April-May 2005 in Italy and Malta
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April 24-27 Capri
May 6-7 Sicily, Scilla and Charybdis
May 7-8 Tropea (Capo Vaticano)
May 10-12 Abruzzi National Park
May 12 Tivoli, Villa Adriana
Nowhere is very far from anywhere else on Malta, but getting there can sometimes be a problem if you don't know the various town names. You have to have a good map, that gives the names of all the little villages or towns that to the eye are all part of one big town, Valetta. The road signs point to the nearby small sections of greater Valetta reasonably reliably, but they may not point to the more distant destination town you want to find.
Valetta and its contiguous suburbs covers a good section of the northeastern part of Malta. The saying is that "All roads lead to Rome". Well, in Malta, it's almost true that all roads lead to Valetta. Indeed, we found it hard to find a road out of Valetta, as there are lots of one way and prohibited turn signs that kept turning us back into the city when we tried to leave! When we tried to bypass Valetta by driving around the south coast, blocked roads and detours always led us back to Valetta. We eventually gave up trying to avoid the city when going between Marsaxlokk and the more western areas.
Since before the beginning of recorded history, Malta's position in the strait between Sicily and Tunisia has made it a strategically important place to control. Over the millennia, it has been controlled by Phoenecians, Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Turks, and the British, to name only a few. All of them have left their mark on these small islands in one way or another, which makes it a particularly interesting place to visit.
The Grand Harbour of Valetta is a particularly strategic place, and its defences are correspondingly strong. The cannon are no longer functional, but even during the Second World War, when Malta was under extreme aerial bombardment, the Valetta harbour defences did their work. The ditches cut to protect against a landing are similar to those Archimedes designed for the defence of Siracusa, but are impressively deeper.
The main reason we went to Valetta was to collect the tickets for our visit to the Hypogeum, which I had reserved by e-mail a couple of monthes earlier. To get the tickets, we visited the Archaeological musem, most of which was closed for renovation. Luckily, the part devoted to the prehistory of Malta was still open. It contains many items found in the megalithic temples and in earlier sites. Some of them are also to be found on site, so clearly one or other must be a replica, though we saw no signs to indicate which was the original. Presumably the one in the museum is the original.
I won't show pictures on this page of the display items I photographed in the Archaeological Museum. They are on a separate page. But I will show two rather interesting items, a kind of star chart, and a small model of a temple, found at Mnajdra.
The star chart tablet seems to indicate some kind of navigation, or perhaps a historical representation. I have checked the location of the celestial pole for 3500 BC. If the lines are supposed to converge there, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the stars represent a very particular part of the sky, in the region of Hercules, Corona Borialis (the arc in the middle wedge), and Bootes.
I speculate that the tablet may record the presence of a comet near the pole in Hercules, or it may be a simple pole-finder to aid navigation, as there was then no Pole Star such as we have now, and no bright star anywhere reasonably close to the pole location. In 3500 BC, the arc of Corona Borealis could have served to guide one's eye to the pole, the way we now use the stars of Ursa Major to point to Polaris. If it was a pole-finder chart, the peculiar structure near the point of the wedge second from the left in the picture needs explanation. This is what I speculate may represent a comet.
The model shows the temple as being roofed by long and wide solid beams, which could not have been megaliths. If they had been megaliths, their remains would have been found in the real temple ruins. In any case, a single stone could probably not span that kind of width, even if the engineers of 3500 BC could have raised it. Consider the relatively short spans of the Stonehenge trilithon lintels. So the roofs must have been made from great timbers. Malta now, and from historic times, has had very few trees, and none very big. The temple roofs must have been made either from a local forest that was cut down by the temple builders, or from logs imported by sea. The former is plausible, as the date is not long after the Sahara dried up, which presumably affected Malta as well. Trees of that size could well have grown when the climate was more hospitable. Malta suddenly became uninhabited around 2500 BC, and one hypothesis is that the islanders had cut down the forests, leaving the soil open to massive erosion, with the resulting destruction of their agriculture. Forests have never grown on Malta since then. At present, there are some scrubby brush areas in some valleys, and a few cultivated trees in parks, but not much else.
After the National Archaeological Musem, we wandered around Valetta for a while, and visited the historical show that tells about the history of Malta from the times of the megalithic temple builders through the Phoenecians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, and on through the various sea powers from the Crusader knights, to the Venetians, the Ottomans, and finally the British and the terrible bombardment that the Nazis gave the island in the Second World War. Over a one month period, there was an average of one bombing raid every ten minutes day and night!
Trying to leave Valetta presented a bit of a problem. When we left the parking lot, the turn prohibitions and one-way signs drove us into the centre of the city. We managed to find a peripheral road to get us back to the base of the peninsula on which the city centre lies, but there again, the turn prohibitions forced us back into the city. Eventually, we succeeded in leaving by making an illegal U-turn. I'm sure there must be a legal way to drive away from Valetta, but it certainly isn't obvious to the first-time visitor.
Having managed to get away from downtown Valetta, we went to Rabat and Mdina, in the western part of the island. They are twin towns on a ridge. Rabat is a modern town, but Mdina is an old town with classical moat and battlement walls that is connected to Rabat by the bridge over the Mdina moat (I presume it was a moat, but it is now dry). From the walls of Mdina, you get a fine view over the island to Valetta, which, from that vantage point, seems to cover about half of the land.
Trying to get back from Mdina to Marsaxlokk at the other end of the island without going through Valetta seemed to be possible according to the map, but in practice it was not, the necessary roads being blocked. However, we wer at least not forced into downtown Valetta, and managed to get home without much trouble other than annoyance at being blocked away from all apparently useful turnings.
All in all, our first day in Malta was pretty full, and most interesting. But we had seen only two of the many great megalithic temples. The most famous, Ggantija and the underground Hypogeum, were still to come.