Malta is a little country with a big history. One aspect of its history that captured my imagination was a visit to the Hypogeum, an underground temple and burial site. Discovered accidently in the early Twentieth century, this one-of-a- kind Neolithic structure built about 2500 B.C. with obsidian, flint and antler tools, is today a UNESCO wonder. Hewn out of solid rock, this world of darkness twists and turns in and out of small chambers. Today’s guests must stay on metal stairs and move slowly from one lighted area to the other. A recording of simple drum music accompanies the visitor until the next chamber is reached when a voice describes what is being viewed. Mostly one sees only dark rock chambers as all of the bones and artifacts discovered have been removed to the archeological museum. However, here and there, etched into the rock are images of antelope or concentric spirals. The main chamber is actually a large domed structure with what is believed to be an altar and with bits of red ochre paint still visible. It is believed that the entire building (it was described as the first architectural structure known, if I remember correctly) was a temple. I cannot answer for others, but when I stand in an ancient place of worship, I feel a strong sense of kinship with the worshipers who revered their gods there eons ago. It does not take much imagination to see flickering torch lights on the walls and to hear a vibrating om-m-m sound created by a deep voiced priest calling through deliberately placed holes in the walls.
My companion and I almost didn’t make it to the Hypogeum. During the high season, one must book tickets at least two months in advance as the number of visitors is limited in order to control the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into this underground wonder. Our taxi driver from the airport to the hotel warned us of the possibility of our missing this site. So, the first thing we did upon arrival was to ask the desk to get us tickets. Two tickets were available on Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. We took them at 30 Euros per adult and 15 Euros per senior adult. There are times when being a senior is to one’s advantage. Actually, we would have bought the tickets at any price. In this case once-in-a-life-time was real.
We did go the archeological museum where we saw the artifacts taken from the Hypogeum. The most interesting was the “Sleeping Lady”, a very fat headless figure (deliberately headless) carved out of limestone lying on her side. Other very fat headless figures stood near her. No one knows the significance of these figures. Fertility figures are the most likely purpose of their presence, but they have no obvious breasts. The ancients who made them and the Hypogeum used it and the figures for about 1000 years. Then, they disappeared.
One of the best kept secrets of modern day Malta is its public bus system. For about $8.00 each, we bought weekly passes that took us all over the island. We visited Buggiba, Valetta, Victoriosa, Mosta, Rabat, Mdina, and the ferry to Goso, sometimes more than once. The passes were practically in shreds when it was time to depart for home.
Of the 360 churches on this island of 400,000 people and 360,000 cars, we saw at least 20 churches from the bus windows; and, we visited about 5. Our experience at the Co-Cathedral of Saint Paul was very special. Valetta was having a Baroque Festival. Professional musicians were performing in many venues. One performance on Sunday morning was a high mass at the cathedral. Not having been to a high mass in at least 50 years, I took advantage of the opportunity. My companion and I were not disappointed. The singing was professional but devotional. Many Maltese still practice Catholicism. Not only are the churches maintained and the icons refreshed, but the people, in general, are kind to wandering tourists and to those from Sub-Sahara Africa seeking freedom from oppression.
Dear reader, I could go on and on, and I will, in my head. But, for now – if you ever have the opportunity to go to Malta, go!