We ended up getting back from the Hypogeum tour around 2:30 or so, and the weather was beautiful, so I convinced Clare and the kids to go to the beach one more time. This time we went to Exiles bay, which is near Ballutta bay, but it is not sandy. They have some nice piers you can jump in from, and also ladders. It was lovely. My only complaint is that I wish we would have tried it earlier in our stay, because it was so nice. We had some fun with the underwater camera again. There were quite a few fish out.
Clare saved the best for our last day – the Hypogeum. This is an underground tomb (hypogeum is Greek, meaning underground). It was discovered in 1902 while digging a cistern for a house. The workers discovered a huge underground burial site from around 3000 B.C.E.
Before we went to the Hypogeum, we stopped at the nearby Tarxien Temples. These temples were very similar to some of the other temples we saw from the Stone Age, but also had some distinct qualities. I think they were one of the first of the temples to be excavated, and this really shows in the methods they used. Unlike most of the other temples we saw, which were mostly left in the shape they were found, the Tarxien temples had many pieces reconstructed. I can understand why one might want to do this, but unfortunately, it was not always well marked which parts were original and which parts were reconstructed. In some cases, artifacts like clay pots were moved to the archeological museum, and were replaced by replicas onsite. It was really handy that we had gone to the archaeological museum in Valletta earlier.
One downside of the Tarxien temples was that there were a ton of little mosquitos or bugs of some sort which kept biting us. So after 30 minutes or so, we made our way towards the Hypogeum. It is right in the middle of the city, and actually quite easy to miss. Once we had found it, we then sought out a park to have some lunch, consisting of a variety of fruits, cheeses, crackers, bread, and such. One Maltese treat we really enjoyed were these Treacle Rings, which were a kind of cookie filled with a sweet paste consisting of some combination of honey, dates, and/or treacle, which is sort of like molasses.
Since it is all underground, the climate is very sensitive. By the 1950s, frequent visitors to the hypogeum was causing significant damage, including the growth of algae on the walls. They decided to close it for awhile, and after fixing the damage, they re-opened it, but only allow 10 visitors per hour, which means that you have to book your tour months ahead of time. Fortunately Clare is a great travel planner, so she had done so. They also don’t allow any photography at all, so the pictures here are taken from Wikipedia.
The experience at the hypogeum was definitely very different from the other sites we visited, in a number of ways. For one, we did not have a tour guide with us. Instead we had an audio tour, which started with several videos about Malta and the temple culture in general. The second video was in a square room, and was projected onto all four walls. There was music coming from the speakers in the room, but then the speech was delivered via a handheld audioguide (which was configured to the language of your choice).
Inside the hypogeum, it is quite dark, with minimal lighting, to protect the structure. Since it is underground, it does not have erosion from wind and water like the other temples which are above ground. The wet underground climate did have the effect that most of the bones found there were very decayed. They estimate that over 7000 bones were found there. The walls of the hypogeum are carved to look like many of the temples which were constructed of stone. However, there were also some fairly large stones in the hypogeum to form a doorway. It is not clear if these stones were brought from elsewhere, or were carved out of the cavern in place. There were some spherical stones nearby, similar to stones at many of the temples believed to be used as rollers, like ball bearings, so it suggests that these stones were likely brought from somewhere else.
Researchers believe that the dead were first laid to rest in the upper chamber, likely to allow the smells of decay to escape. The bones were then place en masse in rooms in the lower chambers. In the lowest of the three levels, there would have been almost no light, so all work would need to be done with light from hand-held torches. The temple culture used exclusively stone tools, meaning that the work of creating the hypogeum must have been very slow and tedious.
Today we went to the Ghar Dalam cave and the Borg In-Nadur temple. Malta has an incredible amount of archaeological finds, from a number of different time periods. During the Pleistene age 1.8 million years ago, Malta was connected to Sicily via a land bridge. During this period elephants, deer, hippopotami, and other animals were common on Malta. After the land bridge seceded, the animals had fewer resources, so they got smaller over time. Thousands of animal bones from this period were discovered inside the Ghar Dalam cave. Shortly after humans settled on Malta, they hunted these species to extinction.
Much of the exhibit was done in a Victorian style, which showcases hundreds of bones all in one case. It was certainly the most bones in one room I have ever seen.
After we toured the museum, we continued down towards the caves. Along the way there were a number of different trees and plants, as well as the remains of a Roman villa.
The cave itself only requires a few minutes to walk through most of it, but it is labeled with the different layers of rock and sediment from which they discovered different types of bones and also human artifacts in the uppermost layer.
We also learned that the cave was used to house fuel for planes during World War Two, and there is still some barbed wire from that period. It is also surrounded by kilometers of rubble walls, which have been used on Malta for thousands of years for various purposes.
After Ghar Dalam, we stopped at Borg In-Nadur, which is another temple from around 3000 B.C.E. It is not as impressive as some of the other temples we saw, but it is still fascinating to see just how pervasive the temple culture was on Malta.
After the temple we tried to get lunch nearby, but we could not find much open, so we ended up taking a cab back to Sliema near our apartment. Spencer really enjoyed his double cheeseburger.
Saturday we had our second day of guided tour with Mona, our wonderful tour guide. She picked us just after 7 a.m. We drove to the north of the island to catch the ferry to Gozo, an island a bit north of Malta, which belongs to Malta. The main island of Malta has nearly 500,000 inhabitants, while Gozo only has about 30,000. It has a much more relaxed atmosphere.
Traffic was light and there was an extra ferry, so we got to the island even earlier than planned. We had a few minutes to spare before the temple visitor center opened at 9 a.m. so we made a quick stop to get a few pictures looking back at the island of Comino.
Our first main stop in Gozo was the Megolithic temples at Ggantija. Unlike the temples on the main island of Malta, the temples on Gozo were not as widely excavated during the 1800s. They were discovered then, but the farmers covered them up so they could continue to farm the land, and thus they were not fully excavated until the 1980s, which means that the technologies and tools used for excavation were able to better preserve the artifacts.
The Ggantija temples were built between 3600 and 2500 B.C.E. making them the second oldest human-made religious structures. The visitor’s center focused mostly on the Xaghra circle, which was only more recently excavated, and is not open to visitors right now. Some of the artifacts were incredible though, especially the skull with all the teeth intact.
After the temples, we stopped at Dwejra, which up until a few years ago had an amazing arch rock structure called the Azure window, which unfortunately collapsed. The Blue hole and the inland sea were still notable sights to see.
The highlight of the trip was a visit to the citadel, which is near the center of the island, and provided protection from invaders for the inhabitants of Gozo for many years.
After the citadel we enjoyed a relaxing lunch along the coast at the boathouse restaurant in Xlendi. I had braised rabbit, which is a traditional Maltese dish. I was a bit perplexed when the waiter handed me wet wipes. I thought maybe I should eat it with my hands, but I wasn’t sure. After about 10 minutes of enjoying it with fork and knife, our tour guide informed me that normally it is eaten by hand, so then I dug in. It was delicious.
On our way to the Gozo ferry on Saturday, Alice noticed a waterpark, and asked if we could go. The weather on Sunday was quite warm, so we decided to go. The water was actually colder than the sea, but we managed to have a good time anyways. We had fun playing with the underwater camera.
I got some nice shots of the sunset from the terrace the other day, after we enjoyed some local Maltese red wine from the Antonin winery.
One of my favorite songs, American Girl by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, has this line:
Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441 like waves crashin’ on the beachTom Petty, American Girl
This line came into my head as we were watching the waves crash on the beach on Friday. We had hoped to go swimming, but the sea was too rough. We enjoyed watching the waves crash on the beach.
Tuesday the beach at Ballutta bay was sandy and calm. Today, the rough waves were churning up the sand and bringing all sorts of drift wood up onto the beach, which was nearly gone.
Today we took a guided tour of the main island. Our stops included Mdina, Hagar Qim, and Valletta.
Mdina is a walled city, the ancient fortress capital with winding streets. They were on a high point to keep an eye out for invaders coming to steal people into slavery. They would light a bonfire on a high platform and the surrounding villagers would come inside the city walls. We enjoyed the car free streets, gas lamps, and charm.
Hagar Qim is an ancient temple from 5700 years ago that also functions as a calander by aligning with solar and stellar events, like solstices and constellations.
Valletta is the modern day capital built in the 16th century by the Knights of St. John. in contrast to Mdina, it is a port city on a grid. The wealth of Malta, collecting something from all the civilizations that have come and gone, are apparent here.
It was a good day. Thank you to our hostess, Joan from https://www.maltatourguide.com/