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Getting to know Malta

Download this Photo Tour by Fredy Sivla

Located in the heart of the Mediterranean just south of Sicily (Italy) the Maltese archipelago consists of three islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino. Malta is the largest island, with Gozo next in size. The countryside is scattered with ancient Goddess temples amidst a backdrop of crystal blue skies and sparkling coves. Quaint cobblestone towns are crowded with Renaissance cathedrals, cafes and sites of the Knights of St. John. Expansive beaches, mysterious cart tracks, 7,000 years of history and the oldest known stone monuments in the world permeate these Mediterranean isles.

Lower Barraca Gardens, Valletta | photo by Freddy Silva

VALLETTA

The capital of Malta is inextricably linked to the history of the military and charitable Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. It was ruled successively by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the Order of the Knights of St. John. Valletta's 320 monuments, all within an area of 55 ha, make it one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.

Its official name, Umilissima Civitas Valletta, was supposed to reflect the city's humility, but today Valletta is more commonly known as Superbissima by Europeans, for its Old World splendour, genteel culture and magnificent Baroque architecture. The name of the city comes from Jean Parisot de la Valette, the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John in 1566, when Valletta was founded.

ST JOHN'S CO-CATHEDRAL

Home of the Knights (Grand Masters) of Malta

St John’s Co-Cathedral is a gem of Baroque art and architecture. It was built as the conventual church for the Knights of St John. The Grand Masters and several knights donated gifts of high artistic value and made enormous contributions to enrich it with only the best works of art.

The origins of the Order, which is known as the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta, date back to around 1050 when the Republic of Amalfi obtained permission from Caliph Ali az-Zahir of Egypt to build a hospice in Jerusalem along with a church and convent to offer treatment and care to pilgrims of any faith or race. The hospice was built on the site of the monastery of Saint John the Baptist and was served by Benedictine brothers.

HAGAR QIM and MNAJDRA

Hagar Qim | photo by Paul Bulteel

Hagar Qim was constructed as an astronomical calendar. It marks: (1) the major standstill of the Moon in Summer through the front doorway; (2) the major standstill in Winter through the back doorway; (3) the setting of the Equinox Sun; (4) the setting of the Summer Solstice Sun from the High Chapel; and (5) the rising of the Sun at the Winter Solstice from the opposite direction through a window in the front wall of the temple.

The Maltese temples were built by experts in acoustics. At Hagar Qim, they passed the sound through a hole, about one foot in diameter, by effective sound reflections.

Mnajdra | photo by Freddy Silva

Mnajdra lies tucked in a hollow in the cliffs on Malta’s southern coast. The site is probably the most atmospheric of all Malta’s temples. It lies in an isolated position on a rugged stretch of coast overlooking the isle of Fifla and just 500m from Hagar Qim.

Mnajdra is a complex site consisting of three temples overlooking an oval forecourt. The first and oldest temple is aligned with the moon, a simple three-apsed building and dates to the Ggantija phase (3600-3200 BCE). The second temple is aligned with the sun. The most impressive of the Mnajdra temples is the third, with its largely intact facade and bench constructed in the early Tarxien phase. This temple is perhaps the finest surviving on the islands.

DINGLI CLIFFS

Mary Magdalene chapel | photo by Freddy Silva

The long stretch of the western coastline consists of steep cliffs, which present an impressive sight especially if looked at from the sea. The awesome precipice to the west of Dingli is particularly striking from the high ridge near the roadway. The sloping terrain, dotted with tiny cultivated plots, ends sharply on the edge of steep cliffs which drop straight into the deep sea. The Madliena Chapel, dedicated to Mary Magdalene, marks the highest altitude of the Maltese Islands - 250 metres above sea-level. From this spot one can admire the green rugged slope and coastline, as well as the vast expanse of water, and the islet of Filfia in the distance. The cliffs proceed well beyond Dingli Village. To the north-west they pass through Il-Qaws and Migra l-Ferha to end at Fomm-ir-Rih.

Cart Ruts at Clapham Junction | photo by Freddy Silva

The island of Malta is scored by numerous examples of ancient cart ruts, they have been the subject of debate for hundreds of years, and many can be seen at Clapham Junction in Dingli. Cart-ruts have also been found underwater around the islands. The ruts meander almost unnecessarily, others appear to start as suddenly as they stop, and many of the ruts have junctions that make little sense in terms of efficiency as a transport system. Maltese researchers have more recently dated these cart ruts to circa 4000–5000 BCE.

HYPOGEUM

Hal Saflieni Hypogeum | photo by Freddy Silva

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is one of the greatest remaining structures from prehistory. Its pristine condition allows us to see the past through the eyes of our ancestors. The Hypogeum is a giant underground chamber where, it is believed, priestesses served as oracles and practiced the ancient shamanic art of dream incubation, a personally empowered direct link to the divine source, or the divine knowledge of gnosis. This underground Goddess Temple is one of the most magnificent and powerful places in the world. The Hypogeum consists of halls, chambers and passages hewn out of the living rock and covering some 500m² over three levels, the lowest one being over ten meters below road level.

TARXIEN TEMPLES

Tarxien Temple complex | photo by Shadowgate

The Tarxien Temples are the most complex of all temple sites in Malta and consist of four megalithic structures. The temples are renowned for the detail of their carvings, which include domestic animals carved in relief, altars, and screens decorated with spiral designs and other patterns. Of particular note is a chamber set into the thickness of the wall between the South and Central temples, which is famous for its relief of two bulls and a sow with piglets. The site seems to have been used extensively for rituals. Fertility goddess figures (now in the national museum in Valletta) discovered in the ruins indicate that the temples were dedicated to the Earth Mother, as were many Maltese temples. The most famous of these figures is a sculpture of large hips with feet, referred to as the "Fat Lady."

GOZO

Gozo | photo by Carmel Farrugia

Gozo is the second-largest island in the Maltese archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea. A popular nickname of Gozo is the Isle of Calypso, derived from the location of Ogygia in Greek mythological poem Homer's Odyssey. In the myth, the island was controlled by nymph Calypso who detained the hero of the story Odysseus there as prisoner of love for seven years.

GGANTIJA TEMPLES

Ariel view of Ggantija Temple Complex

The Ggantija temples stand at the end of the Xaghra plateau, facing towards the south-east, and are amongst the oldest temple structures on Malta and the only site of its kind on Gozo. It is twinned with the nearby Xhagra Stone Circle, making the pair a classic example of the 'primal mound' / stone circle combination commonly seen at many other Western European Neolithic complexes. The altar at the far end of the southern temple aligns to the winter solstice, which would have simultaneously set between the notch made by the two level hills on the horizon.

Older than the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge in England, the Ggantija temples are among the world's oldest man-made religious structures. The temples are thought to be a place of veneration to the Earth Mother Goddess of Fertility, with numerous figurines and statues found on site.

Meditation inside one of the Ggantija Temples (Malta 2009 journey)

In the Maltese language, Ggantija means "belonging to the giants". According to local Gozitan legend, the temples were built by the giants who resided in Gozo during ancient times. It is said that the temples themselves were used by the giants as places of worship.

GNAR DALAM CAVE

Gnar Dalam Cave

Gnar Dalam Cave is a highly important site as it was here that the earliest evidence of human settlement on Malta, some 7,400 years ago, was discovered. The site consists of a cave and a museum. The history of the cave and of the Islands can be decoded from Għar Dalam’s stratigraphy. The lowermost layers, more than 500,000 years old, contained the fossil bones of dwarf elephants, hippopotami, micro-mammals and birds. Above the pebble layer that follows, is the so-called ‘deer’ layer, dated to around 18,000 years ago. The top layer, or ‘cultural layer’, dates to less than 10,000 years and holds evidence of the first humans on the Island.

THE THREE CITIES

Walking down a street in Birgu – also called Vittoriosa (photo – 2009 tour to Malta)

Across the Grand Harbour from Valletta are the historic fortified towns of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea, known as the Three Cities, which offer an intriguing insight into Malta and its history. Left largely unvisited, these cities are a slice of authentic life as well as a glimpse into Malta’s maritime fortunes.

Their harbour inlets have been in use since Phoenician times: the docks always providing a living for local people, but also leaving them vulnerable when Malta’s rulers were at war. As the first home to the Knights of St. John, the Cities’ palaces, churches, forts and bastions are far older than Valletta’s.

MDINA

Photo by Jean-Christophe BENOIST

The history of Mdina traces back more than 4000 years. According to tradition it was here that in 60CE that the Apostle St. Paul is said to have lived after being shipwrecked on the Islands. Furthermore it is said that St. Paul resided inside the grotto know as Fuori le Mura (outside the city walls) now known as St. Paul's Grotto in Rabat. Lamp lit by night and referred to as “the silent city”, Mdina is fascinating to visit for its timeless atmosphere as well as its cultural and religious treasures.

Mdina has had different names and titles depending on its rulers and its role but its medieval name describe it best – ‘Citta’ Notabile’: the noble city. It was home then, as now, to Malta’s noble families; some are descendants of the Norman, Sicilian and Spanish overlords who made Mdina their home from the 12th century onwards. Impressive palaces line its narrow, shady streets.

Mdina is one of Europe’s finest examples of an ancient walled city and extraordinary in its mix of medieval and Baroque architecture.

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