east of Tunisia ̶ lie the islands of Malta; a small archipelago with a 7,000 year old history and the stunning physical evidence to prove it.
The first people to arrive on the Maltese Islands were thought to be from southern Sicily, its closest neighbor. It’s easy to question that theory, since the megalithic structures constructed by these Neolithic people and their artifacts unearthed by archaeologists, bear no resemblance to the Sicilian culture… that is, that have so far been discovered. So who were these settlers really? Perhaps the mystery will be revealed in our lifetime ̶ perhaps not ̶ but needless to say, all who travel to Malta and gaze in wonder at what these ancient peoples created cannot help but be awed by the legacy in stone they left behind.
Considered to be the oldest surviving free-standing structure in the world, the Ġgantija (a local fable alleges a female giant built it) megalithic temple site is on Gozo, the second island in the archipelago, and dates from about 3,800 BC. From the artifacts found, it is possible to deduce that the temple complexes on both Gozo and Malta were dedicated to the Goddess of Fertility, although the exact nature of their beliefs have so far been hidden by the mists of time. While Ġgantija is the oldest UNESCO World Heritage site on Malta, and the first to be re-discovered in the modern age, it has not yet given up all of its secrets. Nevertheless, the Maltese have taken care to protect their national treasures and like all the megalithic sites, it is well organized for visitors.
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum on the Island of Malta is the only known example of a subterranean structure surviving from the Bronze Age. Due to its location underground, access is limited and must be arranged in advance of a visit; only 10 people are allowed per hour, 80 per day. It is a fascinating city of the dead, unlike catacombs found elsewhere. Here we have a structure constructed with pathways and chambers, and at the center a large vaulted cathedral-like room…all carved underground. The ceiling in the cathedral is a clear-cut series of ascending carved circles, while paintings of spirals in red ochre decorate the walls and ceiling of the passageways leading to it. The stones do not indicate how the area was illuminated nor show any evidence of smoke or fire from the use of torches. So how did these ancient peoples fashion such intricate and precise architectural details such as columns and arches? And what was the room used for, did they worship or participate in ceremonies in the dark? Bones have been unearthed as well as votive figurines of the Fertility Goddess, but the evidence is that the bones were unceremoniously heaped there after decomposition was complete compounding the mystery.
My schedule did not permit visiting all the 20 megalithic temples so far discovered but I did get to visit Ħaġar Qim (pronounced jar im) thanks to Manuel Briffa, Director of Public Relations at the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa, our host hotel. Manuel volunteered to be my personal guide, and I am very grateful to have seen this remarkable site in his company. The site is extensive and so well defined that we could almost feel the presence of the people who built and used (worshiped at?) these structures. They are called temples, but again their purpose is unclear. Ħaġar Qim was built on the crest of a ridge overlooking the sea to the south, and the broad plain to the north that extends over the entire southern end of the island…an effective defensive position more for a settlement then solely for a temple! And why would a relatively small population expend so many man-power resources to build such an extensive temple complex? The mystery deepens because not more then 500 meters down the hill to the west is another “temple complex” called Mnajdra. Excavations of decorated clay vessels with intricate designs, flint tools, and a representation of a human head fashioned in clay, have been unearthed at this site, but so far no evidence of habitation. Both sites are reached after passing through a museum where there is an informative video and many of the artifacts are on display. For information visit www.heritagemalta.org
Construction stopped and the temple builders mysteriously disappeared around 2500 BC, giving rise to the alternate theory that the islands may have been considered as Sacred to the Gods and used as a center for worship and religious practices for all the prehistoric nations surrounding the islands (could that account for the proliferation of temple complexes?). All of the “temples” were constructed out of the native limestone, a soft porous rock from which ancient, as well as new, construction is built. The use of the naturally honey-tinted limestone casts a warm golden glow which may help account for the sunny disposition of the Maltese people.
Once the temple builders departed, others were eager to take their place. The modern Maltese cultural mosaic is richer for having integrated the diverse influences from cultures like the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Castillians, to the Knights of St John, the French, and finally the British. All have left their mark with monuments and monumental edifices; works of art and religious beliefs; language (English is the second official language after Maltese which is Semitic in origin); agriculture and cuisine. St Paul the Apostle is said to have been shipwrecked off Malta in 60 AD, and brought Christianity to the islands when they were still under Roman Rule.
Hundreds of local churches attest to the piety of the people, but the grandest of all is St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, built by the Knights of St John in honor of their patron saint. The Order regrouped in Malta at the invitation of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, King of Sicily, after they were routed from their stronghold on the Island of Rhodes in 1522 by the Ottoman Turks. Contrary to Sidney Greenstreet’s account of a great gem-incrusted golden bird in the eponymous 1941 movie, the “Maltese Falcon” was a real bird of prey at a time when falconry was a noble pursuit. Each year the symbolic tribute was paid to the Holy Roman Emperor in acknowledgment of his suzerainty over Malta and the Knights.
The Order of the Knights of St John was initially a “hospitaller” order of wealthy, mostly French noblemen ̶ eventually it included aristocrats from all across Europe ̶ sworn to render medical assistance to pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. After Jerusalem fell to Saladin’s army in 1187 they were forced to take up arms against the Muslim incursion to defend Christendom. It was largely due to their defense of Malta that the massive Muslin invasion of 1565 was repelled and Europe remained under Catholic Church control; that is, until the Reformation. The Order is responsible for the well-known eight-pointed Maltese Cross that represents the obligations of the knights to: Live In Truth, Have Faith, Repent One’s Sins, Give Proof Of Humility, Love Justice, Be Merciful, Be Sincere, Endure Persecution. Eight also symbolizes the “Langues” or nations represented in the Order.
The Knights were talented and prolific builders, and under their 268 year rule in Malta were responsible for establishing the City of Valletta (designated UNESCO World Heritage European Capital of Culture 2018) named for the victor of the Great Siege against the Ottomans, Grand Master Jean Parisot de La Valette. They also built hospitals (considered at the time to be the finest in the world) palaces, monuments, public works of art and Cathedrals (notably St John’s) and generally laid out the fortified city in baroque splendor. There is no better example of a high baroque building than St John’s Cathedral with its vaulted ceiling, vividly covered with paintings depicting the life of St John, and awash in gold leaf. The intricately carved stone walls are also covered by gold leaf, as are the eight individual side chapels leading up to the nave. The marble floor is paved with a dazzling mosaic of vibrantly colored tomb-stones decorated with coats-of-arms and artwork for the identification of the interred. To the side is the Oratory housing the massive painting of Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Considered by some to be the masterwork of the 17th century, it is one of the few paintings the irascible artist signed. Be warned, no-flash photography is allowed in the sanctuary, but is forbidden in the room containing the Caravaggio’s.
We also visited the humble medieval Parish Church in the 15th century hamlet of Mellieha. Perched on a ridge with a panoramic view over the bay and the countryside is the church with the troglodyte Chapel of the Blessed Virgin; a national shrine. The Madonna and Child is purported to have been painted by St. Luke and tradition says prayers are answered by the Lady. The sanctuary walls are covered with ex-voto offerings and paintings with written testimony to Her miracles. In the 19th century paintings of ships facing storms at sea vividly illustrate their survival after praying to the Virgin, and in the 20th century, photographs of people surviving catastrophic illness represent their miracles.
And speaking of miracles, consider the story recounted by our guide while we were enjoying the beautiful view from the heights of Mdina under a golden disk full moon. The Medieval walled city of Mdina was the first capital of Malta and is an architectural delight of winding, narrow alleyways where thanks (sic) to the devastating earthquake of 1693, now simple medieval structures face across the main thoroughfare from elaborately decorated baroque buildings. This peculiar happenstance occurred when the western half of Mdina, which was built on solid rock, sustained little damage, whereas the eastern half, which was built on clay, disintegrated. The eastern half of the city was rebuilt in the new baroque style, thereby separating the city architecturally by centuries. Mdina stands on high ground with a commanding view of the harbor and neighboring towns and a stroll in the evening is de rigueur to capture its quirky magic.
During WWII Malta ̶ still under British rule ̶ was heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe. In April of 1942, a 500kg bomb dropped through the dome of the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in the village of Mosta, when 300 Maltese were at worship. The church, commonly referred to as the Rotunda of Mosta, has the third largest free standing dome in the world. The story goes that the bomb struck a sacred painting before falling to the floor unexploded; historical record confirms that the RAF Bomb disposal unit removed and defused the bomb. The pious Maltese considered it a miracle that all those lives were saved and attribute it to intervention from the painting.
Perhaps after all Malta is sacred to the Gods….
For information: www.visitmalta.com or www.tourism.gov.mt
To get to Malta: Lufthansa Airlines via Frankfurt www.lufthansa.com
Where to stay: www.corinthia.com
© January 2014 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.