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Malta – a history written in stone

By H.E. Mr. Mark Anthony Pace, Ambassador of the Republic of Malta to the Kingdom of The Netherlands.

By H.E. Mr. Mark Anthony Pace, Ambassador of the Republic of Malta to the Kingdom of The Netherlands.

Many are surprised to learn that Malta with a territory of 316 km2 welcomes 3 million tourists annually – approximately six times the number of its inhabitants. It has also become a must-see destination for holidaymakers looking to find out more about the unique heritage of the Mediterranean and its peoples. 

What Malta lacks in size, it makes up for in a long and storied history which predates entire civilisations including Ancient Egypt and Rome while also being home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the oldest being erected before Stonehenge.  

Stone is the archipelago’s only natural resource and its inhabitants have become skilled masons.  Every phase of Malta’s well-preserved history has left an architectural legacy.  In many ways it is a story written in stone.  

Ggantija, Malta.

The first humans to settle in Malta arrived from Sicily around 5900 BC and over the next two millennia, this small group of people developed a highly advanced civilisation.  

Between 3600 and 2500 BC, Malta experienced an architectural phenomenon. Throughout this period, megalithic structures were constructed across the island.  These majestic buildings were built to a very high degree of design and precision which still defy our understanding to this very day.  As these structures come before any written account discovered to date, there is very little we know for certain about the purpose of these buildings and the society that conceived, designed and built them.  How could a primitive people yet to invent the wheel master these feats of precision engineering?   

What is even more perplexing is the details that have come to light confirming that the society that built these structures had a keen interest and a relatively high level of understanding of astronomy.   Some of the structures are oriented astronomically aligned with the rising sun during solstices and equinoxes. During the summer solstice, the first rays of sunlight light up the edge of a decorated megalith between the first apses of one of the main sites. During the winter solstice, the same effect occurs on a megalith in the opposite apse.  The equinox also breathes life into the sites as the rays of the rising sun pass straight through the principal doorway to reach the innermost central niche. 

 You can witness the spectacular solstices and equinoxes phenomenon virtually:   https://www.facebook.com/HeritageMalta/videos/574651116731479/ 
Temple period statue.

Another fascinating aspect is the numerous corpulent stone statues uniquely synonymous with the Maltese Temple Period. These statues, which were until recently associated with fertility goddesses, are being reinterpreted as being asexual, representing a human person irrespective of gender. While it is still difficult to fully determine what these statues represented, corpulence is normally associated with abundance of food and fertility. It is therefore a concept which must have played a crucial role in these people’s lives; fertility of the lands they worked, of the animals they reared, and their own as a means to ascertain a sustainable livelihood. 

Another assumption is that the statues were central elements to the veneration rites of our ascendants. Whether such worship was directed towards a mythical figure, those who came before or their contemporaries being is one of the research questions which will probably remain unanswered. 

These are just some of the questions that academics have struggled with ever since carbon dating revealed that these structures were much older than was previously believed (they are significantly more ancient than the pyramids of Egypt).  What may have considered as being primitive in our collective imagination, this early civilisation which predates writing has taken with it secrets that will forever be subject to educated speculation and interpretation.  Our best attempts at finding the answers through excavations may unearth new discoveries yet these bring with them new mysteries tied to one of Malta’s most fascinating chapter. 

While the current circumstances may limit the exploration of Malta’s history and its legacy in stone, our cultural partners are offering a sneak peek into the island’s enigmatic wonders at a photo exhibition opening in Leiden as of next month.  

You can find out more about the lives of the civilisation marking Malta as a young nation with an age-old history at the exhibit to be hosted at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden from 10 October.

Further details on booking your visit are available in the link below:  

Want to get to know more about Malta’s truly unique story and its many secrets set in stone? visit Heritage Malta on www.heritagemalta.org.  

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