December 1, 2019: 5,000 years of Maltese History
I woke up in Valetta and caught a bus to the suburb of Paola.
In a nondescript building lies Malta’s greatest treasure: the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a 5,000 year old underground cave temple- older than the pyramids of Egypt. It has three levels and goes down 45 feet underground. It was used for human burials and reportedly contained the bones of 7,000 individuals.
Touring the Hypogeum is not an easy task: due to the increase in carbon dioxide levels caused by visitors, only 70 people are allowed to visit the Hypogeum each day. Tickets are sold online and usually sell out weeks in advance. Luckily since this was the off-season, I was able to get one just 10 days in advance. At 35 Euros, it was pricey, but worth it. Because light also damages the Hypogeum, cameras are strictly prohibited. The group tour used audioguides so that each person could listen in a different language.
My visit started in a small video room containing artifacts from the site. Then we walked down stairs into the dark chamber containing the temple itself. During the entire visit, the audioguide played dramatic music which significantly enhanced the mood.
We worked out way down through the top two levels of the site. One room had ancient red ochre paintings. The middle level contained holes where bodies were allowed to decompose. We ended in an elaborate room known as the Holy of Holies. From this room, multiple staircases led towards chambers in the lowest level. Once the bodies decomposed in the middle level, they were placed in those lower chambers. When the site was discovered, the piles of bones were up to 10 feet deep. Today, the bones have been taken for safekeeping and research.
While difficult and expensive to visit, the Hypogeum was my favorite thing in all of Malta.
My next stop was the Tarxien Temple- this was an aboveground version of the Hypogeum and also is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There were no bones or bodies found here; rather I saw a lot of stone archways similar to stonehenge. Personally, I didn’t find this site as interesting, but I may have been biased by the amazing Hypogeum.
I then walked down to the anceint walled city of Birgu. It lies across a channel from Valetta. Today, Birgu serves as the parking lot for all the yachts coming to Malta.
Birgu served as the military command center for the Knights of St. John during the siege and was a powerful religious center. The powerful Inquisitor lived in Birgu. From his palace, he ensured that Malta remained free of Protestant ideas. Unlike the Spanish Inquisition, people were rarely killed; rather, they were usually forced to perform religious tasks such as taking communion or making a pilgrimage. Torture was used- not as punishment- but to “extract the truth”. Inquisitor of Malta was a powerful position in the church: two future popes worked as Inquisitors during their careers.
At the end of Birgu is Fort St. Angelo- the most important fort in Malta. Fort St. Angelo was the command center for Knights of St. John during the Great Siege of 1565. In 1800, it then became the headquarters of the British Navy’s Mediterranean fleet where it played a key role in World War II. Before becoming Queen of England, a newly married Princess Elizabeth spent time here while her husband, Prince Phillip, was stationed in the Royal Navy.
When Malta gained independence in 1964, Fort St. Angelo retained in the hand of Britain due to its military importance. In 1979, the Fort was finally given over to the Maltese government. In 2001, the upper level of the fort was given back to the Sovereign Order of Malta- the modern day successors of the Knights of St. John.
After an hour wandering the fort, it was time to catch the bus to the airport.
While most people think of Malta as a summer beach destination, I saw a different side of Malta. From 5,000-year old temples to an order of Catholic knights to World War II, Malta has an incredibly rich history. That history is well-preserved and accessible and beautiful!
Had I had an extra day, I definitely would have visited the nearby island of Gozo, just a short ferry ride away. It is quite rural and a stark difference from urban Malta.
I absolutely loved Malta and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in history, good weather, good food and the water.