Week 11 in Malta

This week began with a domestic disaster. Newly returned from our trip to the UK, and expecting our guests Pauline and Stephen for drinks and thence to Mdina’s De Mondian restaurant for dinner, we were anticipating a quiet day to settle ourselves before getting back into the swing of things here. Not to be!

I spotted a small puddle of water on the floor in front of the cupboard housing the sink’s water heater. I thought I had spilled some the night before and opened the cupboard to get a cloth. I was greeted with a soggy confection of dishwasher tablets, salt, washing powder, all of which – thankfully – had soaked up most of the flood that had leaked from the water heater and was continuing to do so slowly but steadily, hence the spillage on the floor. Once the frothy mess was removed, the leak became greater and it was clear that we should turn off the water at the feeder pipe to the heater. Finding it was not straightforward but eventually we spotted it. Lawrence, under my instruction and against his better judgement, turned the appropriate tap – and the thing (rotten through) broke off in his hand. It was indeed the mains feeder tap to the heater and Mr and Mrs Bean had arrived in Malta.

I was wearing a very thin silk sundress and the full mains water pressure jetted over me, with Lawrence all the while struggling to replace the bit that had come apart. Four inches of water on the kitchen floor in as many seconds later, we realised that more drastic action was needed and the mains stopcock three floors down would have to be turned off. I took over as the person with the finger in the dyke and waited in great agitation for the water to stop. It did not! I found it increasingly difficult to block the flow and in the end the water was spraying all around my thumb which was heavily compressed by my other hand.

At this point hubby appeared at the door and said “That should stop it it”, only to drop his jaw at the sight of his wife doing a very bad impression of Bo Derek  full length on the kitchen floor, head and arms in a cupboard which resembled nothing so much as an open sluice gate.The only true resemblance to Bo was that my dress was by this time see through! Not amused.

So, Mr Bean leaves Mrs Bean and has another go. Up he comes to confess that he had turned off next door neighbour’s water by mistake! At this point the jet reduced to a trickle and we called our janitor/handyman, who said he would be right up. We just stood dismayed at the chaos of towels, dishcloths etc I had used to mop it up – with limited success. Our first concern was that the apartment below might have repercussions, but then a more immediate problem emerged for me with the arrival at the door of Mario. My dress was no longer decent, so I fled to change leaving poor Lawrence to explain our cack-handedness and wield the mop!

Mario saved the day by replacing the valve we had broken and isolating the heater, which had also been connected to the diswasher. Those of you who follow our newsletter will remember that it was he who fixed our kitchen light after the “explosion”.  He is a treasure. We called a plumber to fix it the next day.

So, our “moment of calm” was anything but and we were very ready to join our guests later that day for a stiff drink before dinner. Stephen could not understand how the Maltese are so fond of what he called “daylight fireworks” which we were treated to during our drinks on the balcony. These are not the colourful type seen traditionally at night, but are often in the shape of a halo composed of several stars. They are known as “petards” which comes from the French “peter”. “to break wind”. The noise when it eventually reaches us is like a gattling gun!  Incidentally, one of the villages, Mqabba has just broken the world record for the biggest ever Catherine Wheel with a diameter of 32metres. The record had been held for the last 12 years by an English firework factory. Feeling all the better for an imbibement of Moet, we were ready for our supper.

The restaurant terrace is part of the bastions of Mdina and dining outdoors was a pleasure, despite the wind. The food was its usual wonderful standard, and the fireworks became more colourful, complex and noisy as the evening wore on. We decided the “show” had lasted for at least four hours.

I think Stephen and Pauline were surprised at how settled we are despite our short time here, but as I keep saying, it really does feel like home. It was lovely to catch up on all their news, and, two nights later, they introduced us to yet another restaurant, the “Barraccuda” in St Julians. This specialises in fish, and I had a most unusual dish of langoustines coated in crispy cumin which was fabulous. We had a marvellous table, cantilevered out over the water which was so clear you could see every colour of the rocks and fish below.  All too soon it was time to say goodbye, but I have a feeling it will not be too long before we see you here again, guys. We hope so.

So, sanity restored!

The week got even better when we went on our first serious historical outing to the temples of Mnajdra and Haġar Qim. This was what I had been looking forward to and I was not disappointed. Since I have been a child I have been fascinated by paleontology and truly ancient monuments. Stonehenge and the Pyramids are famously thought to be the earliest. Imagine my surprise when a local archaeologist told us that  Malta has the oldest known temples in the world and they predate the others by over 1000years. Historical heaven.

Haġar Qim Temple

Like so many of the features – old and new – in Malta which are often hidden away in most unexpected places, these were approached by a poor roadway (did have a bus stop though!) which seemed to lead us to the back of beyond. We then found an excellent car park and the museum associated with the monuments, which housed a fascinating collection of interactive models, reproductions of the artifacts found and an excellent walk through poster-presentation of the discovery, excavation and conservation of the temples. There was a minimally informative, but very evocative audiovisual presentation suggesting how primitive man might have come here to live and how the temples might have been raised.

Under the "Umbrella"

By this time I was itching to get to the monuments themselves. We exited a door and there it was! My jaw dropped. I had not expected such a stunning sight. It was not just the temples themselves which are about 600mtrs apart, but also the surreal effect of the “umbrella” structures over them. This was a physical manifestation of how the science of today is being used to protect the science of the ancients.

There is good documented evidence that an established farming community lived in Malta by 5000 BC – 7000years ago! The earliest temples are thought to date from around 3760BC and possibly span two millenia. They are still finding new structures. I will not go into the recent story of the Hypogeum where remains of 7000 bodies  were found, but save that for a later time when I have seen it myself.

Spiral Detail from Haġar Qim

The temples were built using stone available in the vicinity. There are two types of limestone, laid down from sediment –  the softer globigerina limestone from simple sediment which was easier to shape and the very hard coralline limestone, derived from coral organisms, which could be broken up, but not shaped. The builders used a combination of both, depending on what was to hand, though the facades and outer walls always had beautifully dressed slabs

At the time they were erected, there were no other freestanding megalithic structures being built, and there is no clue as to how or why those early builders/architects generated the consistent pattern seen in the temples. Apart from Stonehenge, a millenium later, the Malta temples are the only monolithic structures where the stone was truly dressed. Others builders later split the stone, but used it  au naturel.

Most of the temples have a common pattern. They have a flat area in front which acts as a forecourt, then comes the facade which faces south or southeast and which is made up of huge flat stone slabs set on end to form a flat wall, bounded by taller stones at each end, and capped with smaller slabs. The side walls were of similar slabs without the smaller capping layers. In the middle of the facade wall is a trilithon entrance like those seen in Stonehenge, leading into the temple proper via a slab lined and floored corridor. The passage opens out into an inner courtyard, which was roofed over. The roofing was of stone using the method of corbelling, whereby successive layers of stone projected beyond the one below over the space to be roofed until it was completed, beehive-like in appearance from the outside.

This courtyard led to oval or D-shaped chambers , either through trilithon doorways or through “porthole” doorways – large rectangular openings cut from a single wall slab. These chambers often did not touch the perimeter wall and debris was used to fill in the gaps between the two. No windows! The rubble used for this lowly purpose has yielded some of the most significant dating artifacts and materials e.g.pot sherds and bits of implements. The temples vary usually only in the number of the chambers or “apses” leading off the central inner courtyard. Again the “portholes” or small trilithon doorways – always big enough to allow passage –  were the only means of communication between the inner chambers which often led off one another in the larger temples. The smallest temples have two chambers, the largest in excess of six. Usually the altar, again in trilithon style, was right at the back of the innermost apse.

Notable features were stone brackets perhaps designed to hold hangings on poles,
holes that seem to be designed to hold a rotating door post and detailed carving on the altars and many uprights. The sheer size of some of the blocks that had to be moved were mind-blowing. One of the slabs we saw was over 7 metres long and over 5 metres high. One of our modern cranes might struggle with such a load. The manpower necessary to move and erect that single slab is unimaginable, especially given the primitive methods available.
Other elements such as the statues of the Maltese Venus, the typical “fat ladies” with normal upper bodies but gigantic belly and thighs, are represented in the museum by copies, but the originals are now housed in the Archaeology museum in Valletta. You will have to go and find out more for yourselves! The list is prodigious.

There are several ways that Malta integrates the modern with the ancient. The most obvious is the special covering I mentioned earlier designed to protect these world heritage sites from the vagaries of the salt, wind, rain and spray that have resulted in drastic deterioration since their excavation. Meteorological data is collected and so far as is possible the environment is controlled for temperature and humidity. There is something quite special about the new sheltering the old. (I saw something similar in the hidden concrete casing sheltering the Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel.) Also one of the altars in the Mnajdra complex was chosen as the design on Maltese euro coins in 2008.

A final thought on these magnificent structures. While it is automatically assumed that they were for religious purposes because of their grandueur, the many chambers, the fact that they are mostly built several in a cluster, make me wonder if they did not also function as “villages” where the populace lived and came together.  One of the temples near Zabbar has got a shallow limestone trough 2.66 metres long, built into the temple in front of one of the apses. It has seven deep depressions separated by worn vertical flanges, and a grinding stone was found nearby. The consensus is that it was for the (?) women of several families to grind their corn. So – just a thought.

There is so much more to see both from this period and earlier. Modern dating methods can trace farming methods back to 5000BC and it is well documented that men were sailing the mediterranean in 8000BC and that trade, in particular of obsidian was prevalent. There are the caves, the hypogea and many other sites to keep me busy.

Bring it on!

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