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Malta part 3 – urban sites

With my precious ticket for the hypogeum for an early afternoon tour, I decided to spend the day checking out the Tarxien cluster, in the suburb of Paola, only a short bus ride from Valletta.

The bus system on Malta is superb – routes covering just about the whole island and the fleet consists of mainly 1960s and 1970s vehicles. The basic fare is only €0.47 and you can travel from one tip of the island to the other for next to nothing. My favourite bus was:

So, the bus to Paola where I got off at the church on the main square, and then headed left up the side street. A few blocks up, I turned down the handily named Triq it-Templi Neolithici to the Tarxien Temples.

Tarxien — Fieldnotes

The temples are open 9:00 – 17:00 and entry is €2.33 for adults; there's a small exhibition of items that have been removed from the site to preserve them and placed in the entranceway, and a selection of books and souvenirs to purchase. There are also public toilets. A new visitors' centre is expected on the plot to the east of the temples, and excavations have been carried out, but planning difficulties have held up the actual building work.

There are usually guided tours available in English several times a day – unfortunately the guide had called in sick the day I visited, so I was reliant on my notes and the offer by the staff to answer any questions I might have. Much of the carved stone from Tarxien was been moved to the National Museum of Archaeology in 1956, when restoration and reconstruction were also carried out, and the items on display are replicas – but this by no means detracts from the site.

There are actually 4 temple structures on this site.

To the east, furthest away from the entrance, is the oldest, smallest, and least well preserved temple, from the Ggantija phase (3600 – 3000BCE). The stones are low lying, and only the western section of what is believed to have been a 5 apse temple survives. Area 10 on the model.

There are 3 main components - the south, central and east temples. Of these, south and east are older, from the early Tarxien phase 3000 - 2500 BCE, with the central temple having been built at a later date between these two.

Taking a walk round from the main entrance to the site, there are numerous small boulders, possibly used to roll megaliths into place, scattered over the ground to the left, and then a well, before you face the trilithon entrance to the south temple. To the right here you can see the remains of a possible niche (ref 1), with libation holes and a stone bowl in front of it.

The path around the whole site has been improved and the tethering holes just outside the entrance to the south temple (ref 2) now have a perspex covering so you can view them through the path.

The main doorway has been heavily restored with rubble covered concrete; the first apse to the right (ref 3) has the huge statue of a skirted women and the altar with plug stone which contained animal bones and horns, and flint knives. To the left (ref 4) are many spiral carved stones and those decorated with animal friezes; the Mariners' Stones which stood here have now been moved into the entrance building for protection - they show ship graffiti but the debate is still out on whether this is late Neolithic (believed by Diane Wooler who studied them in 1957 and supported by T Zammit's notes) or from the Bronze Age (Evans, Trump and various others). A model found in 4 pieces in the northern most room of this temple lead Carlo Ceschi to draw a possible facade for the temple in 1936 (see links).

Moving through to the central temple, there's a huge stone bowl in area 5 and the walls here show fire damage. The oculus stone was originally in area 6, guarding the entrance to the 2nd pair of apses; there's a hearth in the centre of this area, and turning to the right, area 7, there's the bulls and sow chamber, now with a roof to protect the relief carvings.

Just before you leave the central temple, to the right, you can see a round boulder, used possibly for transportation or positioning, under one of the megaliths. Then there's a set of stairs, which may have led to an upper floor (area 8).

The east, and least decorated, temple, is thought to have been significantly altered for the building of the central temple, and was also reconstructed extensively by Zammit in 1919 - and suffered collapses as recently as 1999.

I had the site almost to myself for the best part of an hour, but then some more tourists appeared, and we started chatting. With only few info boards and no official guide that day, I found myself taking a small tour group round to point out the main features!

Tarxien — Images

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Tarxien — Images

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After a chat with the staff, I made my way to the Hypogeum.

Hal Saflieni Hypogeum — Fieldnotes

If you plan to visit the Hypogeum, please check out availability long before you travel. I was fortunate to be there in very low season, so next day booking was possible, but at peak times it can be fully booked for over a month in advance. Tickets are €9.32 for adults - there's probably a child reduction but I wouldn't really recommend this place to youngsters unless they are really interested.

The building has numerous steps and low passages to negotiate, and is therefore unsuitable for the less mobile, or for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia or is afraid of the dark.

The group I joined were waiting in the entrance hall for our guide, and several times people came in without pre-booking - including a group of lads carrying a small Father Christmas who'd obviously had a couple at lunchtime - and were turned away. The entrance has comfy bench seats and toilets if needed.

There is absolutely no photography allowed and in fact you have to leave all your possessions in a locker - the guide has the key so everything is safe during the tour.

The first part is a visit to an exhibition of finds - most are of course in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, but a few remain here, including a copy of the sleeping lady which you are encouraged to touch. Audio commentary is provided on hand held devices and is available in 5 languages. Then there's a film to watch about the discovery and excavation of the site, before you can enter the hypogeum itself.

Our guide - Joanne - offered as the whole group was English speaking, to dispense with the hand helds and do it "properly" for us - and happily the group accepted her offer.

The area around Paola experinced massive development in the late 1800s to house dock workers, and the discovery of the hypogeum was reported to the authorities in 1902, but, from the construction of foundations and supports for the new builds, must have been known about for years before. In fact, the area around Hal Saflieni had an ancient name meaning "of the caves", so the site may have been known about long before that.

The hypogeum was excavated by Fr. Magri initially, with the middle level being opened to the public in 1908, and then T Zammit worked on the upper level after the purchase of the houses built on top of the site (the houses being eventualy demolished in the 1990s). However, it was closed to the public in 1991 as the damage caused by high visitor numbers had been realised, and reopened on 7 July 2000 - with climate control and regulated light levels. The lighting in particular dictates the visitor experience - it's timed to go with the audio commentary and only the features being described are illuminated. So you have to keep up!

A door from the AV room leads to the upper level; here there is a massive entrance trilithon and side burial chambers. Zammit estimated, by counting the number of patellas amongst the ochre painted bones found, that there were around 7,000 bodies interred here. The path through to the middle level was closed for excavation work, so we all trooped back to the rear of the entrance lobby and down a dimly lit modern spiral staircase.

The middle level has the most interesting features whilst the lower level cannot be visited, just observed from above.

Our guide showed us a section of wall with pick holes in it; no metal tools have been found, so it's suggested that animal horns were used to create enough of a gap to insert a piece of wood, which when soaked with water would expand, forcing open the natural faults and fissures - with flint, obsidian and stone tools used to complete the rock quarrying. Then we moved through to the oracle chamber with its ochre spiral painted ceiling; the guide encouraged one of the party to speak into the oracle hole, but deemed his tone not deep enough for the full resonant effect.

We passed through another ochre painted chamber - this time with spirals within hexagons - to the trilithon looking down into the lower level and onwards to the "holy of holies". The lower level has 7 steps leading down to it - but then a 2m drop! There are side chambers at the level of the last step, and the group discussed whether these might have been accessed using a plank as a bridge between them.

The votive or "snake pit" adjacent to the second ochre painted room is thought to be the location where the Sleeping Lady was found. This small (only 12cm long) terracota statuette is the pride of the collection at the National Museum of Archaeology with its exceptional level of craftmanship; the curvaceous female figure is reclining on a couch and is often referred to as the sleeping goddess of fertility. As finds in the pit were discovered whole rather than broken, we discussed the possibility that the pit had been filled with water or perhaps straw to prevent damage to items placed or even thrown in.

The "holy of holies" chamber has a facade that possibly mimics the roof structure of Maltese temples, and has a side chamber of it, a niche (possibly for a statue) and libation holes. This chamber would have significant amounts of natural light from a shaft which runs right down through the hypogeum around the summer solstice.

Then we retraced our steps to look at the main hall, with its trilithon windows through to niches and smaller chambers beyond, and to the holy of holies. The chamber was originally painted with red ochre and some of the pigment is still visible.

Then round past the area where builders confessed to breaking through in 1902, with arches to support the houses above visible, and back to the spiral staircase up and out as the light faded behind us.

A fascinating place! I would have loved to have spent more time in each part, but the light levels are strictly controlled, and as I mentioned, timed to coincide with the audio tour, so it wasn't an option.

Hal Saflieni Hypogeum — Images

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The Tarxien cluster consists of these two sites, plus Kordin I, Kordin II and, you guessed it, Kordin III. The first two were destroyed by WWII bombing and modern development, so I headed for number 3.

Kordin III — Fieldnotes

This site is not open to the public and is enclosed behind a high brick wall. However, it's only a few minutes walk from the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum and the Tarxien temples, so it seemed rude not to try to visit.

From the main square where the buses stop, head north north east along a road that bends to the right, until you reach a roundabout. Follow the footpath round to the first exit and cross the road immediately opposite church with a huge purple cross to its left.

There are signs to the temple but ignore these and go up the steps towards the church and in front of it, turn to your left. There's a gate in the wall facing you, and the wall that runs from here down the the building adjoining the church hides the temple.

The site is under the care of Wirt Artna and is open by appointment. I didn't have one, so had to content myself with standing on tip toes to balance my camera on the wall, and then walked round the block to find the back gate (which is beyond another gate, which fortunately was opened for me - sadly that gate keeper didn't have the set of keys to let me into the temple itself).

Excavations were carried out here in 1909 (Ashby and Peet) and a further survey in 1971 (Evans). There is a curved facade which is paved, and from the front of the structure, the upright megaliths left of centre lead through to the corridor of the trefoil building to the apses of the temple. Noteable features are to the left - niches in the wall, and the stone quern (sometimes described as a dugout canoe) across the threshold to one of the rooms. To the north, and visible on my photo taken from the back gate, is another structure, not at all well preserved, but thought to be another trefoil temple.

Kordin III — Images

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The trip concluded with a little liquid refreshment in Valletta, and a couple of days later I caught a bus north to visit what would be the final temple of my holiday.

Bugibba — Fieldnotes

The hotel entrance is directly opposite the bus terminus in Bugibba - cross the road, avoiding the timeshare touts, and head for the tennis courts. From the hotel lobby, head to the rear left (coffee bar) and take the first door to the outside. Go to your right - and the temple is half surrounded by a 1970s accommodation block for the hotel.

An information board proclaims:

Bugibba Temple, which is preserved in the grounds of the hotel, belongs to the same category of prehistoric monuments as Tarxien and Hagar Qim in Malta, and Ggantija in Gozo. These imposing sanctuaries, erected for the worship of a deity which has so far defied a generally acceptable definition, constitute the oustanding achievement of the Maltese Copper Age, its Megalithic architecture. Their development lasted more than a thousand years and spanned almost the whole of the third millennium before Christ.
The features which have survived here are the main entrance roofed over by a single block of stone weighing several tons, some of the upright blocks forming the left front wall, the semi-circular chamber inside the entrance to the left and a thick rubble wall the incongriguity of which speaks for its Bronze Age date when the temple had long fallen into disuse. Two exceptional blocks, now to be seen at the National Museum of Archaeology in Vallette were decorated with relief carvings of spirals, and aptly enough for a temple so near the coast, stylised fishes.

"preserved" - not sure that's the word I would choose. Random wiring, half destroyed and totally unsafe no doubt, for nocturnal illuminations, fastened to the bottom of the megaliths, and general detritus from hotel guests hiding under boulders .... at least the carvings have been removed and saved.

Bugibba — Images

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Such a contrast between Bugibba and the first temple I visited, Tal-Qadi. No prizes for guessing which one I prefer!

And then it was time to pack and head home.

A few "thank you"s to people who made my solo holiday much more enjoyable than it might otherwise have been:
- the Heritage Malta staff - at Tarxien, the Hypoguem and the museum, and Sharon Sultana who's been answering my email queries almost as soon as I've sent them
- the staff of my hotel and the pub in Valletta, and the new friends met
- the very lovely Harry who was my gin and dinner companion most evenings. We were probably the only two under-40s in the whole resort!

I'm already plotting and planning another trip - with Beardy this time - here for next year - with lots of reading to do on the solar alignments of several of the Maltese temples, a topic I've barely mentioned.
sals Posted by sals
27th January 2008ce
Edited 30th January 2008ce

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