In my previous post about Malta, I talked about Malta’s more recent history during World War II, and even a bit dating back to Roman times. However, Malta’s history goes back much further than even that. It it home to several temples that are considered to be the oldest man-made structures remaining in the world. These are the Tarxien temples, Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, and Ggantija on Malta’s northern island of Gozo. It is estimated that these temples are nearly 6000 years old, which is at least 500 years older than Stonehenge!
Not much is known about why these temples were built or what their purpose was, but it is fascinating to walk around them and speculate. The first, and perhaps largest, of the temples that I visited was Tarxien. Although not quite as old as the other temples, Tarxien is more developed. Many of the stones contain carvings of spirals or animal figures. Also, several figures of large women, dubbed the “fat lady” figurines, were discovered here as well as in the other temples. Although they are no longer on site, you can see them (along with many other interesting archaeological findings) on display in Valletta’s Archaeology Museum.
If you’re visiting the Tarxien Temples, make sure to also pay a visit to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, which is just a few minutes away by foot. A World Heritage site, the Hypogeum is famous as being the only known prehistoric underground burial site in the world! Unlike many other prehistoric sites, the Hypogeum is very well preserved because it is underground, and therefore protected from the elements. The Hypogeum is estimated to date back at least 5000 years, and it is thought that more than 7000 bodies were buried here over the years (although these have since been removed). One tip: If you want to visit the Hypogeum, first check the Heritage Malta site to see if it’s open (as of this writing its currently closed for conservation works). If it is, you should try to book at least a month or two ahead. Because the carbon dioxide that we exhale can potentially damage the delicate site, tour groups are limited to 10 people at a time, and less than 100 people per day. Also, not surprisingly photographs are not allowed. If the Hypogeum is open during your visit, by all means do not skip this place; it is one of the most incredible and best preserved prehistoric sites in the world!
Other prehistoric temples on Malta’s main island include Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. You can (and should) visit these two together, as they are located less than 10 minutes apart by foot. Considerably smaller in size than Tarxien, you can view these in less than 30 minutes apiece. Despite the fact that the roofs are no longer intact, these two temples are the best preserved of the megalithic temples on Malta. They each contain several apses with altars, standing stones, and ancient carvings. Mnajdra, the second temple you will see, is especially interesting during the summer and winter solstices. At sunrise during these days, a beam of sunlight illuminates an altar in the southernmost temple.
The oldest prehistoric temple on Malta is not on the island of Malta itself, but rather on its neighbor to the north, the smaller island of Gozo. Gozo is full of interesting sites, and you can easily spend a day or longer here. It is fairly easy to reach from Malta; you just need to take a bus to the ferry terminal, and then it’s just a short ferry ride to Gozo. If you bought an unlimited bus pass for Malta (which I highly recommend, as it’s the best and easiest way to get around the country), you can use that for the buses on Gozo as well. There’s also a HOHO bus for Gozo if you want the added convenience.
Virtually all buses in Gozo will start and stop in the capital, Victoria. Victoria is a small but interesting town in it’s own right, and you should definitely reserve a couple of hours to explore. While you’re there, check out Il-Kastell, a walled citadel that was constructed in the 15th century. Inside the citadel, you should pay a visit to the Archaeology Museum (which is smaller then the one in Valletta but still worth visiting) as well as the Old Prison, which was in use for 400 years. You can still see old graffiti etched into the walls by former prisoners.
After spending some time in Victoria, hop on a bus to the Ggantija temple, which is supposed to be the oldest temple in Malta (and possibly in the world). Ggantija is made up of two separate temples, each with 5 apses). After exploring the inside of each temple, don’t forget to take a walk around the exterior. You can see great views of Gozo, since the temple was built on a hilltop. Also, on the outside wall of the North temple, there is a particularly enormous stone, which weighs more than 60 pounds! One can only imagine how the builders of this temple possibly managed to move this stone and lift it into place.
I should mention that unlike Malta’s main island, Gozo supposedly has several excellent beaches. However, not being much of a beach person, I didn’t visit any of these. One place I did make to sure to visit though was Dwejra, which is home to several fascinating features. Foremost among these is the Azure Window, which is a beautiful natural sea arch. Possibly one of the most famous and recognizable sea arches in the world, it was used for filming a scene in the very first episode of Game of Thrones. Tragically, after thousands of years, the Azure Window collapsed into the sea during a storm just the day before I’m writing this. When I visited, I spoke to a divemaster there who predicted that it would collapse due to erosion within the next three years. Less than 9 months later, his prediction came true. I feel really grateful that that I was able to see (and even walk across) this great wonder of nature before it disappeared.
Even though the Azure Window is no more, there’s still plenty of reasons to visit Dwejra. There is a great diving (or snorkeling) spot called the Blue Hole, which is a narrow fissure that extends about 80 feet below the surface. Nearby, there is also the Inland Sea, a small lagoon connected with the open ocean that makes a great little (albeit crowded) swimming spot.
If you read this and the previous post, you know by now that for a small island nation, there are plenty of things to see and do in Malta. In fact, I think it deserves at least a week to do it justice. If and when you do visit, two things that you absolutely should not miss are the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (assuming that it’s open) and the beautiful island of Gozo (including the Ggantija temples). And when you visit Dwejra, gaze out onto the cliffs and picture the magnificent sea arch that stood there proudly for thousands of years.