Eyes and stones of the past

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.

Our view of Tarxien

Our view of Tarxien

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.

A Maltese boat

A Maltese boat

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.

A room in Hagar Qim

A room in Hagar Qim

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.

Following the seasons

Following the seasons

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.

Ancient altars

Ancient altars

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.

Mnajdra, protected from the sky

Mnajdra, protected from the sky

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Forts, festivals and sunsets over the sea

The capital city of Valletta on the island of Malta was at one time the headquarters of the Knights of St John, and had in fact been built by them. Or they ordered it built in any case. The Knights were one of the more adventurous orders, skipping from country to country one step ahead of the Ottomans, laying siege here, being besieged there and amassing a lot of wealth along the way. When they eventually washed up on the scant shores of Malta, I imagine there may have been some sights of ‘here we go again’ from the inhabitants, or whatever the local equivalent is on an island that almost seems to be the hot potato of the Mediterranean.
These latest visitors would only be around for about 250 years, but during that time they left their mark very clearly all over the islands. 14 towers circle the islands, castles and fortresses surmount most large hills, and at the capital you can’t go 5 metres without seeing a trace of them. Especially if you approach by water.

Fort St Elmo is perched on the seaward facing point of the penninsula. As you approach from the north on a bus, winding around the points of St Julian and Sliema, you can catch glimpses of the massive walls and towers, the golden limestone glowing in the morning light. From the walls themselves you can get an amazing view over the harbour and surrounding metropolis, as well as imagine what it must have been like for the soldiers watching the sea for invading fleets. In 1565 there would have been blood and fighting where we stood enjoying the sea breeze, as the fortress fell during the Great Siege. A little distance away from the walls, we found the small, quiet chapel of St Anne which had apparently been the site of the last stand of the Knights, and where a number of priests were killed. I read this before I went in, so I couldn’t help shivering a little as I looked around, and not just from the chill of the darkened room.

Chapel of St Anne

Chapel of St Anne

In addition to chapels, walls, bastions (whatever they are) and gates with eyes, the Fort of St Elmo contains a war museum detailing the military history of Malta.

An eye guarding the gates

An eye guarding the gates

Not having a huge amount of interest in the subject, at least when it doesn’t concern really ancient military history, I left my fella to it and wandered out of the fortress and into the streets of Valletta. The main streets leading from the city gates to the fortress were busy with tourists, so I nipped down a few side streets, passing locals going about their business. There was an old man on a mobile talking animatedly, a woman hanging up washing on her balcony and a number of stray cats snoozing in the shade of parked cars. For some reason most of the cats on Malta are ginger. My theory is that once, long ago, a ginger cat was brought to the island and through a campaign of feline bullying took over the capital city and ensured that its descendants continued its gingery legacy. Most likely it came from Sicily, where keeping it in the family is apparently de rigueur.

My feet eventually led me to the Museum of Archaeology, where I spent a happy few hours exploring the long history of the islands. Among the things that most struck me were the sculptures from the Neolithic period. The most common were large women, sitting with legs decorously folded to the side and one arm folded. There were no heads on the bodies, but rather a hole where archaeologists assume a series of interchangeable heads could have been inserted. Though some were clumsily made, there were many that had been very finely carved, the folds in their dresses precisely made and their hands and feet delicate, giving a sense of dignity and poise even after all these years.

Stone ladies

Stone ladies

Elsewhere in the museum was a room dedicated to the Phoenicians, who had dominated the islands before the Romans took over in the 200sBCE. I’ve never had a chance to see Phoenician artifacts before, overwhelmed as they were and are by their noisy competitors, so a tiny curse scroll in their script and a sarcophagus who looked as though she was holding her breath were pleasant surprises.

Phoenician sarcophagus

Phoenician sarcophagus

History ancient and military achieved, we met up and made our way to the Upper Barakka Gardens, swapping notes on the history of the islands. From the balconies and shady tables of the gardens we had an amazing view out over the harbour and city, the industry of the docks chugging away behind tourist boats, and ancient fortresses blending with busy neighbourhoods.

Valletta from the gardens

Valletta from the gardens

Before we could let ourselves settle too deeply into our chairs, however, there was an event that night that I very much wanted to attend. The L-Imnarja is an ancient agricultural festival held in honour of St Paul and St Peter (or at least since Catholicism came to Malta), which takes place in Buskett Garden. This is a grove not far from Mdina in the centre of the island and as such I had assumed from the safety of my computer in Sweden that it would be no problem to get there and join in the market stalls and watch the donkey and horse races before the fireworks were finally set off. Once in Malta the reality of traveling the 12.5kms from Valletta to Buskett settled in, and so did we on our bus seats as we sadly passed the stop for the festival, realising that if we did get off there would be no reliable way to get back home.
Instead we continued on the bus to Dingli cliffs, which is less disappointing now that I know that we should have gone around the corner to see the real ones. The sunset over the scrubby flowers and plants and the sea beyond was a lovely sight though, and worth the long bus ride and teenagers loudly singing the hits of the 80s.

Sunset over Dingli

Sunset over Dingli

Tired and hungry, we went back to town and dined on local pastries and a slushie overlooking the Sliema harbour, were refused admittance to the last bus home as it was too full and caught a taxi back to the apartment, trying not to doze off as we rocked up the roads and trudged across the construction site in the bright, Mediterranean moonlight.