I've wanted to visit for a long time, in part because it features in Dorothy Dunnett's The Disorderly Knights, the third book if her Lymond Chronicles. In it, Francis Crawford, all around genius (but especially militarily) at a loose end, is drawn into the world of the Knights of Malta, aka the Knights of St. John or the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights are struggling internally, and against the Ottoman Empire.
The nation, Malta, is just south of Sicily, which is just off the southern toe of Italy. It is composed of three islands — Malta, Gozo, and Camino, and it is one of the smallest countries in the world, being only about 122 square miles, and with a population of about half a million, it's one of the most densely populated. I didn't know this, and I confess I'd expected something a bit more rural and quaint.
In fact it has a scarcity of water and thus few trees, and nearly everything is built of limestone, from the simplest house to a magnificent cathedral. It also has a fascinating and complex history, as it's been occupied by nearly all European forces at one point or another.
This pattern of building with the local limestone goes way back. Way, way back, to before 3000 BC when stone age people were already moving large blocks of the rock and carving others in most interesting ways. It seems that the people living on Malta then were cutting edge — if you'll pardon the expression when their only edge was on flint tools.
One site we visited, at Hagar Qim, is now covered to protect it from the elements. That doesn't take away from its complexity and sophistication, with its walls, passages and chambers. (Picture on the right.)
Think about it. No metal tools. Much more impressive than Stonehenge!
Even more interesting, however, is a hypogeum under a very ordinary suburb called Paola. It is the only known underground prehistoric creation in the world, and it's important to note that this three level structure was not built in caves. It was all hollowed out by stone-age people, and it contained remarkable works in stone.
These early people on Malta were exceptional, but we know very little about them. Consider this small carving of a sleeping woman, and this collection of figurines, each about 6" tall and detailed, which were discovered at another site.
(As with all images here, you can click on them to enlarge.)
The Hypegeum is usually described as a temple, but it might have been a burial place. Certainly the remains of about 7,000 people were discovered there, and not in any orderly, respectful arrangement. That did make me wonder whether it had been a place of human sacrifice, but then why the elaborate chambers?
It seems to have been in construction and use for nearly two thousand years. Consider that for a moment. That's about the whole of our AD timeline.
The first level was discovered by accident in 1903, when workers were digging a new water cistern under a house. In time, two more levels were discovered underneath. The next picture is of a model showing the complexity.
Many of the artifacts found in all the Maltese prehistorical sites are quite sophisticated, but I was struck by the fact that there were hardly any sculptures of animals. They were all of people, portrayed in a variety of ways. There is much to be discovered about these sites and the people who created them, and then eventually abandoned them.
For a brief run through the rest of Maltese history, it was an important base for the Phoenicians ad the Carthaginians, and then ruled by the Romans for a while. We visited the remains of an interesting Roman house, which is pretty well all that remains of the Romans there, and again found by accident quite recently. Not big on uncovering the past here!
The Muslims were there for a few hundred years, and Arabic is still a significant component of the Maltese language, which is a tricky one. Fortunately for us, they nearly all speak good English, it being taught as a second language in school from an early age.
Then the Normans drove out the Muslims and Malta became part of the kingdom of Sicily, which is very close. It was briefly French, then Spanish, and then Malta was given to the Knights of Saint John when they were driven out of Rhodes. (We won't go into their history, you'll be glad to know.)
The Knights shaped much of today's Malta. The capital had been the inland walled city of Mdina, which was safer from sea attack, but the Knights were a maritime force and they built a new, fortified capital on the coast at Valetta, which is still the capital today.
The picture below is of the cathedral in Mdina, which was abandoned by the Knights, and thus is one of those places frozen in time. It is still a walled medieval city. In fact it was used for a number of scenes in the first series of Game of Thrones.
Like nearly everything else, it's built of the creamy yellow limestone and in most of it the walls are plain with few external windows. This is a typical Maltese style as it keeps out the summer heat. The houses of the wealthy have lovely inner courtyards.
To complete this brief history of Malta, the Knights were eventually overcome by the French during Napoleon's reign, but they didn't hold it long, because they made themselves very unpopular and the British were invited to move them on, which they did with enthusiasm.
In 1814, Malta became part of the British Empire, until it became independent in 1964, and that's why English is spoken there.
During the second World War, Malta held out gallantly against the forces of Italy and Germany, and the country was awarded a collective George Cross for bravery.
So there you have a skim over Malta, an interesting and quite mysterious place. Have you been?
Have you visited any pre-historical sites. What did you make of them?