The Maltese Islands has a fascinating and ancient history and the legacy includes three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Valetta, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, and the Megalithic Temples.
Valletta – A European Art City
Valletta is the capital of Malta and is named after its founder, Jean Parisot, the respected Grand Master of the Order of St. John. It is known as The Fortress City and also, the Citta’ Umilissima, which translates as “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”. As the capital, it is the administrative and commercial hub of the Maltese islands, a vibrant, living, working city.
Standing on the arid rock peninsula of Mount Sceberras complete with the two deep harbours, the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett, the city began with a magnificent and imposing fortress in 1566. Remarkably, due to the limitations on the mechanics of construction at the time, Valletta, complete with a cathedral, forts, and bastions, took just 15 years to complete.
Valletta is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites due to its concentration of historic areas all telling of its amazing past. The Knights of St. John foresaw a “modern” city, and it has been beautified even further by masterpieces of Baroque architecture. Its narrow streets are home to some of the finest palaces, churches, and works of art in Europe. Busy and bustling by day, it is at night when there is a timeless feeling, one of walking back in time.
The architecture of the city as you walk around it is intriguing and interesting with features such as fountains, coats of arms, niches and votive statues, some of which you need to crane your neck to see them up on high parapets. But, this is a very modern city too, with main streets lined with international shops, and narrow streets with tiny shops and quaint cafés.
The easiest and best way to see Valetta is on foot and a good place to start are the various beautiful gardens. The three most popular are the Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens and the Hastings Gardens, but there are hidden gardens just begging to be discovered. From the Upper Barrakka Gardens, the Saluting Battery can be seen and there is also a lift to take you down the bastions to sea level.
Another site that is a must-visit is St. John’s Cathedral and Museum which is home to masterpieces from world famous artists such as Caravaggio an Mattia Preti. Other places of interest include more beautiful baroque churches, museums, and the auberges and piazzas of former Grand Masters of the Order of the Knights of St. John.
Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum
Much older than Valetta, but not as old as the other of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Malta, the Megalithic Temples, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum near Paola is an underground chamber that dates back to 2500 BC. Thanks to extensive excavation a wealth of archaeological ethnography has been uncovered and collected including human skeletons, pottery, figurines, carved animals, and personal ornaments such as beads and amulets.
Hewn from the rock, the Hypogeum has an area of around 500 m² and features passages, chambers, and halls. The chambers demonstrate various standards of workmanship and are diverse in size and shape. There are three levels to the complex with each level dating to a different era. The oldest level dates to 2500-3150 BC with the deepest level being 10.6 metres underground. The middle level dates from 3300-3000 BC and contains a number of chambers that have a smooth finish that resembles constructed masonry. The upper level dates from 3600-3300 BC and is a large hollow with burial chambers on each site leading off a central passage.
Visitor numbers to the Hypogeum are strictly limited because the microclimate of the site needs to be strictly regulated for conservation purposes. The guided tour begins in a introductory exhibition and audio-visual presentation in multiple languages to the people who built the temples and the Hypogeum’s relationship to the other temple sites on Malta. It is advisable to book tickets in advance as tours are booked quickly. Tickets can be booked online at the Heritage Malta website or in person at the Hypogeum’s own vsitor cente and the National Museum of Archaeology in Valetta. The visitor schedule is eight daily tours starting on the hour between nine am and four pm on Monday through Saturday
The Megalithic Temples
The oldest of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malta and its islands are the Megalithic Temples, believed to be the oldest free-standing structures on Earth. There are more and smaller temples, but there are six listed under the World Heritage Status: Ġgantija, Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Ta’ Hagrat, Skorba, and Tarxien. Ġgantija is in Gozo and the rest are in Malta. Even though listed in its own right, the Hypogeum is often included under the umbrella of the Megalithic Temples of Malta. All are open to the public.
Of all, there are three temples – Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, and Tarxien – that are viewed as being unique examples of architectural masterpieces considering the limited tools and mechanics available to their builders, while the tradition of temple building in Malta is demonstrated in the later temples of Ta’ Ħagrat and Skorba. The World Heritage-listed temples date from 3600 to 700 BC, although it is through the temple building peoples of Malta date back to around 5200 BC.
Although there are just three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malta, there is an amazing array of architectural wonders in the islands from smaller megalithic monuments, traces of prehistoric man (mysterious cart tracks), dolmens (tomb or burial chamber) from the Bronze Age, tombs from the Punic era, and remains of roman villas.
The sheer number and great age of the archaeological sites on the Maltese archipelago sets their history apart from that of other destination in the Mediterranean.