Malta: Sacred to the Gods

May 18, 2017 Updated: May 18, 2017

In the very heart of the Mediterranean Sea lies the tiny archipelago of Malta with its mysterious 7,000-year-old history.

The first people to arrive on the Maltese Islands were thought to be from southern Sicily, its closest neighbour. It’s just a theory, since the megalithic structures built by these Neolithic adventurers bear no resemblance to Sicilian culture … that is, none that has so far been discovered.

The mystery surrounding the original settlers is yet to be revealed, but regardless, all who travel to Malta and gaze in wonder at what these ancient peoples accomplished cannot help but be awed by the legacy in stone they left behind.

Megalithic Temples

Considered to be the oldest surviving free-standing structure in the world, the Ggantija megalithic temple site is found on Gozo, the second island in the Maltese archipelago, and dates from about 3,800 B.C.E. From artifacts so far unearthed, it appears the temple was dedicated to the Goddess of Fertility, although nothing is known about the people’s beliefs or practices.

Another great achievement, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum on the main Island of Malta is the only known example of a subterranean structure surviving from the Bronze Age. Due to its delicate condition, access is limited to only 10 people per hour, 80 per day.

Votive figures of the Fertility Goddess were unearthed here too, along with human bones unceremoniously dumped after decomposition was complete, compounding the mystery surrounding their practices. There are pathways and chambers, and a large vaulted cathedral-like room—all carved underground.

The cathedral’s ceiling is carved in a clear-cut series of ascending circles, while paintings of spirals in red ochre decorate the walls and ceilings of the passageways leading to it. No physical evidence answers the question how the structure was illuminated or explains why such intricate architectural details such as columns and arches were fashioned underground.

I did not see all 20 megalithic temples so far discovered but I did visit Hagar Qim (pronounced “jar im”). The site is extensive and so well-preserved one could almost feel the presence of the ancients.

Megalithic temple Hagar Qim. (Manos Angelakis)
Megalithic temple Hagar Qim. (Manos Angelakis)

Not more then 500 meters down the hill toward the sea is another “temple complex” called Mnajdra. Both sites are reached after passing through a museum where many of the found artifacts are on display.

Around 2500 B.C.E., construction stopped and the temple-builders mysteriously disappeared. The Maltese islands remained uninhabited for centuries, giving rise to the theory that the islands may have been considered “Sacred to the Gods” and used only for worship and religious rituals.

Eventually others arrived, and the modern Maltese mosaic is richer for having integrated diverse cultural influences that included the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Castillians, as well as the Knights of St. John, the French, and finally the British.

All have left their mark with monuments, works of art, religious beliefs, language (English is the second official language after Maltese which is Semitic in origin), agriculture, and cuisine.

The modern Maltese mosaic is richer for having integrated diverse cultural influences.
Hagar Qim. (Manos Angelakis)
Hagar Qim. (Manos Angelakis)

The Knights of St. John

St. Paul the Apostle is said to have been shipwrecked off Malta in 60 C.E., and brought Christianity to the islands when it was under Roman Rule. Hundreds of local churches attest to Maltese piety, but the grandest is St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, built by the Knights of St. John in honor of their patron saint.

The order regrouped in Malta at the invitation of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, King of Sicily, after being routed from their stronghold on the Island of Rhodes in 1522 by the Ottoman Turks.

Contrary to Sidney Greenstreet’s account of a great gem-incrusted golden bird in the eponymous 1941 movie, the “Maltese Falcon” was a real bird of prey at a time when falconry was a noble pursuit. Each year the symbolic tribute was paid to the Holy Roman Emperor to acknowledge his suzerainty over Malta and the Knights.

A Knights of St. John Grandmaster's pennanant. (Manos Angelakis)
A Knights of St. John Grandmaster’s pennanant. (Manos Angelakis)

The Order of the Knights of St. John was initially a “hospitaller” order of wealthy, mostly French nobles—although eventually it included aristocrats from all across Europe—sworn to render medical assistance to pilgrims and Crusaders traveling to the Holy Land.

After Jerusalem fell to Saladin’s army in 1187, they were forced to take up arms against the Muslim incursion to defend Christendom. It was largely due to their defense of Malta that the massive Muslin invasion of 1565 was repelled and Europe remained under Catholic control; that is, until the Reformation.

The Knights were talented and prolific builders, and under their 268 year rule in Malta they were responsible for building the City of Valletta (which was designated UNESCO World Heritage European Capital of Culture 2018).

They built hospitals (considered at the time to be the finest in the world), palaces, monuments, public works and Cathedrals and generally laid out the fortified city in baroque splendor.

There is no better example of a high baroque building than St. John’s Co-Cathedral with its vaulted ceiling, vividly covered with paintings depicting the life of St. John and awash in gold leaf. It also houses the massive painting of Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John the Baptist, considered by some to be the masterwork of the 17th century. It is one of the few paintings the irascible artist signed.

St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta. (Manos Angelakis)
St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. (Manos Angelakis)

Miracle in Mosta

We also visited the 15th century hamlet of Mellieha. Perched on a ridge with a panoramic view over the sea is the Parish Church with its troglodyte Chapel of the Blessed Virgin, a national shrine. The Madonna and Child, purported to have been painted by St. Luke, is said to grant miracles.

The medieval walled city of Mdina was the first capital of Malta. It is an architectural delight of winding, narrow alleyways where, due to the devastating earthquake of 1693, simple medieval buildings now face across the main thoroughfare from elaborately decorated baroque edifices.

This peculiar happenstance occurred when the western half of Mdina, which was built on solid rock, sustained little damage, whereas the eastern half, which was built on clay, disintegrated. The eastern half of the city was rebuilt in the new baroque style, thereby separating the city architecturally by centuries.

During WWII, Malta—still under British rule—received heavy bombardment from the German Luftwaffe. In April of 1942, a 500 kg bomb was dropped through the huge dome of the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in the village of Mosta. Three hundred Maltese were at worship when the bomb struck a sacred painting before falling unexploded to the floor. Pious Maltese consider it a miracle and attribute it to intervention from the painting.

Perhaps after all, Malta is sacred to the Gods…

  Entrance to the medieval walled city of Mdina, (Manos Angelakis)
Entrance to the medieval walled city of Mdina, (Manos Angelakis)

IF YOU GO

For information on Malta: www.visitmalta.com, www.tourism.gov.mt, or www.heritagemalta.org

Getting to Malta: The easiest route is by Lufthansa Airlines, with one quick plane change in Frankfurt (www.lufthansa.com)

Where to stay: I stayed at the Five Star Corinthia Palace Hotel and Spa, known for its superb hospitality and great location just across the road from Malta’s Presidential Palace (www.corinthia.com)

Barbara Angelakis is a seasoned traveller and writer based in the New York City area. To read more of her articles, visit LuxuryWeb Magazine: www.luxuryweb.com