A Day for Prehistoric Temples

So Joan and her husband Chris picked me up at 8:45.  Today was prehistoric temple day.  We had been to the prehistoric temples on Gozo, but today, we were going all out.  First up was the Hagar Qim Temple near the Blue Lagoon.

Picture above the Blue Grotto

We drove south to the site, hugging the coast line stopping for a quick pic above the Blue Lagoon.  It was a beautiful morning so the water really sparkled.

After the photo opp, we drove a couple minutes down the road to the the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temple complex.  I was only visiting Hagar Qim as the second site is a bit of hike and our day was already jam packed.

Female statue found at Hagar Qim.

So we started off the visit with a quick trip around the little museum, which featured some of the small statues and figurines found at Hagar Qim.  This was followed by a short 4D video (complete with glasses).  The excellent little vid provided a historical perspective of the site and how the site may have been constructed.  It was a great way to start off the tour.

Now Hagar Qim consists of a group of megalithic (prehistoric monuments made of stone) structures dating back 5,000 years with a main entry and an unusual back door exit (most of these temples did not have an exit).

The temple contained five semi-circular apses (rooms) with floors made out of flagstone.  These apses were likely used for animal sacrifices and worship.

Summer solstice wall

Now like so many of these megalithic structures around the world, there was a hole in one of  the stone chamber walls which had been placed precisely at the spot where the sun would beam through on June 21 (the summer solstice).  It is always incredible to me that ancient stone structures all over the world incorporate the same planning to enable the light from the sun to enter the inner sanctum of the structure when the sun reaches its highest peak during the year.  Simply amazing.

Porthole doorway
Sacrificial pedestals
Legs of two female figures

Some of the other interesting features of the site included a porthole doorway, various alters and relief sculptures including the lower half of two females.

Sloping and vertical stones formed a roof

Another fascinating feature was the sloping nature of the stones and the horizontal placement of stones on the vertical stones leading archeologists to conclude that the temple had at one time been covered in layers of stone forming a roof.

After seeing the entire site, we walked back to the car for my trip to the Blue Grotto.  Now I was a little skeptical of the Blue Grotto before coming to Malta.  I had read that the site was very touristy.  However, I was fortunate that the summer rush was over and only a few tourists were hanging around by the end of September.

One of the boats taking tourists to the Blue Grotto

Once at the boarding area, I paid the 8 euro for the boat trip and hopped on the little skiff just as it was pulling out with 7 French tourists.  Fortunately, the water was quite calm with only the occasional dip as we motored out of the harbor and south along the coast line before turning left towards the cliffs.

Cave near the Blue Grotto
Cave near the Blue Grotto
Arch leading to the Blue Grotto
The Blue Grotto
The Blue Grotto

From here, our driver took the little skiff in and out of various caves.  At one point, he urged us to stick our hands in the water so we could see just how blue the water really was.

He then steered the boat through a huge arch and into what is officially known as the Blue Grotto.  Quite frankly the whole area should be called the Blue Grotto area.  I saw no difference in the colour of the water in the Blue Grotto versus the water surrounding the Blue Grotto.  It was all an amazing azur blue.

Looking out from the Blue Grotto
Looking back towards the entry to the Blue Grotto

Once we had passed through the Blue Grotto, our “captain” steered the boat along the coastline going south and bopping in and out of a few more caves before turning around and driving back to our starting point.  The whole trip took about 30 minutes, and was really quite fabulous.  I stand corrected about the Blue Grotto.

Once out of the boat, I walked up the hill and found Joan and Chris at the little coffee shop.  I joined them for a latte before we hopped back into the car and drove north towards the Ghar Dalam Cave.

Now the Ghar Dalam Cave is not presently open to the public, but through the wizardry of Joan, she managed to convince the powers that be to open the site for me.

The Gar Dalam cave is a hugely important site because this is where the earliest evidence of human settlement on Malta is found dating back some 9,000 years.  The cave is 144 metres deep, but only the first 80 metres are visible to visitors.

Tiny toad bones dating to the Ice Age

Once we reached the site, we knocked on the locked door and were let into the brand new museum, which features a myriad of cabinets housing fossilized bones of dwarf elephants, hippopotamus, red deer, bear, fox, wolf, micro-mammals and birds dating from 180,000 years ago to the end of the last Ice Age a mere 16,000 years ago.

Elephant tusk fragments dating to Ice Age
Bronze Age tracks

We took a look at the cases of bones (fascinating) and saw a short film on the history of the cave before walking outside.  Now something I did not know was that the site not only features a cave, but there is also an old Roman villa and apiary on site, old Bronze Age tracks in the stone and buildings dating to the Knights of St. John.  Malta is working on renovating the site so that they can open up the entire area to the public.

Gar Dalam cave

Anyway, once inside the cave, Joan pointed out to me the six layers of soil in the cave representing thousands of years of evolution: the bone free clay layer, the hippopotamus layer (which also contained the remains of dwarf elephants and gigantic mice), the pebble layer (indicating the presence of water), the deer layer (which included other small animals like bears, red fox, wolves and giant swans), the calcareous sheet and finally the domestic animal layer, which included remains of domestic animals (cows, horses etc.) and human remains.

Hippopotamus layer

So the interesting thing about these multi layers of rock and dirt is that provide evidence that at

one time Malta was joined to the Italian mainland.  However, when the ice age ended, the lands flooded leaving Malta as an island resulting in the death of many animals, which at one time flourished.

Now the cool thing about the hippopotamus layer was that you can still see ancient animal bones in that layer which are tens of thousands of years old.  Amazing.

By now it was close to 1:00 and we had to get a move on as we still had two stops (one with a timed ticket) after lunch.

Red prawn risotto
Yummy buns

So we left the site and drove the short distance to Marsaxlokk where we stopped at one of the waterfront restaurants for lunch.  Both Joan and I chose the red prawn risotto, which was good, but quite frankly the star of the lunch for me was the amazing scicilian buns (one stuffed with sausage, another filled with sundried tomatoes and another plain) as well as my fabulous tomato salad covered in Italian olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette.  YUM!

Anyway, after lunch we drove north to the town of Tarxien (taj r sheen) and the Tarxien Temples.  There are four temples at the site, the south, the central, the east and the remains of a temple in the northeast corner of the site.  The temples were discovered in 1913 by local farmers.

Eastern temple and remains of 4th temple

The earliest temple built on the site is in the northeast corner.  The temple was constructed between 3600 and 3200 BC, but little remains of the site although you can still make out the five rooms that made up the temple.

Near the oldest temple was the east temple.  This temple featured five apses, but was not as remarkable as the temples in the south and the central portions of the complex.  However, all three of these temples shared an outer wall linking them together.

Rebuilt entrance to southern temple

We spent most of our time exploring the south and central temples.  The south temple dates to 3100 B.C., and while the temple was in amazing shape, the entrance had actually been rebuilt.

Stone balls believed to ‘roll’ the larger stone

Near the entrance of the south temple, we saw numerous round stone balls.  It is believed the stone balls formed a sort of transportation system on which the mammoth stone walls were placed and rolled forward.  Genius.

Holding pen with relief etchings (cow and pig).
Relief etching of cow
In-ground storage in animal pen

Inside the temple we visited a small room that was believed to be a holding pen for animals to be sacrificed.  In this room there was also bas relief carvings on the stone walls of two cows and a pig nursing little piglets.  One of the cow carvings and the pig were rather hard to spot as time has caused them to fade, but eventually I was able to spot them.

Reconstructed lower portion of female
Stairs in southern temple
Walls of the south temple

The south temple has five apses and in one apse there was the remains of a female statute who may have been a fertility goddess.  The south temple also held a staircase and tightly constructed massive stone walls, which were unique for the time period.

Central temple with 6 apses

After taking in the south temple, we then walked around the outer area of the temples where we were able to have a really good view of the middle and the central temple.

Now the central temple dates to 3000 B.C. and was constructed between the southern and eastern temples.  I have no idea why the temple was wedged into between the other two temples because I can’t imagine that land was scarce 5000 years ago, but nevertheless, there it was.

Stone cut libation bowl in the central temple

And I found the central temple to be the most unique of the four temples simply because it contained six apses as opposed to the standard five.  In addition, within the central temple walls, there were numerous giant bowls and alters discovered many of which remained on site.

The entire complex was utterly fascinating to me and but for my last stop, I could have spent a lot longer wandering around the site.  However, I had a timed ticket to visit the final stop of the day, the Hypogeum and I could not miss that.

Now the Hypogeum is an underground temple that was discovered in 1902 when local farmers were digging to construct cisterns to hold water.

The Hypogeum consists of limestone halls, chambers and passages on three levels: the upper level carved between 3600 and 3100 B.C. and the middle and lower levels carved between 3000 and 2500 B.C.

And unlike the above ground temples, this temple was used solely for burial purposes.  It is believed they left the bodies to deteriorate and then buried the bones.  I can’t imagine the place smelled very good….

The Sleeping Lady

Anyway, archeologists have found human remains as well as small carvings and perhaps the most famous statute in Malta, the Sleeping Lady, in the Hypogeum.

The tour is limited to 10 people per half hour in order to prevent damage to the site.  The lighting is limited and absolutely no photography is permitted.  In fact, we were not allowed to take anything with us into the site.  As a result, I took pictures of the pictures on the brochure we were handed and that is what you see here.

Precisely at 3:00 our group was led into a room to watch a brief video about the Hypogeum followed by a video in yet another room.

Rock cut columns in main chamber

After the second video, we were finally led down a staircase to view the first level which consisted of a fairly wide open space with burial chambers cut into the walls on either side.

Red ochre oracle ceiling
Holy of Holies

The second level is what I would call the main level and included brilliant ochre red ceilings, an oracle chamber that reverberates when deep sounds are made into the niche, rock cut columns and windows and the most famous site  at the Hypogeum, the “Holy of Holies”, a carved room that looks like a masonry could have built it instead of ancient man using stone and bone tools.

Stairs leading to lower level

The lower level was not entirely visible, but we were shown seven steps leading to the lower level that is 10.6 metres or almost 35 feet below street level.

There is more unknowns than knowns about the site, but suffice is to say if you are ever in Malta book your ticket well in advance (they were sold out through October 15) and make sure you visit the Hypogeum.  It was truly stunning.

So that is it for Day 10 in Malta.  Tomorrow I am getting an early start as I need to take my COVID test at 8:00 a.m. in order to fly back to the U.S. And after the test, it is the Medina, Rbat and a 2000 year old Roman Villa with frescos.  YAY!

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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