No trip to Malta would be complete without taking in at least one of the seven megalithic temples that dot the islands. The temples date from 3600BC, predating Stonehenge and the Pyramids, making them the oldest free standing structures in the world and gaining them world heritage listing. The good news is that the queues are far shorter than Stonehenge or the Pyramids, and you can walk around in the temples and even touch the stones.
Nato and I headed to the Tarxien temples (pronounced tar-sheen, unless you want to give the bus driver a laugh). With no written records, the information about the people who built the temple is theoretical, but it appears that they sacrificed animals to a fertility goddess. There are carvings of bulls and pigs on the walls and a huge statue of a fat lady in a pleated skirt (the fertility goddess). After walking around in the temple, we headed back to the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta where many of the original artefacts are kept. It is a great place to work on your body image, as there are plenty of carvings of fat ladies, including the Venus of Malta. One of the most interesting artefacts is The Sleeping Lady, a small stone carving of a voluptuous woman lying on her side on a bed. One hand is tucked up beside her face and she looks so comfortable and serene. The Sleeping Lady recently had a brief cameo in Shutter Island, sharing a scene with Leonardo Di Caprio and John Carroll Lynch. Not bad for a 5600 year old lass. It just goes to show that mature ladies are not always ignored by Hollywood.
With our interest in temples piqued we jumped back on the bus to check out the temples of Hagar Qim (agar-eem) and Mnajdra (eem-na-eed-rah). Nato was really getting the hang of the Maltese pronunciation, and I was really getting the hang of pointing to the name in the guidebook and smiling helplessly. The bus wound its way through farmland, little ploughed paddocks separated by rock walls, small vineyards, and orchards with prickly pear and figs.
We heard gunshots as we walked from the bus stop to the temples, indicating that it was bird hunting season. Bird hunting is a national tradition, and whilst hunters require a licence which limits the number of birds they can kill, illegal hunting is an issue and a bone of contention with the European Commission since Malta joined the EU.
The temples are close to each other, on a hilltop overlooking the ocean, and appear to have been constructed as astronomical calendars. Hagar Qim is aligned so that at sunrise on the summer solstice, sunlight passes through ‘the oracle hole’ and projects a disk of light onto a stone slab. As the sun rises the disc becomes a crescent, then an ellipse, before finally touching the ground. At sunset on the same day, the sun sets in line with another entrance and lights up the back of a small niche through a stone window.
Mnajdra also marks the year. At sunrise on the summer solstice the rays fall on the edge of a megalith to the left of the central doorway whilst at sunrise on the winter solstice the rays touch the edge of the corresponding megalith to the left of the doorway. On the spring and autumn equinoxes the rays of the rising sun pass directly through the main doorway, straight down the centre to the innermost, central room. That’s one heck of a calendar.
Archaeology students conduct tours of the temples, describing some of the stones as menhirs. This immediately made me think of the Adventures of Asterix, as his best friend Obelix was a menhir sculptor and deliveryman. We get chatting to one of the students who gave us the following reasons for the insane driving we have witnessed:
1. Staying in the shade to keep the driver, passengers and engine cool.
2. Avoiding potholes that would discomfort passengers and damage the vehicle.
3. Taxes entitle drivers to use the whole road, not just half at a time.
I’m not sure if any of these are decent reasons, but he seemed quite adamant.
One of the Grand Masters Watch Towers is nearby. These dot the coast of Malta, and were manned nightly to watch for threats approaching by sea. They were positioned so that each tower could see both neighbouring towers. As soon as one tower spotted something suspicious they lit a fire signal which was picked up by the neighbouring towers, carrying the warning around the island.
We can also see the uninhabited island of Filfla, which was sadly used by British Forces for target practice. A massive great white shark was caught here in 1987 (just when you thought it was save to go back in the water…). There is a monument honouringSir Walter Norris Congreve who served as the governor of Malta from 1924 until his death in 1927. At his request, he was buried at sea in the channel between the coast and Filfla Island. We wonder if he was referred to as Sir Walter of Malta.
All that looking at temples sure worked up an appetite. Even though I’d had a deep fried goats cheese entree I still had room for dessert, so we strolled down the hill to get some gelato. Unfortunately they were all out of their specialty; prickly pear gelato, but the flavours we tried certainly seemed to support their claim to be the best gelato shop in Malta.