Exploring the History of Malta on a Sightseeing Tour

June 1, 2015 by

City Tours & Sightseeing, Europe, Places to Go, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

If I asked you where you can find the world’s oldest buildings, what would you answer? Egypt, Mesopotamia perhaps? I’m sure you’ll be as surprised as I was to discover that the world’s oldest buildings are actually in Malta: the prehistoric temples of Tarxien, ?gantija, ?a?ar Qim and Mnajdra built between 3600 and 2500 B.C. – a thousand years before the Pyramids and Stonehenge.

Malta has been inhabited since 5000 B.C., and throughout the centuries it has been home to a dozen civilizations. It’s the ideal destination for history buffs, but not only; lovers of nature and landscape shutterbugs will be spoilt with sheer vertical cliffs, sea caves and rock formations, rocky hills and natural harbors.

The Viator Malta Sightseeing Tour: Blue Grotto, Marsaxlokk and Ghar Dalam offers the best of what the island has to offer in terms of landscapes, and a great introduction to the prehistoric heritage of the island, including a visit to the Tarxien temples. After having spent some days exploring Malta’s cities and its more recent history, I was looking forward to getting away from the crowds, and exploring a historical period of which I know absolutely nothing.

The cliffs at the Blue Grotto

The cliffs at the Blue Grotto

The tour began with a stop at the Blue Grotto, a complex of sea caves on the southern coast. Our guide Paul was an Alsatian who lives in Gozo, Malta’s little sister. He led us to a viewpoint on the top of a cliff, from which we could see the coast in all its wild, windswept, turquoise glory. At the center, there was the largest cavern, formed by a rock arch sloping into the sea.

Paul told us we were in luck; the area is very windy and boat tours into the caves are often cancelled. In the morning, the sun shines through the caves, reflecting the seabed in symphony of blues. In one cave, the rocks on the bottom turned the water a deep cobalt, in another, the water was aquamarine, in another the sun painted the water, looking like a golden path.

Tarxien temples from above

Tarxien temples from above

On the way to the next attraction, the prehistoric Tarxien temples, Paul told us that little is known about them for certain. One thing is sure, that they were fertility temples, thanks to the abundance of phallic symbols and female fertility figures found by archaeologists at the site. The temples were fascinating in their simplicity. Even though not much was left, as they were built with a limestone variety that erodes very quickly, you could see the temple plans – concave entrance and multiple apses, making the temples look like clover leaves. We saw altars where animal sacrifices were carried out five thousand years ago, and reproductions of ancient carvings – the feeling of walking a sacred land gave me a strange buzz of energy. It came as no surprise when Paul told us that Tarxien is a popular destination for devotees of the Mother Goddess, who often visit to meditate and carry out rituals.

Marsaxlokk harbour

Marsaxlokk harbour

After a short drive and a tasty lunch of aljotta (Maltese fish soup) and grilled sea bream, we got to Marsaxlokk harbour, famous for being the best place to see luzzu, traditional brightly-painted Maltese boats. Paul explained that the eyes painted at the front of the boat are called ‘Osiris’s eyes’ in Maltese lore, and they are an example of Malta as a crossroads of cultures. In fact, the reproduction of eyes to keep ‘evil spirits’ away is something that is believed to come from Sicily, Turkey or Egypt – or perhaps from all three.

Marsaxlokk fishermen

Marsaxlokk fishermen

We had some free time to wander around Marsaxlokk harbor. By then, it was overcast and the sea looked like liquid silver, with the luzzu like splashes of colour on a canvas. One of the perks of visiting during the week was missing the crowds of the popular Sunday fish market, and appreciating local life in the harbor. Some fishermen unloaded the day’s catch, while other mended their nets.

Ghar Dalam cave

Ghar Dalam cave

The last stop of the day was Ghar Dalam cave, where fossils and bones of pygmy hippos and elephants that inhabited Malta in prehistoric times were found. It was fascinating to imagine these animals wandering around the hills and wildflowers, before disappearing mysteriously, similarly to the builders of the Tarxien temples, who disappeared without leaving traces in 2500 B.C.

Without a guide, prehistoric temples are nothing more than a pile of rocks, and fascinating Ghar Dalam is just another cave. Guided by Paul, we appreciated the tiniest details – the hatch in the altar where animal sacrifices were placed, spiral-like carvings eroded by the elements, and the difference between dainty deer bones and chunky elephant ones in the cave. At the Blue Grotto, nature was the real show. I had never seen so many different blues in my life.

Contributed by Margherita Ragg

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