Our second full day in Malta dawned full of promise and hoping for the best we decided to put our fate into the hands of the tourist buses. We had avoided them as being too touristy and expensive in comparison with public transport, what with budgeting and travelling locally and all that. As we had stood at the bus stop the previous night, being told that the final bus that could take us home wasn’t accepting anymore passengers, and after a few hours of discovering every pot hole from coast to coast, we felt we had reached a tipping point.
So off we trundled to Sliema, where we accosted one of the army of people trying to make bookings (she seemed surprised to be an accostee for once) and got tickets for one of the hop on hop off buses that endlessly circled the islands. After a little bit of being bussed about, we made it onto the doubledecker bus, taking our seats on the roofs and plugging in our headphones to soak in the surroundings the history in comfort.
Our first stop was Tarxien, a large open air Megalithic temple that is about 5000 years old. It lies in the middle of a little town, so we followed signs to a square, surrounded on one side by a cemetery and on the other by a high wall. In the shade of sparse trees a food van sold wilting fruit and vegetables, or would have had there been anyone to sell them to. The area was entirely empty of tourists or tourist traps, and a duck around the corner to the entrance revealed that the site was closed for the time being, while a protective cover was built. Which was, we agreed, a good idea. It would have been better to have been made aware of this fact by the lady at the tourism office, the bus driver who announced the stop or even the Tarxien website.
Somewhat miffed, we bought some groceries and ducked into the almost hidden door to the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni in the hopes that someone may have canceled their bookings.
This ancient site is probably the most famous of the prehistoric temples in Malta, and only accepts a limited number of visitors per day to preserve it. As such you need to book well ahead, more than a month as I discovered when I attempted to do this. When we arrived there were no cancellations and the next available booking was on August 2nd. We left the office, almost lost among the other buildings whose construction had precipitated the Hypogeum’s finding, and the destruction of the temple above ground. In a later post I’ll go into this inability of the Maltese to build anything without discovering some remnant of their history, and the pride and irritation that at least one person feels about it.
For now at least, the heroes of this story are standing at a bus stop, feeling a little let down by fate and whatever gods oversee tourists. They won’t be downcast for too long though, as the bus arrived not overly late and they got to enjoy some time with the wind in their hair and the sun on their skin as they journeyed on towards another site of interest.
Marsaxlokk is an old fishing town and has been since the Phoenicians settled there in the 900sBCE, if not before. Though the restaurants along the waterfront were listed as must see/eat attractions, we decided to stay on the bus while the driver took a toilet break, admiring the neat terraced houses and colourful array of boats bobbing in the harbour. Many were painted in the style that seemed unique to Malta, lines of lateral red, blue and yellow along the length of the boat and small eyes or fish painted on the prow. The eyes are another tie to the Phoenicians, a sign to ward off the evil eye and protect against malign forces that has somehow managed to survive into the deeply Catholic culture that exists today on Malta.
As the bus moved off, we rounded the coast and soon came to our next stop and our second attempt at seeing some of the ancient history of the islands. As with the temples we had tried and failed to see, Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra date from the 3000-4000s BCE are were built by people who left many traces of their lives but none to indicate where they went or why they suddenly disappeared from history. Unlike the other sites, these aren’t located in busy towns but instead on hills that end in cliffs overlooking the sea.
Before we could catch more than a glimpse of them, however, we were ushered into a small cinema and handed 3D glasses. A short film soon followed, with a warning to be aware that the experience was going to be more sensual, or at least sense oriented, than we were used to. As the history of the site unfolded before us, gusts of dusty, limestone heavy wind and a light drizzle of rain punctuated the turn of the centuries. Without words we saw the structures being built, used, abandoned and finally discovered and reconstructed. When the lights turned back on we went out and explored the small but very interesting and interactive museum, having a go at bashing rocks with other rocks and other educational activities. A plaque on a wall acknowledged the contributions that Norway had made to the funds to preserve the site, which seemed to us to be very generous, if a little baffling.
Out under the sky again we walked down the dusty path to the nearer of the two temples. As we walked through the scrub buzzing with insects and small birds, I wondered how much the land had changed since the temples had been constructed. The forests were gone and old roads faded, but our view over the sea and the flowers blooming on the edges of the cliffs must have been familiar to those ancient eyes who had watched the temples take shape.
Ħaġar Qim is large, even though the limestone it is made of has been weathered by time. The stones form ramps, chapels and altars, some carved with swirls or a pattern of dots, one block even weighing 57 tonnes. A menhir stands at the back, 5 metres tall and around the base are scattered stones that I suppose the archaeologists couldn’t find a place for. In one room a hole in the wall lets in a circle of light, and at certain times of the year this circle lights particular stones, marking the equinoxes for reasons that are lost to us.
Mnajdra was a little smaller, located a hundred or so metres the the north of its neighbour, and similarly impressive. Among the immense pillars and towering walls is a perfectly balanced altar framed by pillars, the soft gold of the limestone giving it a luminous quality.
Though neither temple is as large as Tarxien, nor as famous as the Hypogeum, they have a sense of permanence and endurance that’s only strengthened by the sparse slopes and steep cliffs where they perch. And long may they perch there.