Tag Archives: Malta

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

Save

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.

Save

Save

Save

Save

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

Save

St Paul’s Catacombs, Rabat

More catacombs, the largest of them here in Rabat, constructed just outside the ditch surrounding the Roman city of Melita. They are believed to have begun as simple Punic hypogea, tombs dug straight down into the earth but later further dug out, added to, connected in the late Roman period to form catacombs, in medieval times to have become the site of a church.

First you enter the main section, then emerging you plunge back down into multiple small subsections to see a Menorah here, a ship there, endless stibadium that still fascinate, just as the darkness does and the vistas across tombs and through small arched windows carved into walls — Bonnano is right, there is so little obvious Christian iconography to be found anywhere.

Some myths on display — the pig that fell into a hole here, and emerged in a village 4 km away. The class of children that entered, never to be seen again. The giants who delved here.

Flickr Album Gallery Powered By: Weblizar

Save

Save

The Rabat Domvs Romanus

Rabat’s Domvs Romanus was discovered in 1881 by gardeners planting trees in Howard Garden. Excavated by Dr A. A. Caruana in 1881. They found a number of Islamic graves and some of the mosaics — the mosaics are extraordinary and allow the fairly precise dating of their placement with a span of 50 years at the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 1st century BC. Sadly the British went ahead and destroyed a big chunk of it, cutting the road to Mtarfa railway through the north end in 1899. It was excavated anew by Temmi Zammit in 1922. Which, well, it was early days in archaeology, so loads of interesting things have been lost. We both remember a reference to the cartloads of pottery that were catalogued and then destroyed — but can’t remember where we read this. It wasn’t here. Ah well.

There is a little museum here, containing finds both from the site as well as a few donated from elsewhere. They had these amazing figurines from between the 1st and 3rd Century AD, the middle one is, of course, my favourite. The accompanying notice describes the figure as Eegemone (il cadottiero) — though I imagine this may be Egemone, il condottiero — and the one on the right Ermanio (il vecchio recalvostro). This is the only one for whom provenance is known, found in St Paul’s Square, Mdina. There is nothing about the significance of the names.

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Then there is this wonderful glass drinking vessel known as a Rython, with this amazing snail’s head, found in a tomb (but which? no one knows) in Rabat, c 1st Century AD. The glass chalice to the right is also lovely:

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Bonnano in Malta: Phoenician, Punic, and Roman gives two wonderful maps. One is of the site as a whole, with a look at the system of cisterns providing water to the house.

The second shows just the villa itself, with the areas where the mosaics were found:

There was the Triclinium, where dining happened, where the pater familias conducted all of his business — where once there were amazing mosaics, mostly gone but what remains of them are so beautiful with their tiny pieces and fine shadings:

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Such extraordinary mosaics. They were later repaired with coarse tiles.

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

I am rather in awe of these floors. There is a display about the cocciopesto floor — believed to have originated in Carthage (those Phoenicians again) around the 4th Century BC, sometimes referred to as Pavimentum Punicum. Crushed pottery was mixed with lime to form a cheap, resistant material — their red colour came from from crushed pottery. This was often combined with white marble tesserae to create simple designs, then called opus signinum. Opus sculatum is the lozenge shaped tiles, put together to form a perspective cube. Such floors were found in almost all Roman sites in Malta, and still found today in fact. Those found here are considered some of the finest in the Mediterranean. No question why (I am just sad glass had to come between us):

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Masks lined these floors. Signage states they probably drew on Greek New Comedy — they almost certainly represent a story but no way to know now what that may have been. I find them very eerie with their open mouths, can’t quite imagine wanting them to gape at me from the floors of my home. .

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

The floors were built over buried amphora, to control the damp…

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

There are quotations from Vitruvius here from his book on architecture, which has re-entered my list of things to read.

The mosaics, surely, would be enough to demonstrate this was the villa of someone very high status, but in addition very fine Imperial sculptures were also found here — of Claudius and his family probably. A rare thing to have the emperor and his family in your home. Like the masks, I don’t think I would have much appreciated that either.

The museum also holds this statue, found elsewhere in Mdina, which gets much more mention in the books. A goddess, unknown, with an ‘Isis knot’ under her breast, a ‘Lybian’ style to her hair, an eastern necklace.

Rabat - Domus Romana

Outside, staring at the ruins of other poorer homes aligned along a long-buried street

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

A jumble of bits and pieces here

Rabat -- Domus Romanus

Save


Save

St Agatha’s Catacombs and Museum, Rabat

St Agatha’s Catacombs in Rabat are locked away behind a great iron door down the bottom of a flight of steps, available to see on a guided tour only. I was somehow first down the steps and first into a tall arching space with frescoes all around it. An extraordinary, evocative space that deserved more time, more darkness, no reminders of modern tours. We needed time to piece together ancient faces. We were not so lucky. This is the picture I might have taken had there been photography allowed, but it was darker.

There is a battle of interpretations being waged here, from the leaflet produced by the Missionary Society of St Paul:

Strong tradition holds that the young virgin, Agatha, sought refuge on the island of Malta, so as to escape the persecution of the Emperor Decius (249-251 AD) and the Governor of Sicily, Quintinius, who had fallen in love with her.

Agatha is said to have lived in the city [Melita], but used to come to pray at this place. A few months later, she returned to her native country, where she was tortured and killed because of her faith on 5th February 251 AD.

These dates ever so exact. The story from the guide and from elsewhere was that she had hidden in the crypt itself. One place describes how she taught children here. The leaflet says the crypt was maintained thereafter as sacred to her honour. One set of frescoes was painted in 1200, and the second set in 1480, attributed to Salvatore D’Antonio from Messina. Anthony Bonanno dates the catacombs to late 3rd and 4th Centuries, gives a wider range of dates for the frescoes and names no names. And across the road, a set of boards in the St Paul catacombs ‘debunking’ some quite fabulous myths (more on them later) has the following entry:

Christians did not hide in catacombs not least because they were terrible hiding places, and there is no evidence for Christianity until the 4th Century AD.

I gather up all interpretations of the past to enjoy the catacombs, they are beautiful, if slightly back-breaking. Many of the tombs are decorated, many of them carved so people could lie side by side, some of them still contain bones. You come at the end to the ‘Holy of Holies’, ‘believed to be the earliest rock-cut church in Malta.’ The leaflet states there was once an agape table set here, which was later destroyed when the church outlawed their use — of all the interpretations swirling about this place, this is the one I buy the least:

Distinctions between the rich and the poorer members of the congregation during these banquets became customary, and so they were stopped.

The whole catacomb distinguishes between rich and poor — those with central tombs custom-cut into rock, surrounded by four pillars and passageways to be freestanding. The poor left to shelves in passageways, pits in floors, graves used over and over.

But the fresco here is lovely, one of the best preserved.

Definitely Christian with the Chi Rho and the vases and the doves — unlike the mutilated stibadium (Bonanno’s preferred term, he mentions mensae and triclinia), which have been found more widely in Libya and Petra and probably tie back to a longer lineage of pagan worship. Many of those here in Malta are not associated with Christian iconography at all (though that doesn’t mean necessarily that they weren’t Christian), and several come with with carved menorahs making them fairly necessarily Jewish. Bonanno does not mention this as an early rock-cut church, nor this as the niche above an altar, either. But these spaces are still very full of an awe closely related to religious feeling, even in modern-day electric lighting rather than flickering oil lamps. How to differentiate between church and religious space holding believers? A map here, from Bonanno.

cof

There is a museum here also, which reminds me of Victorian days of glory, full of finds from the catacombs but also multiple donations, unprovenanced, uncertain.

Rabat - St Agatha's

They range from pottery to fragments of scupture, Egyptian shabtis, bits of glass and beads. The connection to a Hellenized Egypt feels quite strong here.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

My favourite things were the votive slabs taken from the old church built here in 1504, some of them found in the walls of the church rebuilt in 1670. I love these scenes of everyday life:

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Animals — including the legend of the pelican who causes her own breast to bleed to feed her young. This is everywhere in Medieval English carvings as well as in one of the frescoes decorating a grave in the catacombs below.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Two architectural/ city scenes, at the very end of the row:

Rabat -- St Agatha's

Though of course, the most amazing thing had to be the 4000 year-old mummified crocodile identified with Sobek, Lord of the Nile.

Rabat -- St Agatha's

A graffitied cherub

Rabat -- St Agatha's

There was also some truly extraordinary Catholic kitsch, which I also loved. I think I am going to collect all of that together for one glorious post of sacred hearts and severed heads…

Save

St Paul’s Grotto — WWII Shelters — Catacombs, Rabat

St Paul is my least favourite apostle. Not exactly an apostle, I know, but something like that. Persecuting Christians one minute, persecuting those who aren’t Christian enough the next, and it always seemed to me he quite hated women, made we want to throw my bible during Sunday School despite some lovely passages about love in those letters he wrote the Corinthians. Still, interesting to think of him here, in Malta, where we are too! Our first two nights in Mdina/Rabat, known as Melite to the Romans. This is from Acts 28: 1-10.

1. And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.
2 And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.
3 And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
4 And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
5 And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
6 Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
7 In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously.
8 And it came to pass, that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him.
9 So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed:
10 Who also honoured us with many honours; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary.

Pretty exciting times. Legend placed St Paul in this grotto/ cave/ prison preaching the gospel. If true (and it makes some geographic sense and the place name is right), he would have arrived here in 60 AD, shipwrecked while traveling from Crete to Rome for trial in front of Julius Ceasar.

St Paul’s Grotto

You follow down steps:

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

To find the requisite marbled bit:

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

And a quite lovely fresco

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

The grotto itself is rather more humble, rather more grim.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

There was a huge fight over the legacy of St Paul between the Knights of St John and the Church. In 1607, Spanish hermit Juan Benegas de Cordova was given permission by Pope Paul V to look after the grotto. A small sheet of typewritten paper in the Wignacourt Museum above relates that it seems only then did the Knights realise the potential of the spot. Benegas ‘ceded’ the Grotto to them on 24th April 1617. Above it, Alof de Wignacourt built the Collegio that now forms the museum for the College of Chaplains, their mission to promote the cult of St Paul as well as to protect the Grotto. The church realised it had missed a trick, and immediately built their own — bigger, more eye-catching — church of St Paul immediately next door, financed by Cosmana Navarra (who has a street named after her, also a very nice restaurant now inhabiting her townhouse though we ourselves went to the Grotto Tavern, where I had ravioli in a kind of broth that started out on first taste as disappointingly bland until a crazy crescendo of flavour was reached at some point thereafter transforming my ideas of the heights pasta can attain). The grotto remained contested until the Knights lost everything (damn Napoleon) and now is with the Church. But this painting by the Knight’s own painter Antoine Favray (1706-1787), shows St John the Baptist and St Paul together, which only makes sense in the light of this story…hence, I suppose, the typewritten sheet beneath him.

Rabat -- Wignacourt Museum

Here also are perhaps my favourite catacombs — we have visited many. It also has a brilliant series of WWII shelters.

Down into the WWII Shelters

At the war’s outbreak (says the display), 8,000 workers began to dig shelters with pick axes. 841 shelters were dug to serve the population.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Some families asked for permission to dig individual shelters as seen in these caves, about 50 such rooms — all are a standard size and shape, but some have been painted and tiled. I loved these touches to create a kind of home here.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

The view from inside

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Beyond the shelters are the catacombs, and they were my favourites because you can just wander around. There were very few others here, and to have this place to ourselves — so very cool.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Here we found first mention of the Agape Table, which we would find everywhere, yet this is a name fairly sneered at by Anthony Bonanno in Malta: Phoenician, Punic, and Roman. He might also have sneered at this drawing, of a family communing over a meal in the catacombs, a reconstruction of how it is believed they are used.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

But they are quite incredible

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Valletta’s Spaces of Stone

Valletta’s architecture is unified in its building material — as is all of Malta it seems, but here it is most striking how this unifies the old and the new. Renzo Piano’s fabulous new city gate rises up as you enter, it’s massive square forms work beautifully in this space, as modern as they are. I wish I had taken more pictures.

Valleta

Just as I wish I had more pictures of the opera house beyond (the columns visible just beyond), where they chose not to rebuild the massive building left in ruins by WWII bombs, but to leave its foundations and columns to embrace an outdoor performance space, which I also quite loved. Similar pictures of the ruins were shown several time through the Cities as Community Spaces conference, a symbol of the city’s resilience.

Valletta opera-house-8-april-1942Valletta is in fact surrounded by monumental space, this stairway rises up to the left as you enter, leading to Hastings gardens along the battlements that protect the city.

Valletta

I’ll come back to those because they are fascinating, but still what most captivated me were the narrow streets in this Renaissance city, originally named the most humble city of Valletta, after the Master of the Knights of Malta, Jean de Vallette, who had successfully led the defense of the island against the Ottoman Turks in 1565. This city on the isthmus was to solidify defenses — and you can tell. Built in 40 years by Italian architect Francesco Laparelli, student of Michelangelo, and finished by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, I am curious to explore how it connects to other city planning from this time. Their auberges — grand renaissance building with a municipal feel that housed the langues and now house museums and government offices — are familiar, the churches also:

IMG_5070

These wonderful grand colonnaded spaces

Valletta

But the streets laid out in a perfect (then almost revolutionary) grid with these wonderful balconies — these are like nothing I had ever seen.

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

It is a city where the whole is beautiful to look upon, but the details are as well…

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

And just look at these balconies, the individuality they bring to each building front, and the craftsmanship of them, they all seem to have their individual touches amplified by the passing of time and the histories of their owners:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Interesting, though, that so many of them are enclosed and hardly large enough to be used as extended living spaces. They seem used for laundry and plants. You could not squeeze a table and chairs outside as we saw so often in Paris, you cannot easily connect and talk to your neighbour next door or across the way, even with the windows wide open as they are above. It seems an opportunity missed, a reflection of a more enclosed society or perhaps an aspect of the city that helps create one. Nor are there stoops or enough space to extend living into the doorways and streets the way families do in say New York. Much of this seems concentrated in the squares, but still, I wonder at the impact on the everyday life and conviviality.

These streets contain atmosphere, and the surprise lost through the absence of twists and turns is found instead in the variegated building surfaces and the faded palimpsests painted onto stone, the flaking remnants of the past .

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

I don’t have a picture of the old grafittied pictures of ships that was pointed out to me by someone from Valletta as we walked back from a panel through the streets — her friend had uncovered it as he was cleaning the stone. There is no telling how old it is, a deep ochre red and it looked like pictures of the galleys so prevalent in the Mediterranean I have seen in books. She told me too the use of statues of saints at the street corners instead of street signs — St Christopher easily recognisable embodied in stone for those unable to read the letters of his name. We laughed that no longer are we literate in that way. I had a thought to catalogue them, but it fell away, saints are not my favourite things, and these are many of them grand, not the humble saints dressed in hand-sewn clothing I am more used to. But I do love shrines.

Valletta

This on the other hand…on the grand masters palace on the edge of George’s Square. Perhaps this was explained on one of the tours or if I could hit upon the right search terms, I usually love grotesques but this man in European dress riding what seems to be a naked African woman? Telling, if rather horrible.

Valletta

I only really noticed it my last day, because always your eyes are drawn to the life in the square — though early on a Sunday as I headed to the airport is was more quiet than I ever saw it:

Valletta

There are fountains here which must be wonderful in summer, it was  always full of children, including two little girls swanning through delightedly on scooters. Tourists and townfolk and migrants alike make use of the many places to sit that ring the square, as did I the night I wandered here alone. It is a lovely space, especially at night when the cafes overflow and there is lively talk and the clink of glasses and the smell of food…

Funny that it almost never smells of the sea here. Yet the sea surrounds it, on the other side of these enormous fortifications. This is looking towards Sliema:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Finding these fields tucked away made me so happy though, I can’t image football in this kind of setting! I was glad too, as many of the conference speakers mentioned the way they had played football in the streets as children — streets now very full of cars, and it’s true no children play there now.

Valletta

More views, this of Fort Manoel with the massive luxury build in Sliema behind it:

Valletta

Back over Valletta itself — in the foreground graffiti. Float like a butterfly sting like a bee, I was happy to find Mohammed Ali quoted here.

Valletta

Valletta at night — it is magical, I confess I wrote reams, though nothing coalesced quite into a story. My thoughts circled around Caravaggio for some reason, swaggering through the streets. It struck me that sober he wanted to be like the knights who were lords of all this, and that drunk he wanted to destroy them. It is easy to imagine him wandering through streets such as these, unlike England the modern almost never intrudes to break the atmosphere. Maybe the story will come, tinged with the recent car bombings, the old man wandering down the street with a bird in a tiny cage held reverently between his hands, chirping as he went. The undercurrents you can feel here, though I am ignorant of their precise nature.

Valletta

Valleta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Looking across from the other side of Valletta, towards the Forti Sant’ Anġl

Valletta

There are spaces underneath as well — I was lucky enough to visit the air raid shelter beneath the Crypt of St Augustine where the conference dinners were hosted. The crypt itself is a beautiful vaulted space where many lived during WWII, escaping down rickety stairs at the sirens. Boards covered the puddles of water at the bottom, we half-drunkenly explored the long passages and rooms and it was wonderful.

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

I had to leave too soon. But luck brought me a window seat, and it is from the air that you can best appreciate how small Valletta is, and the position it holds within this much larger urban conglomeration. I loved the fields as well, these are small plots that can never become too mechanised or monocultured.

Valletta from the air

Valletta from the air

I think this was Gozo in fact, but you can see the stark lines of the towns and the terracing of the hillsides, even if you can’t quite see the wonderful blues of the sea itself.

Malta from the air

A wonderful place, I am so thankful for the luck and generosity of those I love that allowed me come here.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra, Malta’s Ancient Temples

Ħaġar Qim… there is beauty just in the letters, these unique Maltese forms that I love. The temple sits on cliffs just above the temple of Mnajdra, unique and ancient I had never heard of them until I knew I was coming to Valletta. I had never read of the civilization that existed here. 5,500 years ago. Older than Stonehenge, than the great pyramid, I read so much and yet I never stumbled across these wonders. Ħaġar Qim before the covering was built over it:

530-hagar-qim-temple-aerial-3100-bcI missed this sense of the whole and the way that it fits into the landscape, the natural light on stone, but I am glad it is being protected.  In the visitor’s centre I had my first experience of 4D, with a 3D screening and scents and watery mist being pumped into the theatre, along with lightening flashes and wind. Noisily. But I rather loved it. This is what it looks like now:

Ħaġar Qim

The carvings have been removed to be kept safe in the museum in Valletta — it occupies the old Auberge of the langue of Provence, quite beautiful in itself:

Museum of Archaeology

I had seen it the day before in the company of new friend from the conference who had written part of his thesis on this figure, found in one of the first apses of the main building — I was jealous he had come across it before:

29888b928a471511b15ffb7dee2fbeb1The back of it is so lovely. More intriguing, though, are the enormous figures also found there, which I did not take a picture of. This lapse astonishes me. This more official one is undoubtedly better however.

museoarcheologico_04_bigThese too are from the first apse, they left me without words. I could never have imagined them and I love coming across such things. They are strangely beautiful, impossible for me to understand. They are massive, an immense presence. The heads were almost certainly carved separately from the bodies, we can only guess why.

Perhaps my favourite is the ‘sleeping lady’, she was found in the Hypogeum (underground prehistoric temple carved into the stone, my god, everything I love in one place) — words cannot convey my sadness at this being closed during my visit, but it ensures my return.

museoarcheologico_01_big

But the temples I did manage to see — this is the first apse, a strange doorway

IMG_5132

Replicas of some of the carvings, these pitted stones, and more curves

Ħaġar Qim

On the opposing side more stonework — everywhere on this island beautiful stonework:

IMG_5136

Ħaġar Qim stands highly visible and highly exposed, unlike all of the others. It has the largest piece of rock I have ever seen as part of a building, much less an ancient one like this. It has multiple entrances, an openness that is also unique, like this outside niche:

Ħaġar Qim

A carved hole in one of the apses marks the summer solstice. It was built on and added to over time, a sprawling, slightly untidy nature that you can feel walking through it, as though it were always open to possibility, even as the wind and rain were melting the limestone slowly away.

Mnajdra has a more satisfying perfection, indeed an almost perfect form. A complement to openness I think. This is the walk down to it from Ħaġar Qim alongside fields of beautiful soil.

Ħaġar Qim

The museum’s model gives a sense of its completeness:

mnajdraplanPerhaps even more beautiful stonework, these wonderful square doorways and pitted decorations:

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Everywhere these doorways. They reminded me strangely of the Chaco culture in New Mexico with its unique T-shaped doorways, it makes me think how important doorways always are as you step from one place to another, one world to another, and how much meaning lies encoded in these. They are all amazing given the levels of technology — though their tools were also beautiful, look at this two-person hammer:

Museum of Archaeology

And this people’s own architectural model

Museum of Archaeology

Their graceful carvings and decorations:

Museum of Archaeology

The museum holds great round stones as well, and one theory is that these were used to transport the great slabs of limestone.

From the trail connecting the temples you can branch off along a nature trail — I was alone while there in choosing to explore the longer one that took me uphill. Happiness, yet also a certain disappointment in people really. Because they couldn’t be bothered to see more of this place.

To be out in the countryside — joy. Nopales flourish:

Ħaġar Qim

Grapes — though these are struggling:

Ħaġar Qim

Figs, this one alongside one of the small stone huts scattering the hillside, built as hides for the trapping of birds:

Ħaġar Qim

Another of them, the most picturesque:

Ħaġar Qim

Unexpectedly here (I must have blinked at some point in the museum) I found the Misqa water tanks — carved by the temple builders into the limestone to collect fresh water, and still used to irrigate nearby fields.

Ħaġar Qim

There are curious remains carved deeply here into the rock

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim

The island of Filfla in the distance — probably sacred to the temple builders, the British used it for target practice, and now it has returned to being a bird sanctuary.

They are deeper than I thought, like the one here on the left:

Ħaġar Qim

I admired so much the curves of the beautiful wall there in the background, and as I backtracked down the path a head popped up, scaring me it is true, but thus I met Tony. For many years he had lived part of the year in the Bay area and part of it there alongside the temples, growing figs, olives, and grapes. We talked about nopales, how we cook them along the border. His favourite way to eat them is to pick the young leaves (late July and August) and peel them, then put them in the fridge and eat them very cold. I might try it. We talked about Trump, of course. Trump is bad for everyone. I continue to have those conversations. I love these chance meetings, I hate that it should be shaped by such a man in any way. We ended as friends though, and I continued on my way.

The path curves down alongside an old quarry, on the other side of the road, somewhere hidden in that canyon — part of a large fault system — are the Tal-Maghlaq catacombs. I think perhaps I saw the overgrown entrances, but I am far from sure.

img_5245Walking back, the sound of the sea, and the limestone cliffs grooved from the quarrying of stone:

Blue Grotto

More views of the narrow stone-walled fields terraced across the hillsides

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim

I walked a little of the way down towards the Blue Grotto but the afternoon was lengthening so headed back for the bus. My final views

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim

There is a wonderful fragrance here also, more of herbs than of flowers though I could be wrong about its source.

If I were to do it again I would have more time, have started at the blue grotto and walked up, and then walked into Qrendi I think, I longed to spend a little time in these villages. They are tightly defined, ending where the fields begin. They all have large beautiful churches with a square in front, long rows of terraced houses, they are beautiful and sit well upon the land. Many have oranges and other citrus and figs growing in front of them.

To end with a mystery which I was not able to see, but which I discovered in the museum — that of Clapham Junction (! – but oh yes, this was a British colony and they named some things) and of the deep ruts in the limestone whose causes are mysterious and as yet unknown — variants of them are found all over the island…

clapham-junction-malta-guide-cart-ruts

I don’t know that I have been anywhere in a landscape that felt so ‘natural’ as it were, but also carried so deeply the craft and mark of human beings. I haven’t even gotten started on the Phoenicians, the Romans…newcomers. Though interestingly, they believe that the temple builders left and there was a period when no one lived here… Still, there is thousands of years of history scored into the limestone, the same limestone that has been built in a myriad of different configurations across five thousand years, that unifies it all in a way I haven’t seen before. England feels a crazed jumble of materials in comparison. Malta is an incredible place, and I haven’t even started on the door handles. I have shared a little about the cats, so really now to end, the great hunter of Ħaġar Qim:

Ħaġar Qim

Death in St John’s Co-Cathedral

Never have I seen so many momento mori, strange and yet not strange in this enormous almost unbelievable place.

Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-CathedralThese are knights pledged to give their lives willingly in battle — while running hospitals and protecting travellers they also pledged themselves to the fight against the Arabs, the Christian presence in the Holy Land, the stand against the Ottoman Empire. They enriched themselves through piracy against the enemy trading in the rich waters of the Mediterranean.

This is what Christianity — turn the other cheek, love your neighbour as yourself — this is what it really meant to them. It took me a while to find the enemies that they trampled underfoot, but they are hardly forgotten:

img_5018

The slaves upon which much of their wealth was built — and who built this city — are here as well:

img_5060

The wealth is staggering. Still, so many ruthless and wealthy men meditating on their own deaths — I suppose it’s not all bad. I confess it gives a sense of awe.

Flickr Album Gallery Powered By: Weblizar

The highlights were Caravaggio, of course. A massive painting, the Beheading of John the Baptist, simple, the great dark spaces of dingy and shadowy wall are even more immense staring at it from afar, framed by gold leaf and pomp. It fits, somehow, while also overshadowing its surroundings. These details of architecture and frame are hardly visible as you look at it, they fade into the background and the skin, the sorrow, stand out above all.

beheading-of-saint-john-the-baptist- Caravaggio

Opposite is St Jerome, elderly, simple. A skull, to match the hundreds of skulls in this place, but an honesty and decay that sits oddly here.

st-jerome

The other wonder that I never knew was here are the choral books, especially those of Grand Master L’Isle Adam. They are wondrous indeed, with miniatures of surpassing beauty (and I promise I am not using that word lightly despite my many enthusiasms), and along the margins the most wonderful grostesques, creatures of bark, creatures with horns and eyes in their stomachs — and there is nothing written of them in the cathedral or postcards for sale. I shall have to hunt for them further. Later. Now, more wandering through the evening and some wine. What I did find, to end:

5a29abc589fa095f0b0b0a6a6ecc9b90887b5cee-1474192997-57de6666-360x251