by Cseperke Orsolya TIKÁSZ, Journalist
In connection with prehistoric architecture, the Stonehenge in England comes first to our minds in most of the cases. However, monuments that are older than the Egyptian pyramids can also be admired elsewhere in the world. One of these places is Malta where we can take over the ashes of the past at several megalithic buildings from the Neolithic age.
Let’s begin the adventure with facts about Malta. In line with the result of the national consultation in 2006-just before the entrance of Malta in the Eurozone-, a megalithic door was chosen to decorate the backs of the one, two and five-euro cent coins. Consequently, more than five thousand years have been embraced by the new EU Member State. The door is part of the Mnajdra Temple, which was dated to 3600 BC by archaeologists. But we should not run so fast in time.
If we take a look at Malta’s prehistoric memories in chronological order, Ghar Dhalam is the starting point. In the vicinity of Marsaxlokk, which is the favourite fishing village of the tourists, lies the world’s largest archaeological site of prehistoric fauna. In the 155-meter-long cave of Ghar Dhalam, the remains of 260 to 360-thousand-year-old bears, hippos, water birds and deers were found. Indeed, even elephants were found here, which proves that Malta was not only connected to Sicily, but a natural bridge to Africa used to exist as well.
Since only the first 70 meters of the cave can be visited, there are two museum rooms at the entrance providing further information. The first museum room opened in 1936 seems to be a skeleton depot. The second one, which opened in 2002, is a thematic exhibition explaining the geological background of the cave and how and why the remains of prehistoric animals are still here.
Among the megalithic temples, Hagar Qim and the aforementioned Mnajdra are the most popular in Malta. Blue Grotto that belongs to southern coast is only one stop away from the caves by bus. The road leads on the cliff high above the sea, which is an extraordinary experience in itself. When we see the two late Neolithic buildings framed by the Mediterranean Sea, it is difficult to find any words.
Around 3600 BC, the two enormous stone-complexes were built by our ancestors who had no advanced technology, no metal tools and no literacy. While at the entrance, a child-friendly, interactive exhibition explains the archaeological exploration, the different theories about the size and the current state of preservation, we do not get definite answers. Therefore, all what is left is guessing: Why did they build the gate of the euro cent so that the rising sun can precisely shine through it? Where did they get the power to carry on the grandiose work every damn morning? How did they have so much patience and why we don’t have it today?
Compared to the two seaside churches, there is a smaller, but more artistic Neolithic building in the city of Tarxien that lies between Valletta and the airport. Beside the surfaces decorated with spirals and animal figures, the remains of a large man-shaped sculpture bearing a large skirt were also found here. British archaeologist Colin Renfrew called the artefact the oldest giant-statue in the world.
Hundred years ago, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum was discovered in the neighbouring settlement of Paola, which runs 14 meters under the surface. Due to human bone remains and praying clay figures, the three-leveled cave was supposedly used for funeral and religious purposes. If you do not want to miss the experience, you have to book your ticket online in advance (www.heritagemalta.org). The more than five-thousand-year-old cultic place only welcomes 80 visitors a day.
The Ggantija twin church is located on the smaller island of the country named Gozo. According to some historians, the churches were built around 3900 BC, which ranks them among the oldest megalithic churches in Europe. However, others think that it was built only around 2800 BC. In the Maltese language, the word “gant” means giant. The building which is enormous in its name too was probably the scene of worships. The remains of altars also support this theory.
Most of the sites listed here are also part of the UNESCO World Heritage. However, further Neolithic sites can also be visited in Malta. The prehistoric experience is completed by the National Archaeological Museum in the capital. You should remember that this is just the beginning! Phoenicians, Romans, early Christians, Arabs, Normans, Knights, Turks, French, British and the World Wars of the last century also left significant impacts on the face of this small country which is only a two-hour-long flight from Budapest.