So you think you're getting older? Try this virtual tour of Malta

24 April 2016 ( 13 September 2016 )

Next time you have a birthday it’s worth remembering that when it comes to archaeology, ‘older’ is definitely better!

Digging into the past reveals fascinating information about societies, their cultures and beliefs. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an archaeologist yourself to appreciate what it has to tell us. Still not convinced? Then why not try this ‘virtual’ archaeology holiday in Malta, which might just change your mind…

Your virtual holiday

Fasten your seat belt as you get ready to land on the Mediterranean island of Malta, keeping an eye out for the baroque city of Valletta with its majestic Grand Harbour. Because our holiday is virtual we can do what we want, so let’s make a start exploring some of Malta’s archaeological sites.

We’ll start with the oldest site at Ghar Dalam Cave, whose human occupation dates to around 5200 BC (now that’s old!). Although only the first 150 feet or so of the cave is open to the public, it extends to some 500 feet in total. 

The deepest levels have yielded 500,000 year-old fossils of mammals including the dwarf elephant, while the top layer, a mere 10,000 years old or less, is where evidence of man’s occupation has been found. The associated museum has an interesting collection of artefacts and fossils. Not impressed? 

Then perhaps we need to move forward around 1,500 years when caves were going out of fashion.

Related: Malta: a home from home.

Prehistoric or simply amazing?

To the southwest of the island lie the Temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, two of seven Megalithic temples on Malta, all UNESCO World Heritage sites

Whether it’s just a pile of old stones or a key to the past depends on your viewpoint, but before you decide we’ll go in and investigate, starting with Hagar Qim. 

Look around – this isolated stone-built temple on a cliff-top overlooking the sea is among the world’s earliest free-standing stone-built ritual buildings – as old as Stonehenge and older than the Pyramids. 

Stroll through the connecting chambers, taking in the pedestal altars as you explore what is regarded as a Neolithic architectural masterpiece, where echoes of the past tell of an extraordinary prehistoric society. 

Just 500 metres away lies Mnajdra, a complex of three temples, its south temple marking the position of sunrise on the first day of the Equinoxes and Solstices. Not bad for people we call prehistoric.

Classical history

Let’s edge forward in time and head over to Tas-Silg, whose ruins span the period from around 3,000BC to the 5th century. There’s a megalithic temple – ok, you’ve already seen some of those – but what about the Bronze Age village that is once thought to have surrounded it? 

Punic and Roman temples once graced this site where 3,500 years of history are at your disposal. If your classics knowledge is a little rusty or – like me – non-existent, then discovering that Punic is actually another term for Carthaginian raises some interesting questions. 

Who were they, why did they build temples here? In a nutshell, the Carthaginians’ ancestors were the Phoenicians who settled in Malta from around 750BC. They founded the city of Carthage (in Tunisia) and from there came the Carthaginians who in turn dominated Malta for some 250 years. 

In the Punic War of 218BC they were displaced by the Romans. Put all this together and you have a picture of Malta’s human heritage, accessible through the remains of the buildings and artefacts these enigmatic peoples left behind.

Related: Discover Malta's historic sites.

What did the Romans ever do for Malta?

Malta prospered under the Romans and remained part of their empire until the 6th century AD. Climb aboard our virtual coach as we head for the town of Rabat to the west of the island. 

It’s home to the Roman ‘Domus’ Museum, built over the remains of a 1st-century BC Roman town house. 

Take a long look at the superb mosaic pavements on display – masterpieces of mosaic art – then browse the collections including pottery, perfume bottles, carnival masks and coins – we’re not in any hurry.

At roughly the same time the Domus was being built, St Paul was shipwrecked on the Maltese coast and is said to have taken refuge in a cave (St Paul’s Grotto in Rabat).

 It’s time to get your torch out as we follow the Roman trail into the catacombs of St Paul and St Agatha, a labyrinthine underground world where the Roman departed reposed; later frescoes adorn some of the walls and, in St Agatha’s, an Agape Table still stands where relatives could take a farewell meal.

A virtual tour spanning 7,000 years

Back in the sunlight it’s time to embrace a bit of modern technology and join The Malta Experience. 

This audio-visual show sits within the original 16th Infirmary of the Knights of St John, the builders of the famous city of Valletta, and will take you on a virtual whirlwind tour spanning 7,000 years of Malta’s history, just in case you’ve missed something so far.

Two fascinating cities

Our virtual holiday is drawing to a close, but we can’t leave without visiting Malta’s two cities: Mdina – ‘the silent city’, and Valletta – ‘a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen’.

 Where would you like to start? Valletta? That’s a good choice because if you love standing buildings, then this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the place for you. 

Built by the Knights of St John after the Great Siege of 1565, this fortress city has a host of highlights, including the Grand Masters Palace, St John’s Co-Cathedral, St Elmo Fort and main museums and gardens.

Don’t forget to pop into the National Museum of Archaeology too. Housed in the 16th-century Auberge de Provence, one of the original inns of residence of the Hospitaller Knights of St John, explore the collections of pottery, stone tools, statuettes and personal ornaments and learn about the excavation and interpretation of the Maltese temples.

The sun is shining and we just have time to visit the city of Mdina, the island’s old capital. You’ll feel you’re in another world as you wander this walled city that has stood in one form or another for some 4,000 years. 

Soak up its medieval and baroque heritage, the elegant palaces and narrow, winding streets as you enjoy a relaxing last few hours wandering through the ‘Silent City’ before it’s time to go. 

It’s such a shame there wasn’t time to take the ferry to the island of Gozo to see some of its outstanding archaeological sites including the neo-Romanesque church of Ta’Pinu at Dwejra and the magnificent 5,000 year old Ggantija temple remains in Xaghra. 

Then of course there’s the 17th century baroque cathedral… Fortunately, if you were on a real holiday, you would be able to travel there!

Related: Places to visit in Gozo.

Time for the real thing?

If you’ve enjoyed this virtual tour, why not join us for the real thing? Saga's special interest archaeology holiday ‘Malta’s Ancient Legacies’, visits all the places mentioned – including Gozo! 

There’s an expert archaeology host and three archaeology talks to fuel your interest and enthusiasm, plus an all inclusive stay at the Salini Resort, so everything’s taken care of.

Related: Discover Malta's Ancient Legacies with Saga.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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