The 1953 movie Malta Story made me want to visit that tiny Mediterranean country so disproportionately weighted with lore.
The movie depicts the Axis attack on Malta during World War Two, when the Maltese people and the British military stalwartly defended the strategically important island against bombardment long enough for a vital convoy of American supplies to arrive crippled but still afloat.
When the movie was shot, much of the destroyed urban terrain had yet to be rebuilt, so watching it gives you a visceral sense of what the bombardment must have been like.
What captivated me even more, though, was a much quieter scene in which Alec Guinness’s RAF reconnaissance pilot and the local young woman he falls in love with, played by Muriel Pavlow, visit a set of blocky stone ruins unlike anything I’d ever seen.
The ruins looked ancient, but unfamiliar, nothing remotely like the Greek or Roman remains you find everywhere around the Mediterranean. I had to find out what these structures were. And once I did that – easy in the age of Google and Wikipedia – I had to see them.
In fact, Malta’s Megalithic Temples are far more ancient than I had imagined – about 5,000 years old. Aside from one site in Turkey, they are believed to be the oldest free-standing structures on the planet. So little is known about the people who built them that even the descriptive word “temple” is a supposition based on design.
The “Temple People” died out around 2500 BC without leaving any known cultural imprint on any other people of the world. Besides their temples and underground hypogeums, and some enigmatic statues found therein, they’ve left us no clue as to their society, beliefs, or habits.
The Tarxien site in the town of Paola includes a whole group of these temples”
As with Stonehenge, no one is sure how the ancient people of Malta moved into position the huge stones they used to build their structures.
The quiet town of Paola itself is best known as the location of ancient ruins, but its cathedral seemed to be worth a look too, at least from the outside.
Paola is also the site of Malta’s best-known underground prehistoric site, the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum.
This was the one site to which we booked our visit several months in advance, since they take only small groups down at a time. You can’t take photos of this singularly fascinating site. If you go to Malta, plan ahead so you can be sure to see the Hypogeum. The inset photo comes from Malta.com. You can find plenty of other photos online via a Google search.
A hypogeum is an underground space carved into rooms with full architectural layout and design. It’s astounding that using only primitive hand tools these people could create spaces like this, spaces that mirrored their aboveground structures in a kind of negative-space form.
Traces of paint remain inside, too, but the hypogeum’s original purpose isn’t known. Likely it was some kind of sanctuary; as Wikipedia straightforwardly puts it, it is “the only known prehistoric underground temple in the world.” (Although I have read that another hypogeum, not open to the public, has been discovered in another part of Malta.)
What is known is that in later prehistoric times the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum was used as a necropolis. Archeologists have found the remains of more than 7,000 people here.
Along Malta’s scenic south coast you’ll find the prehistoric sites of Mnajdra and Hagar Kim, protected from the elements by modern, rigid tent-like structures.
Also along the south coast you’ll find the Dingli Cliffs, made of the characteristic Maltese cratered limestone that practically every building in the country has been made out of from prehistoric times to the present day. This is a beautiful area to visit (in your rented car – I’m not sure how else you’d get here, unless by taxi) on a quiet sunny day. In this part of Malta, I suspect every day is quiet, unless you count occasional gunshots from people targeting songbirds, a longstanding local tradition now frowned upon but still practiced.
In the next and final installment we’ll complete our tour of Malta with a look at some of its not-so-ancient sites and its language, history and culture.