Xlendi Cave

For the first time we heard the sea, it roared through the night with a crashing of waves as the wind picked up. No swimming in the morning, even if we had been up early enough to beat the crowds. This sea that I could not imagine other than placid and still suddenly alive and reaching hungrily far beyond where I had thought it’s boundaries lay. We walked down into town, found the narrow path and the stairs in the rock, had no idea there was a cave to be found. What luck that it should be the day when the sea should pound and sing here.

Xlendi Cave

Xlendi Cave

Xlendi Cave

Xlendi Cave

Lizards scurried over the rocks. There is one here if you can find it.

Xlendi Cave

We climbed back out. We sat for a while staring out to the knight’s tower, to the salt pans, watching the crashing of waves and mocking the German tourists.

Xlendi Cave

Xlendi Cave

Xlendi Cave

Then suddenly, pirates.

Xlendi Cave

Dwejra Bay, Cart Ruts, Phoenician Temple

I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was little, so much. I used to check out books on the Hittites and the Phoenicians, Ancient Egypt and the Sumerians, lug around these hard cover ancient library books probably already out of date when I read them, not understanding the half of it but they were so full of magic in the names I could not pronounce and places I longed to go and puzzles I longed to solve about ancient peoples. Many of them came from Tucson’s beautiful old Central Library before it moved to the new building. They came from the lower level where enormous electric fans kept the air moving and sent a great humming through the metal book shelves. One of my favourite places in the whole world. This is also where I found books on the Amazon rain forest, ornithologies of macaws and botanies of orchids and mythologies of exploration. This was while all of it still filled with innocence, before I knew how colonialism had twisted eager curiosity to understand the world into a way to better control and exploit it. ‘Phoenician’ still remains a word of wonder, lessened slightly by being reduced to the mere ‘Punic’ to signify the loss of Lebanon and the new centre in Carthage. Still, a word of wonder.

To be in a Phoenician Temple. In Ras Il-Wardija, Mark and I, on a high cliff looking out into the Mediterranean where they had built their fortune, the sun just beginning to sink and surrounded by the smell of smoke from farmers burning off the dead remains of old crops. The farmers shared the hilltop with us, staring out over the sea. But not the temple, we were alone there. It sits carved out of the golden globigerina limestone, niches still remaining there in the back of the cliffside. In front of it a deep square cistern, the limestone here strangely twisted and knotted like veins across skin, so sharply cut I felt it through my shoes.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Dwejra Bay Walk

Dwejra Bay Walk

Inside of it the ceiling has been carved into fantastic patterns, I imagine strange winds, the creep of water from above.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Everywhere shells — mussels half emerged from the smooth walls, remains of barnacles clustered in hollows, sand dollars and scallops adding to the strange layerings of limestone here.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Dwejra Bay Walk

Another cistern to the right as you stand staring at it.

Dwejra Bay Walk

This place — a high point. In every sense of the term.

We had started the walk in San Lawrenz.

San Lawrenz

San Lawrenz

We passed quarries that show the courses of stone removed.

 Dwejra Bay walk

Climbed out onto the cliffs above Dwejra Bay to find a bronze age dwelling and cart ruts — these have no mystique of childhood attached, but their mysterious nature makes them almost as wondrous as the temple.

Dwejra Bay walk

Leading up to the dwelling (though likely older? It is only a small pile of rocks now, megaliths having fallen over the edge, fallen apart)

Dwejra Bay walk

But once the people living here enjoyed such a view — Dwejra Bay, Fungus Rock

Dwejra Bay walk

We climbed down, looked over the inland sea

Dewjra Bay Walk

Had a drink, well deserved. Began the climb back up to the Knight’s tower, a clearer view of it here from above (pre-drink, forgive the temporal slip):

Dwejra Bay walk

It guarded the bay and fungus rock both, source of a rare parasitic plant — Cynomorium coccineum which flowers occasionally in the form of what looks like a phallic mushroom they believed to be an aphrodisiac and which they carefully controlled. They built a cable car (ie, a basket on a rope) to run from the rock to the promontory. I found an incredibly, brilliantly detailed article by Guido G. Lanfranco on all of its occurrences in written records, and this drawing which I liked better than that of the article:

I hadn’t realised you could still see the stairs both on the promontory and the rock itself, we did not go out there. Instead we made the steep climb back up the cliffs.

Reaching the top, to our left, the caves of Għajn Abdul, had it been less hot, earlier in the day, we would have climbed up to see these places whose deposits show them to have been occupied 7000 years ago, one of the earliest places settled here.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Looking back towards Dwejra Bay:

Dwejra Bay Walk

We went a bit wrong along teh cliffs, ended on the path closest to the edge. I had a moment of panic, being afraid of heights to some degree, but it was conquered.

Dwejra Bay Walk

And then we reached the temple.

The sun setting, we walked back, again along the path closest to the edge, not knowing we needed to head back up right away to get on the higher one. Poor me.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Finally we came to Ta’Sarraflu Pool, believed to have been built by the Romans, still full of ducks. We saw no frogs or turtles, but it was lovely all the same.

Dwejra Bay Walk

We walked back along the roads in the fading sunlight, racing to Santa Lucija in time to catch the bus.

Dwejra Bay Walk

Dwejra Bay Walk

We made it with three minutes to spare, no time to think about how to adequately capture the beauty of the citadel lit up and rather glorious in the night or the similar glowing of the great church at Xewkija.

I write this as Mark once more sits diligently at the kitchen table working on proof edits.

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The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum and the Tarxien Temples, Malta

The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum — an incredible underground temple built to receive the dead, an estimated seven thousand of them here filling its curved chambers. Entered through the megaliths of a stone circle, probably once monumental in itself, a descent is made through darkness with red ochre spirals writhing in the torchlight, it is thought in places one had to set out across carpets of human remains. Caves made into the images of the great corbelled temples, megaliths cut out of the limestone, one on each side of the entrance, a lintel above. In the depths there is a hole that when spoken into at the right depth of frequency sends the sound reverberating throughout the cave in a great overpowering drone. Its reverberations probably muted in the past, due to the bones piled up to fill the stone wells now empty and resounding.

Easy to imagine this place pooling with religious awe as well as the dead.

It transforms how you see the temples that stand massive and worn above ground.

A map.

The earliest remains found here were from 4000 BC, it was used until about 2500 BC, all of this carved over that period delving ever deeper into the stone. All this carved with antelope horn, used to bore holes to weaken the rock so it could be sheared away. The holes can still be seen in places, but it is hard to believe.

We were in a tour of ten, only two of the eight understood they were sharing a wonder of the world and should allow others the ability to see things too. We held small handsets that spoke to us in our own language (unless we spoke Czech or Polish) about where we were with an astonishing number of adjectives and suppositions. We were not allowed to take pictures. Our feet never touched the earth, I wonder why that matters to me but it does. There is something about standing with your feet on the earth, not some raised walkway.

Still incredible this place.

We left, had lunch so as not to follow the other members of our group straight to the temples of Tarxien. They lingered in the ruins when we got there in spite of all of our efforts.

A plan of the three temples to be found here.

These stones mark the earliest temple, the east temple built between 3600 and 3000 BC on the highest point of the site, they suffered must under the constant ploughing of this field.

Tarxien

The south Temple came next with its four apses, later modified to provide an entrance to the Central temple.

Tarxien

The middle temple, the only one known with six apses, we could not enter most of these, could only wonder at the presence of what looks like a bookshelf, at the smooth megaliths

Tarxien Temples

But it is full of wonders, formed of enormous megaliths that fit so perfectly together, the central walkway paved with enormous slabs of stone.

Tarxien

Tarxien

Tarxien

The spaces between the apses held pottery.

Tarxien

But it is near the entrance that the most beautiful things sit — though here, concrete reconstructions have raised their ugly heads, alongside modern reproductions–in golden limestone–of pieces now sitting in the museum for their protection. These I don’t mind so much, they show what it must have once been like. In the beginning. Here we stare down over a fireplace still showing the mark of ancient ritual.

Tarxien

Tarxien

It is full of niches and specked stone.

Tarxien

Tarxien

Tarxien

This altar from the South Temple

Tarxien

Back to the centre for this wondrous sculptured half of a being:

Tarxien

Niches reminiscent of the hypogeum, beautifully carved swirls.

Tarxien

Tarxien

Tarxien

We walked back through the village to catch the bus, I never tire of these streets and buildings of stone.

Tarxien

Tarxien

Tarxien

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Limestone Cliffs and Salt Pans, Xlendi Bay

Late afternoon and the air begins to cool, just a little. We explore moonscapes, stare at the shells emerging from the ground beneath us, they seem too brittle for fossils, but how else have they come here? Yet they sit next to circles of rust, marking the presence of metal. Setting sun picks up the yellow of limestone, turns it chromatic against the blue of the sky, picks out the smooth shapes carved out of it by wind and rain and sea leaving sweeping lines of wonder. Smooth boulders. A heart. The Knight’s watchtower seems almost a part of it, anchored there by the door carved into the stone and the tunnel that must be there holding it fast like a dark hand. Below the salt pans, carved by human hands into the rock to capture sea and its salt in the form of crystals. In one direction the open Mediterranean, in the other the cliffs.

They are beautiful even in the early morning light.

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Lazy afternoon, Xlendi

There is even now a mad crashing of cicadas. Their buzzing comes in waves from all sides, they are angrier here than at home, louder. As you approach they cannot leap to stillness but must wind down slowly, a whirr and a whirr and a whirr and a whirr. Then there is silence. They jump into a full blast of sound again, louder than before, but behind you this time as you pass. They bring me happiness, like the quick slender lizards that move so quickly to efface themselves in improbable cracks.

I love being surrounded by this sound of summer, sitting in front of the whirring of a fan and its odd mechanical rumble as it turns from one side to the other. But it is also odd, such familiar sounds yet so far from home. The glimmer of turquoise water just outside the window. Every now and then an echo of those everywhere-the-same sounds of families at the sea-side. The expected breezes off the sea non-existent. The skin on my neck itching and unhappy, the lazy slothfulness, the delicious mad consumption of books. The stirrings of a story or two, but no desire to write more than this. A scatter of maps on the low table along with a prized ticket to the Ħal Saflieni hypogeum for tomorrow, procured from the Citadel early this morning — I had all but given up hope of seeing it, with no pre-ordered tickets available. A freezer stuffed with frozen ravioli from the market in Victoria. Mark working at the kitchen table, but I cannot follow his example and work on my article. I just cannot. Fiction or nothing. The mention of a shame-faced crab in the Gozo natural history museum yesterday a new character for Whispering Truth, but no, I am in the mood to lazily think. To blog, the most effortless of writing. The older I get, too, the more afraid I am of forgetting.

The sun streaming through the kitchen window is about to hit me, forcing movement into a cool shower. My legs are finally the colour they have been most of my life, before I moved to England. They are fully mine, but still forced into retreat.

The Ġgantija Temples and down to Ramla Bay, Gozo

The Ġgantija Temples are the oldest freestanding temples in the world, built between 3600 and 3200 BCE, they are older than Stonehenge, older than the pyramids…it’s what the guidebooks all say, undeniably it’s partly what invests these enormous stones with what is left of their fascination. Their name comes from Maltese ġgant, or giant.

I like to think they were built by giants. But also that it was just us.

Perhaps here I shall copy UNESCO’s description, it is hard to see this really from within the ruins themselves, but describes Ġgantija (and also Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Skorba, Ta’ Ħaġrat and Tarxien).

Each monument is different in plan, articulation and construction technique. They are usually approached from an elliptical forecourt in front of a concave façade. The façade and internal walls consist of upright stone slabs, known as orthostats, surmounted by horizontal blocks. The surviving horizontal masonry courses indicate that the monuments had corbelled roofs, probably capped by horizontal beams. This method of construction was a remarkably sophisticated solution for its time. The external walls are usually constructed in larger blocks set alternately face out and edge out, tying the wall securely into the rest of the building. The space between the external wall and the walls of the inner chambers is filled with stones and earth, binding the whole structure together.

Typically, the entrance to the building is found in the centre of the façade, leading through a monumental passageway onto a paved court. The interiors of the buildings are formed of semi-circular chambers usually referred to as apses, symmetrically arranged on either side of the main axis. The number of apses varies from building to building; some have three apses opening off the central court, whilst others have successive courts with four, five, and in one case even six apses.

A map of the ruins here:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

There are two caves related to the temples, both full of pottery shards from this period. There is the Xagħra stone circle, one of the most important archaeological finds of the 1980s, sitting between Ġgantija and Santa Verna Temple, of which little is left now where it sits about 1 km away. Like what is now known as the hypogeum (more on that later), this was a roofed-over stone circle sitting above a cave system full of bones. A spontaneous visit to this place is impossible, and there is little now to see. We pretty much only do spontaneous. We did not go. But in the museum are some of the figures that were uncovered during excavations, these figures from what is referred to as a possible shaman’s bag… it bothers me, that words use. As though cultures that still have what we call shamans are somehow the same as these ancient cultures of the stone age, as if they’ve been held in time just like some insect in amber.

These figures are awesome though:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

These seated women holding a child, showing us what furniture was once like. So splendid.

Ġgantija Temple Complex

More of these incredible figures from Ġgantija itself:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

A human-headed snail:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

These wonderful birds, scratched into this post post-firing:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

From here we braved the blazing heat, made worse by great iron structures shading the path whose purpose was unclear apart from creating a kind of oven effect to counteract the shade they provided. And then the structure itself.

Ġgantija Temple Complex

The flat-topped hill behind it is in-Nuffara, a settlement site during this same period.

It is hard to get a sense over-all of the thing. They have built walkways, it is covered with scaffolding. The uneasy lean of the corbelled roof made this feel potentially necessary, but atmosphere can’t really survive scaffolding really. Or wooden walkways. It is found in the small views, the holes drilled through rock (with no metal, with only antler and perhaps harder bits of stone, and why? To screen the inner sanctums perhaps).

Ġgantija Temple Complex

Monoliths with the graffiti of visitors from earlier centuries:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

Ġgantija Temple Complex

The remains of what are probably altars, and more wandering through:

Ġgantija Temple Complex

Ġgantija Temple Complex

Ġgantija

Ġgantija

Ġgantija

The size of these great slabs of rock though, amazing.

Ġgantija

Gganija Temples

This town was the only place reached by the plague in 1831, and held in quarantine.  Here too, in Xagħra,  is the Ta’ Kola windmill:

Xagħra

Xagħra

Built by the Knights of St John it is very impressive, though we weren’t allowed in — we had carefully gotten there just before 4:30 to see it, but tickets were only available at the temple complex, so we rejoined the annoying people who had filled our bus.

Xagħra was gearing up for its festival celebrating Marija Bambina, there are street decorations up and down the streets, pedestals set up here and there, everyday streetlamps and fountains cloaked in fake marble.

Xagħra

Xagħra

We sat in the main square, accidentally ending up in an English-owned pub full of other English people.

Xagħra

We watched a group of men fighting to set up a stage, and watching two youths ring bells in the church towers by standing beside the bell itself to pull the ropes.

Xagħra

I recorded it for posterity — they make me miss English bells.

When the drinks were done we walked through the town.

 Xagħra

Xagħra

Xagħra

Xagħra

Past this mad empty house

Xagħra

and down the hills towards Ramla Bay as the sun set, still circling in a way this enormous church of Xewkija.

Xagħra to Ramla Bay

Xagħra to Ramla Bay

Xagħra to Ramla Bay

Xagħra to Ramla Bay

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Dolmens and Temples from Xlendi to Ix-Xewkija in the Dust and Heat

We left on this walk from Xlendi to the Sanap Cliffs to the Ta’ Ċenċ dolmen and the Ta’ l’Imramma Temple to Mġarr ix-Xini  at the base of Wied Ħanżira and up to Ix-Xewkija around 6:15 am (we hate mornings, but optimism and my desire to see things drove us).

It was not early enough.

But the dawn was beautiful, though already hot. The cliffs of Xlendi bay beyond the fields:

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Sanap Cliffs:

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

We walked past farmers at work in their fields, heard the steady thud of what sounded like the wielding of a hoe by hand. Mist still hovered inland surrounding Ix-Xewkija’s enormous church. We have circled this church throughout our time here.

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

We walked perilously along a narrow path between wall and cliff. The path had been closed off. We retraced our steps. The only good this brought us was a view of a cholla with the main island of Malta beyond, the first cholla I’d seen here though nopales are everywhere.

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

In Sannat — goats! We disappointed them.

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Then on, to the dolmen of Ta’ Ċenċ.

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

A scatter of worked stone, the imposing Citadel rising up behind.

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

A little further the Ta’ l’Imramma Temple, from the Mġarr phase, 3800-3600 BCE. Wondrously old, though there is very little still left to be seen here. Megaliths — believed to be still standing where they were set, but now built into a wall:

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Beyond them a pile of rubble, with megaliths strewn across an area which our book (Archaeological Walks on Gozo by Lenie Reeddijk) said was about 80m in circumference:

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

There are cart ruts to be found here too, but it was too hot for short turning asides. We ignored such instructions, followed the road down past Wied Ħanżira, almost hidden at first:

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Then opening up:

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

We walked towards sea and terraced hillsides.

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Down to a most beautiful bay — Mġarr ix-Xini, which means landing place for ships — helped with a short ride from some divers heading down. They thought we were crazy I know. They were absolutely right, we all knew it. We did not swim nor wait two hours until they returned back up the hill as they suggested, but climbed out again, up steps cut into the rock.

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

We staggered back up really.

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Arriving finally at the outskirts of Ix-Xewkija — oldest village on Gozo, a shrine:

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

The church itself, which claims the third largest unsupported dome in the world, in the oldest village on Gozo:

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

And I quite loved Ix-Xewkija:

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

Xlendi to Xewkija Walk

But nothing can describe the joy of seeing that bus, and an end to this walk.

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Sunset, Xlendi Bay

We attempted a walk in the morning, beautiful, but the heat sent us stumbling back, though first we got to the oldest of the four surviving Knight’s watchtowers on Gozo, built in 1650 to guard this bay against (other) pirates.

Xlendi Bay

The salt pans:

We retreated, returned in the evening. Found a cat-shaped hole in the hillside, from which its eyes burned.

Xlendi Bay

And the magnificent cliffs.

Xlendi Bay

Xlendi Bay

Xlendi Bay

Xlendi Bay

Xlendi Bay

Down to the Sanap cliffs, where we found a family eating their meal on a fold up table beside their car.

Xlendi Bay

and then a race back home against darkness…

Xlendi Bay

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