Malta – The Tarxien Temples

Although cremation in Malta is still illegal at present, Malta’s oldest crematorium came into existence long before the Maltese Planning Authority itself. This was way back in 2,500 BC, when the Tarxien Temples, situated in the South Eastern region of Malta, were converted from a megalithic temple into a crematorium cemetery, in the early Bronze Age.

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The Tarxien Temple archaeological complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the oldest temples in the Maltese Islands, dating back approximately to 3600BC. Following the discovery of the Tarxien Hypogeum in 1913 situated only 400 meters away, it was only natural for a particular farmer in the same area to feel curious after constantly striking large boulders while ploughing his fields only a year later. He therefore contacted the director of the National Museum, who started to work on the first dig of the site, and the center of the temple compound was discovered.

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The Tarxien Temples consist of a complex of four different megalithic structures built between 3600 and 2500 BC. The oldest of the structures is located at the easternmost end of the site and is smaller than the others. Nearby, also facing the eastern side, is another temple with well-cut slab walls and ‘oracle-holes’. The temple on the southern side, which is the second oldest within the complex, is the one with the most extensive decorations, sporting relief art and spiral patterns as well as the lower part of the colossal statue of a skirted figure which surely portrayed what is known as ‘The Maltese Fat Lady’, the goddess of fertility worshipped in Neolithic times. What is known as the Central Temple, which was probably the last to be built, was constructed with a unique six-apse plan and contains evidence of arched roofing. The main altar is decorate with spiral designs and it is where animals were sacrificed to the goddess of fertility, as proven by the remains of animal horns and bones, as well as a flint knife, found underneath the altar by archaeologists. A flat slab embossed with animal drawings was also found.

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During the later Bronze Age, the people became more warlike, and perhaps it was in relation to this that the southern temple was reconstructed into a cremation cemetery. Almost 2000 years afterwards, by the end of the Roman Period, the area became mostly fields.

The discovery of the temple complex at Tarxien did much to solidify Malta’s national identity as well as its historical and cultural heritage. In 2012, an elevated walkway was constructed with the scope of facilitating those visitors who wanted to admire this pre-historic site. In 2015, in a bid to preserve the stones of the temple from being further eroded due to the onset of time and inclement weather, a protective tent arching over the complex was completed, and the visitor’s center was also refurbished.

The Tarxien Temple is visited by around 100,000 people each year. Opening hours are from 9.00am to 17.00 from Monday to Sunday, with the last admission being at 16.30.

More information can be found here – http://heritagemalta.org/book-buy/admission-fees/

This article was written by me and originally published on the online magazine LivingInMalta. Click here to view the original.

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The Ancient Romans in Malta

In the year 218 B.C, at the beginning of the Second Punic War, the Roman Consul Titus Sempronius Longus invaded the Maltese islands while on his way to North Africa. It was this which led to the Maltese islands being considered part of the Roman province of Sicily, and having the status of an allied city (civitas foederata) within the Roman Empire. The natives of the islands were not regarded as a conquered people, but rather as allies of Rome, and this meant that the Maltese were able to keep their own laws, mint their own money, and sent their ambassadors or legates to Rome.

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At the time, the Punic city of Maleth, located on present-day Mdina, the island’s old capital city, became known as Melite under Roman rule, and in fact became the hub of the island. Eventually, Melite was given the status of municipium, being granted the same rights as other Roman cities. The word Melite itself is Greek in origin, and refers to the island’s production of honey. At the time, the island served as a kind of haven from the hustle and bustle of Rome, which led to Roman citizens viewing it as a kind of resort in which to relax.

From a number of archaeological remains found, there is a clear indication that the defense system of the Maltese archipelago was much improved during this time. The main administrative and mercantile centers were located in the central part of Malta (today’s Rabat), the central part of Gozo (today’s Victoria and Citadel), as well as the Grand Harbour area. Archaeological excavations have unearthed various Roman structural remains of buildings, walls, columns and pottery in various parts of these localities. With regards to Melite (that is, Mdina), there are indications that show that cemeteries were located outside the city walls, for reasons of sanitation.

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The most important Roman building found in the Rabat area is undoubtedly the Roman domus (or townhouse), which for a long time was commonly known as the Roman Villa. This was excavated for the first time in 1881. Other archaeological excavations were continued between 1920 and 1924, during which remains of other Roman houses and roads were brought to light. The most interesting part of the Roman domus is its peristyle, an open-air shaft surrounded by a colonnade of Doric style. This and the adjoining halls are decorated by a series of fine mosaic pavements that generally show abstract motifs. It is important to mention that a number of Roman statues, including two important busts of the Roman Imperial Period, were excavated in this house.

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Another important find shows that the Punic temple of the goddess Ashtarte at Tas-Silġ, overlooking Marsaxlokk Bay, continued to be used for religious purposes during Roman times. The Romans in fact, re-dedicated this temple to the Roman goddess Juno, who was the counterpart of the Phoenician Astharte. During the excavations at Tas-Silġ, archaeologists unearthed hundreds of inscriptions.

It is also worthwhile mentioning that the remains a number of other Roman villas were found around Malta and Gozo, not to mention those of a Roman thermal complex at Għajn Tuffieħa which was uncovered in 1929. In certain parts of Malta, a number of circular towers, which at the time most probably served as watch towers, were also discovered. A number of structural remains of what appear to have been walls were also uncovered in various parts of Victoria, in Gozo. The Romans at the time also developed the way the local limestone was used and worked, this can be determined from a number of old quarries dating back to this particular period.

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This article was written by me and originally published on LivingInMalta. To take a look, please go here.

Important Churches in Valletta

Valletta, Malta’s capital city, is a real testament to Malta’s Catholic faith. Built by the Order of the Knights of Saint John, which was a Catholic Military Order, the city became the capital one year after its construction was completed, that is, in 1571. A jewel of historic architecture, Valletta boasts more than 25 churches and chapels, most of which were originally first built during the 16th and 17th centuries, and which contain innumerable and priceless works of art.

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First and foremost among these, one must surely mention Saint John’s Co-Cathedral. Found in Saint John Square and built in the 1570s, this co-cathedral is a distinct architectural treasure designed by the famed Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, and decorated internally by the well-known Italian Baroque artist Mattia Preti. Although its intricately ornate interior is Baroque in style, the co-cathedral’s exterior is of the Mannerist style. It contains nine rich chapels, as well as notable works of art attributed to such painters as Caravaggio, as well as a number of medieval artifacts and tapestries. The floor is covered with inlaid marble tombstones, commemorating the more illustrious knights of the Order of Saint John, as well as a number of Grand Masters.

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The Church of Our Lady of the Victories, situated in South Street, is not just the oldest Church in Valletta, but actually the first building to be completed in the city. Built to commemorate the victory of the Maltese and the Knights of the Order over the Ottoman invaders in the Great Siege of 1565, it was chosen by the Knights as their Parish Church at the time.

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When one looks at Valletta’s imposing silhouette, one of the most visible features is surely the large round dome belonging to the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Originally dedicated to Our Lady of the Annunciation, this church was given to the order of the Carmelites in the 17th century, after which it received its present patronage. The original structure was seriously damaged during the Second World War, leading to the facade being re-designed.

Although almost all churches in Valletta are Roman Catholic, one cannot fail to mention Saint Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, to be found in Independence Square. This Anglican Cathedral, commissioned in the 19th century, is one of three such Cathedrals within the Anglican Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe. Its 60 meter-long steeple is a landmark in Valletta, and it is predominantly neo-classical in style.

This article of mine was published on LivinginMalta.com – to read the rest of it, go here.

Maltese Traditions – Il-Quccija

Malta is a small island, and yet its multi-cultural history cannot be denied, since throughout the years it was conquered and influenced by so many civilizations. The Normans, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Turks, the Aragonese (Spanish), the French, and the English, all left their footprints in Maltese culture and traditions, and this mix makes up the unique Maltese habits and customs we know at present.

Il-Quċċija, which could be roughly translated as ‘the choosing’ or ‘the choice’ is one of the ancient old traditions dating back to the 18th century, which is still predominantly popular today. A year after a baby is born, its parents organize a party and invite all the family members and close friends for the gathering. After having eaten traditional Maltese party food, drunk a drink or two and chatted to their heart’s content, the parents prepare a table, basket, or section of the room for the Quċċija. The aim of the Quċċija is to determine or try to prophesy which profession or career the child would have later on in life, depending on which object he or she would pick up from all those offered in the pile.

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This entails collecting and setting out many different items, all reflecting or relating to a particular profession, career or aspect of life. For example, a calculator denotes that the child will become a mathematician, a rosary that he would become a priest, a pen that he would be a writer and a book that he would be learned and wise.

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(photo: Clare Galea-Warrington – https://cgwarr.wordpress.com)

In the past, different items would be set forth for the child to pick up, depending on his or her gender. If the child was a girl, most often the parents prepared a dish or table containing a pair of scissors, meaning that the girl would become a seamstress, cooking items, a ribbon, which if picked, would mean that the girl would be a beauty, corn which denoted fertility, or an egg which used to signify that the girl would have a big and prosperous home. If the child was a boy, the items would reflect totally different professions. A stethoscope would definitely be one of the items, in the hope that the boy would grow up to be a doctor, if he grabbed an inkstand it would mean that he was going to sit for the bar and become either a lawyer or a magistrate, while if he touched a geometry instrument it would mean that he would become an architect or engineer.

Today, the tradition has changed to reflect the society we are currently living in. Careers and professions are no longer subject to one’s gender, therefore usually the same items are offered to the child at the ceremony, be they male or female. The items themselves too have evolved, in reflection of today’s technological aspect. A baby might therefore grab a computer mouse, pointing at a career in I.T, or a credit card, pointing either towards a banking career or at the promise of future wealth.

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(photo: Clare Galea-Warrington – https://cgwarr.wordpress.com)

In the end, there is really no strict list of items which must be presented, and parents tend to let the baby crawl around everyday things which are to be normally found around the household. The object the child touches first, tradition holds, will be a dominant aspect in his or her life.

This small ceremony, apart from being held in the Maltese islands, is also believed to be something of a custom in some remote parts of Sicily, Italy, and Greece.

This article was published on LivingInMalta.com – to read the whole article please go here