Sunday, 24 June 2012

Unearthing Ancient Malta: Ggantija

The immediately visible face of oft-frequented tourist destinations is punctuated , perhaps plagued, by a constantly shifting identity - characterised by contemporary hotels, restaurants, and generic tourist attractions. These attractions usually have no real time or place, no real connection, historically or culturally, to the place around them.

Only the biggest, most vast monolithic creations of humanity seem to survive both the test of time, and waning human interest. We might think of Egypt's Pyramids, for example, as a ubiquitously recognisable structure - one that cannot simply be buried underneath a plethora of quick-fix hotels and tourist attractions. Not quite yet anyway.

Over 1000 years older than the Egyptian Pyramids, Malta's Ggantija temple complex, situated high above the lush countryside palettes of Gozo, is one humble structure to have gained, or long-inherited an independence from the pernicious wrath of tourism.

"Pizza, burgers and English food". The response from the taxi driver hurtling me to my hotel in Malta confirms just what I expected. When asking what sort of food would be available, I quickly realise that I could have answered this question myself.

Malta has a strong 'bond' - perhaps not so much of a mutual, neighbourly bond, but more of an established colonial history with the UK. This dates back to King George III's reign, from 1814, right up until 1964. This powerful 150 year membership of the British Empire may have long ended, but the British sense of inherited colonialism certainly hasn't.

As the taxi drops me outside the hotel, the sense of ‘Brits abroad’ is heightened, with a scattering of patriotic pubs; one even called ‘Diana’s Pub’, fish and chip shops, and British style cafes complete with England football shirt-sporting patrons.

With the exception of a rather wind battered walk down to coastal salt pans, amid turquoise sea-lapped rockpools, there is little in Buggiba to represent Malta in a classical sense. It is possible however to capture a sense of the ‘old’, architecturally at least, when trekking a little further away from the booze lined sea-front. Protruding enclosed balconies speak best of this, and countless ornate British letterboxes mounted outside traditional front doors.

In preparation for my visit to Ggantija, I decide to visit the National Archaeological Museum, located in Malta’s grand capital, Valletta. Arriving here first thing in the morning, I gasp a sense of relief that it seems to have somewhat escaped the British holiday camp nausea of Bugibba; I am awed at the architectural beauty of the surrounding buildings. A labyrinthine network of increasingly narrower and curiouser streets, overlooked by an armada of iconic and colourful balconies, I eventually find the entrance to the museum. I decide that Valletta is however easily deserving of a much closer look, and so endeavor to find my way toward the harbour area, before shutting myself away in the museum.

Like a movie set, falsely aged to perfection, the courtyard of the Grandmaster’s Palace lures me inside for a closer look. This was one of the first buildings constructed in Valletta, and clearly an example set for buildings to follow.Bright red flowers appear wonderfully striking against the pale limestone hues of the courtyard.

A never ending set of stairs leads me down to St Elmo’s fort – allegedly closed to the public, as I am agressively told by a Maltese gentleman, emphatically suggesting a ride on his horse and cart as an alternative. Passing on this, I walk further around the harbour wall towards the Siege Bell Memorial, constructed in 1992 to commemorate those lost during the horrors of World War II. The Bell also affords me spectacular views across Valletta Harbour.

Adjacent to this, I enjoy a strolling a little further through the Lower Barrakka Gardens, with its beautfiful abundance of colourful flowers, welcome shade from the midday heat, and the occasional lizard darting across the pavement.

Looking down over the edge, I see one of the primary sources of the Malta’s building material – limestone, claimed from the rocky shores beneath me. One might think that such uniformity in building work might be tiresome, but actually generates a unique earthly and warming charm in the buildings that surround the area, and all over Malta.

One may be forgiven for at first seeing only a collection of rocks at the Archaeological Museum – but rocks which get more and more interesting, and fantastically cryptic, as though from another universe. Spiral designs give way to an army of generously proportioned female fertility figures, many of which were recovered from Ggantija.

A small model of Ggantija and subsequent display boards educate me prior to my intended visit tomorrow. I take the opportunity to gasp at some more recent artifacts from the 19th century, including some unnecessarily dazzling storage chests, vases and jewellery.

Fierce winds make it difficult to take in views aboard the ferry to Gozo. The journey only takes half an hour, and thankfully the winds die down as the ferry arrives. A couple of long and winding bus journeys later, offering views of the endless, unspoilt Gozo countryside, I am prompted by the driver that this is where I should get off for Ggantija.

A tall fence, and a small temporary hut marks the spot for the entrance. Followed by a curious dog, I duck inside and pay my entrance fee for one of the oldest structures in the world.

Roughly covering about the same area as Stonehenge in England, Ggantija seems about as integrated with the earth as physically possible for a structure – but is by no means simply a pile of rocks.

The complex is divided into two separate ‘temples’, surrounded with a very large exterior wall. Each temple is divided into two expansive, circular areas - a sort of clover-leaf layout repeated in other Maltese temples. As I approach the entrance, I am first fascinated by the extraordinary location, and subsequently stunning view, claimed by the site. Positioned on the edge of the Xaghra plateau, it’s clear to me that Ggantija was a place of extreme importance, most likely adopting a god-like status. Perhaps it was the importance of those who lived here that mattered, or importance of the structure itself; this is still a mystery.

On passing through the ancient entrance, the rock appears almost volcanic, with some rocks almost resembling underwater coral, riddled with golf ball sized impressions. The interior has a few tiny pieces of an ancient ‘plaster’ remaining, meaning that the rough inside wall was once relatively smooth.

Progressing further I am enthralled by the sight of ‘historic’ graffiti, the likes of which I have never seen before. In its early days, shortly after ‘discovery’ in 1827, the site was offered little protection, up until the latter half of the 20th century. The site had always been known to locals, but it wasnt until Col. John Otto Bayer, the Lieutenant Governor of Gozo, orchestrated the exposure and clearance of the site back then that visitors began to take an interest – some taking a little too much interest and deciding to etch their own quite permanant artistic mark into the rocks.

These are a little more thoughtful than a contemporary ‘I woz ‘ere’, but would have been on the equivalent scale of desecration in the 19th century. Most appear to be very patriotic, and perhaps a gesture of pride, but something well protected against today, with barrier lined walkways and omnipresent CCTV warning signs.

Further inside the temples, the presence of circular holes in the wall, and a pre-historic alter are still open to interpretation. Some believe that the whole site was dedicated to fertility, and thus fertility based rituals were likely, perhaps involving sacrifices taking place on the alter. The circular windows may have simply been that – a viewing portal to perhaps keep a protective eye over the occurances inside. The temples are theorised to have once been covered with a wood based ceiling, so the windows make sense as security measures. I am intrigued at how perfect the circle is relative to the tools that would have available at the time; Ggantija pre-dates metal based materials.

The most fascinating part of the temple is a series of rectangular recesses at the back. Perhaps these were for storage, or some other mysterious purpose. One thing is for sure: this place was meant to last a very long time, and it has.

I walk around the permimeter of the temples and admire the megalithic exterior wall. Ancient Maltese once beleived that the temple was built by giants, and it’s clear to see how this belief emerged. Archaeological excavations across Malta uncovered large ball-bearing like rocks theorised to have been used to move such large rocks for construction, examples of which I had seen at the Museum.

It might strike some as an immense shame that the whole structure is surrounded, and supported by extensive scaffolding, but there is comfort in this that UNESCO, the committee responsible for designating and maintaining ‘World Heritage Sites’, has been protecting the site since 1980.

I leave Ggantija feeling both mystified and enthralled. Such ancient history really is a world away, with only the ancient architecture and artifacts to speak for a time pre-dating the Pyramids of Egypt.

The medieval, wall enclosed town of Mdina is next on my list. Despite feeling relatively ‘modern’ compared to Ggantija, it lives up to its local name of ‘The Silent City’ – it takes just a few steps , and a few narrow alleyways away from the trot of horses hooves to find myself in a tranquil, flower draped corner.

The views from Mdina also do not disappoint; perhaps it’s creators took a leaf from Ggantija’s book in situating it on a prime spot, topping a spectacular plateau.

It seems that thankfully in Malta, such mysterious, enigmatic places like this, and Ggantija, remain immune from the changing face of Malta’s identity. Shopping malls may rise, hotels may fall, but Malta’s ghostly megalithic heritage will last forever.

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