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
Tarxien and Clapham Junction
On our last day on Malta, we had to catch a plane back to Catania in the late afternoon. We ahd already discovered that there is lots more to see on Malta and Gozo, but there were two sites we considered essential, from before we ever left Canada: The Tarxien temples and Clapham Junction. Luckily, no advance planning is needed in order to visit them.
In contrast to the previous couple of days, today dawned "dark and stormy". We anticipated a lot of rain, but we only got a few showers. What we did get was a lot of wind, that lasted and even increased until we worried that the plane wouldn't be able to fly. But it did, and meanwhile we had a very interesting time visiting (with some direction-finding problems) both of our objectives.
Before going to Tarxien, we went a couple of kilometers down the road in the other direction toward Birzebugga, to see the Ghar Dhalam cave, in which there are many layers of animal fossils, before the first sign of human habitation in 5200 BC (about 1600 years before the Ggantija temple was built). It isn't a very big cave, at least not the part open to the public, but it is interesting to see the cuts through the strata opened up by the archaeologists and paleontologists. There were several tourist buses, Japanese and French, so far as we could tell. The small museum is quite informative, but the ranks of similar fossil animal remains is much more valuable to a specialist than to an interested tourist.
The Tarxien Temples
Tarxien, like its contiguous neighbour Paula where the Hypogeum is, is part of the eastern conurbation of Valetta. It's a typical residential and industrial suburb, with a normal downtown shopping area, and rectilinear blocks of residences and small shops. One passes along its southern boundary on the way between the airport and Marsaxlokk. Theoretically, it should have been very quick and easy to find the Tarxien temples from Marsaxlokk. We even had a map to show where they were. But nothing is easy about finding one's destination in Malta, whether it is prehistoric, mediaeval, or modern! The only places we found at first shot were those we visited on the first day: the Blue Grotto and the neighbouring Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples. We could find those because they were out in the southern empty countryside. The others were in towns, and that seems always to present problems.
Once we arrived in Tarxien, we followed the signs to the temples and started looking for them. After much back-and-forthing in a small region of streets, we parked near where the temples had to be, and walked. But we didn't find them so easily. Eventually, we met a couple of women, and asked. One said she didn't know where they were, but the other said she did know, but didn't know how to express it in English — the only Maltese person we met who didn't speak fluent English! So we went into a nearby grocery, and they told us where it was, which happened to be just around the corner from where we were. The door looked almost like any other house door, just as had the door to the Hypogeum. A small sign announced that it was the door to the Tarxien temples.
Inside the door, the lobby where one buys a ticket seemed rather dirty and decrepit, as if this was a very uninteresting little site, despite its international reputation. I hope that the Maltese authorities do something to remedy this, and to do more to protect the temples themselves, which, once removed from the protection of the soil mounds that covered them, are subject to all the problems that acid rain and sea salt visit on limestone. Just outside the lobby, in the temple enclosure, the flowers were pretty enough to alleviate some of the depression induced by the first impression of the site.
By any normal standard, the stones that comprise much of the Tarxien temples qualify as megaliths, but most of them are small compared to those of Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, and Ggantija. The Tarxien temples are a little less ancient than the others, and perhaps the builders were more adept at cutting rocks than their ancestors had been.
Many of the stones at the temple site are replicas, the originals being in the Archaeological Museum in Valetta. Provided that the replicas are placed as the originals were, I guess this doesn't make much difference to the tourist, but I wonder about its effect on the ability of future archaeologists to make inferences using techniques still to be invented.
The temple seems to have ended its life by fire. You can't burn megaliths, so there must have been much flammable material in the structure, either as decoration or as part of the temple building. The little model in the Archaeological museum seems to suggest that the temples were roofed with very large logs lain across the wholewall-to-wall span, though this need not have been true of all the temples, given that the design had a central aisle with circular side-chambers. Nevertheless the span across some of the side chambers was quite substantial, and once such a wooden roof had been set well ablaze, it would probably burn long and hot. So my money is on an accidental fire set by a candle or oil lamp touching a wall hanging or some such, and spreading to the roof caulking and thence to the big logs.
The other site we felt to be a "must see" was Clapham Junction. Although it is well away from any town, near the southern cliffs, not too far from the Blue Grotto and Mnajdra, it still proved hard to find. We followed several roads that were on the map, but that were fairly rough cart tracks. We passed between two large quarries, that have for millennia provided the yellow stone building material for Malta, and we followed a track right along the sea cliff edge, almost dangerously so. But we had a fine view of the uninhabited island called Filfla. (A major alignment of the Mnajdra temple points to Filfla, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not).
After we followed another track marked on the map, we saw a small sign "Clapham Junction", and then another at a gate into a field. We had been around all four sides of the site! We drove up to the house on a crest in the field and got out of the car in a howling gale. At first we didn't see any signs of Clapham Junction, and the house was closed. We followed a walking path, and then we began to see the remarkable sets of tracks that form Clapham Junction. The path led to a cave said to have been inhabited about the same time as Ghar Dhalam. We saw its entrance but didn't go in, and returned to examine the mysterious "cart tracks" that give Clapham Junction its name, after the famously complex railway junction south of London, England.
The tracks are clean-cut grooves, paired like railway tracks. The individual grooves are vertical-sided, and perhaps 10 cm wide. There are many such pairs in the field (some sites say hundreds, but we saw only tens). They cut across the grain of the sharp limestone ridges, trending downhill northward away from the sea cliff. They not only look like railway tracks, but they join and split as do the tracks in a railway junction. Furthermore, and perhaps not coincidentally, the tracks of a pair are the same distance apart as those of most railways in the world. As a child, I was taught that the 4ft 8.5 inch gauge of the British railway system was descended from the width of old Roman chariot tracks. Did they have an earlier ancestor?
Not much is known, but much is speculated, about the tracks. What is known is that they are older than a Phoenecian grave of 1200 BC, and that they originally covered a much wider area than the field in which what remain are now preserved. Much of their original area is now under houses or road. The tracks seem to go down to a river valley. They start near the sea cliff, or perhaps where the big quarry is now. A reasonable speculation is that they had something to do with hauling stone for temple building. Apart from that, there is a pretty wide divergence of opinion as to how they were made and why. If you are interested, try a Google search on "Clapham Junction" Malta. For me, they were the most mysterious thing we saw on our whole holiday in Italy and Malta.
Unfortunately, we had to catch a plane back to Catania, and if the plane was going to fly (which we wondered about, given the high winds), we no more time to explore. So we went back to the airport (this time, we managed to avoid Valetta!), dropped off the car, and waitied for the plane. Unexpectedly, it was on time, and we took off along the length of the island. We took of to the East, and came back over Tarxien and beside the airport. Between Tarxien and the airport we could see into what we thought was a surprisingly extensive fortress of which we had only seen the outer wall from the road. Subsequently we were informed it was only a large quarry. A few minutes later we flew high over the west end of the island and could see the Gozo ferry about to enter the terminal dock, despite the high wind. Not long after that, we were over the Sicilian coast, looking at long lines of breakers and then some marvellous cloudscapes, which you can see on the next page.