Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photography by Manos Angelakis and Barbara Angelakis
Hypogeum photograph courtesy of the Malta Tourism Authority

Malta Mdina

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.

Malta Gozo Ggantija

Considered to be the oldest surviving free-standing structure in the world, 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 gantija 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.

Malta Hypogeum

The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeumon 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 ocher 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.

Malta Hagar Qim

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

Malta Street Limestone Walls

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.

Malta St John Cathedral

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.

Malta Noble Master's Banner

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.

Malta Tombstone in St John's Cathedral

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 Caravaggios.

Malta Chapel of the Blessed Virgin

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.

Malta Mdina Gatejpg

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.

 

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