Malta’s sister island of Gozo, just a speck in the Mediterranean at a mere 9.5 miles long by four wide, lays claim to a pretty big boast in the annals of archaeology. It's home to Ggantija, the oldest free-standing structure in the world, built in 3600 B.C., pre-dating the pyramids by nearly 1,000 years.
The largest megalithic complex in the Maltese islands, Ggantija stands on the southeast slope of Xagħra hill, overlooking Ramla valley, southern Gozo, and beyond to Malta, five miles away. The site is composed of two temples spanning more than 120 feet, and enclosed by a single huge outer wall, which reaches almost twenty feet in height. The gigantic dimensions of the megaliths used to build the temples fired local legend that the structures were built by giants, thus, the name they still enjoy today.
"We believe the site of this temple was considered a significant place for this civilization for easily 1,000 years before the Ggantija monument was built,” archaeologist Reuben Grima told me. “At one point, it became important to the people to monumentalize the location, which is an expression of their culture and values developing. Creating structures such as Ggantija indicate that how the society was organizing itself changed dramatically. As an agricultural society is established, the people are more invested in a place than they would have been as hunters. That shift in sustenance creates a very different sense of place, and perhaps the beginning of a local identity."
As I made my way around Gozo (with Malta and Comino, the three inhabited islands of the archipelago’s seven) I savored each instant. The isle’s brilliant colors and odd geometry, both natural and man-made, kept me fully absorbed in the here and now. The names of the places I visited had a Lear-like lyrical quality: Xwejni, Calypso’s Cave, and Ggantija.
Moments off the 20-minute ferry from Malta, my companions and I rolled along a dirt road through someone’s farm. We plowed through a field ablaze in shades of gold, with wild fennel, cape sorrel, marigolds, and mimosas all waving their yellow blooms.
Rattling down the steep side of a glacial gash in the earth, I saw the remains of a Roman aqueduct far below, cushioned by velvety green foliage. The end of the road was a turquoise slit of Mediterranean in the cliff face, in which a lone boat was anchored, with a single swimmer slicing through the water.
Gozo’s fiord-like ravines are but one of the landscape’s distinctive geological features. Others include a dramatic, massive natural arch, known as the Azure Window, an “inland sea’’ that is connected to the Mediterranean by a natural passage, and a vast network of caves. John Schembri, head of geography at the University of Malta, later told me that these are the result of Gozo’s unique ground surface, a combination of limestone above blue clay, riddled with fault lines, and the effects of erosion.
The Azure Window is a monument to the forces of nature and time. The rock arch reaches more than 150 feet high. Each of its two supporting columns is a hefty 120 feet wide, mounted by a 300-foot ledge. Its “window’’ is almost the size of a football field.
Traversing winding roads in quest of Bronze Age relics, we found ourselves at the crossroads of Ta Cenc. A sign pointed ahead to “Dolmens,” under which was noted “Private Property.” I was reminded of the Wizard of Oz’s scarecrow at the fork in the Yellow Brick Road, his arms crossed and simultaneously pointing Dorothy in opposite directions. After only modest debate, we decided the dolmens wouldn’t be advertised if there wasn’t an invitation to take a look, albeit with respect.
We slowly lurched forward on a rutted road, with farmland on our right, and a rocky field to our left, our eyes scanning for large stones that appeared to be strategically placed, versus scattered by nature. Suddenly I saw the iconic structure of two upright stones, and one across the top of them. I cried out, the car was shifted into park and we jumped out, leaving the doors wide open as we made our way toward the dolmens.
We crossed an expanse of pockmarked stone from which succulent plants sprouted, stepping carefully to avoid trampling tiny flowers. Reaching the standing stones, we enjoyed the north-facing view from their perch on the high plateau. On the other side of a vast valley was another hill, capped with another larger stone structure in golden hues.
“Dolmens indicate a burial site, often placed cliff-side to provide a view and place of prominence,” Clive Cortis, of Malta’s Museum of Archaeology later told me. “These monuments, like others on the Maltese islands, date back to the period from 2500 B.C. – 800 B. C. The dead were cremated, and the ash put in urns that were placed in the 'window' of the dolmen.”
Continuing our time travel, we next fast-forwarded almost another thousand years, arriving at the honey-colored hilltop monument we had seen from afar while at Ta Cenc. The Citadella is Gozo’s old capital, its defensive location fortified further with massive bastions. On the exterior wall of the Citadel is a Latin inscription dated “Roman Emperor AD 138 – 161,” which translated reads:
“The people of Gozo (set up this inscription by Public Subscription) in honor of Marcus Allius Rufus of the Quirine Tribe, Son of Caius, for his merits on being raised to the rank of Knight by the Divine Antonius Pius Augustus and thereby also honoring his father, Caius Vallius Postumus, Patron of the Municipium.”
“Excavations inside and around the citadel have yielded various remains from different cultures, like the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Medieval and 17th century Knights of St. John,” said Cortis. “After the 1551 attack by the Turks on the island, in which almost the entire population was taken into slavery, the Knights refortified the city with new bastions. From then until the 17th century, a law stated that nobody could sleep outside the city walls.”
While that meant as many as 5,000 once slumbered inside the Citadel’s gates, residents today number far fewer. In fact, I wasn’t sure if there were any residents at all calling this hilltop home when wandering its narrow, maze-like medieval alleys. Profusions of golden flowers spilled from the crumbling facades of fallen buildings, and ancient doors had keys visible in the locks.
George Refalo, a resident of nearby Rabat, said there are 11 people who still live at the Citadel—among them the “court attendant,” who is mandated to live in close proximity, should the need arise to open the Court in an emergency. Such a need today is admittedly few and far between, but the tradition persists. Refalo noted the attendant is also responsible for the timing of the citadel’s clock, which chimes every quarter of an hour. Because it is weight-driven, it needs human intervention on a daily basis.
“One of the local habits is that the Gozitans leave the keys in the main door lock,” explained Cortis. “This shows how safe our islands are, one can just turn the key and walk in, but there's another 'romantic legend' aspect. Throughout the centuries, Gozo was attacked by pirates and husbands were taken into slavery. Wives kept the key in the lock so if their husbands succeed in escaping from the pirates they could just walk into their house any day at any time, thus showing how faithful they are!”
“The keys in the door is a symbol of the peace of mind that in the old times residents used to have due to the close relationships amongst neighbors and extended families living in the vicinity,” said Refalo. “But the tradition also comes from the fact that in the old times, keys not only used to be very big and bulky but very heavy too—and not easily replicated.”
Winding our way north along Gozo’s coastline we turned a corner and collectively drew in our breath at an eerily beautiful sight. Amid mounds of perfectly sculpted sand on the sea’s edge was what appeared to be another window of sorts. Lying side by side and row by row were liquid panes of a glass-like surface, disjointedly mirroring the clouds above.
We were witnessing a Xwejni Bay tradition. On a two-acre stretch of shore outside the tiny resort town of Marsalforn, there are about 300 salt pans, from which eight families harvest the mineral from the sea.
Josephine Xuereb’s family owns just shy of an acre of salt pans, which she says were dug about 160 years ago by her mother’s family.
“My father, who is more than 60 years old, tends the salt pans lovingly and with great dedication. The whole family is involved, and although it’s very hard and laborious work, it gives us great satisfaction,’’ Xuereb said. “The salt process is done only in summer, from May until September.
“Our salt is mainly distributed in supermarkets, green grocers, and vegetable vendors,’’ she said. “But we have other customers who come directly to us, especially those preserving capers, local olives, and for cottage cheese. It’s perfectly ideal for cooking as it dissolves quickly and leaves the perfect taste.’’
Emmanuel Cini, Xuereb’s father, is also known as Leli tal-melh, Leli for short. “Melh’’ means “salt’’ in Maltese.
“Every morning I am eager to go down to the salt pans,’’ Cini said. “As soon as I start down the steep road and get a glimpse of them from the top of the cliff, I am fulfilled. At sunrise, the pans compare with a piece of woven lace, particularly when the first salt crystals start to appear.
“During the harvest season I am always attentive for the weather forecast,’’ he continued. “Throughout 40 years in this trade, I learned from my mistakes. As soon as it is ready to be collected, I make sure to sweep it. There have been occasions when the white crystal salt is collected in a large heap and the wind suddenly changes from the south, bringing dust and sand. That white heap is changed to yellow as it’s covered with a layer of dust - too much work in vain.’’
Futility, in fact, was at the very heart of lore surrounding our next visit, around the corner from Xwejni and up a steep hill atop Ramla Bay, to Calypso’s Cave. According to legend and quite a few scholars, this was the abode of Homer’s nymph, where she held Odysseus captive for seven years. Ultimately, despite the magnificent setting and all her magic powers, Calypso could not change the fact Odysseus wanted to go home, a reminder that one’s will and desire can’t change destiny.
Ramla Bay, one of the few sandy beaches on the rocky Maltese islands, and a hodge-podge of history and lore. Making our descent to its shores, we paused for what no doubt was an eons-old procession—a shepherd and his dogs herding a couple dozen goats and sheep. Grazing seems too delicate a word for the feeding frenzy that took place.
“Ramla’s archaeological remains range from the Roman to the Knights’ periods,” said George Azzopardi of Heritage Malta. “On the Xagħra side, the remains of a villa of the Roman Imperial period were unearthed. From high places overlooking the bay, one can still see the substantial remains of an early 18th century underwater wall, built by the Knights to hinder enemy approach.”
And high above the red sands of Ramla Bay is where perhaps Gozo’s first tourist had an extended stay. Legend and certain scholars have it that Homer’s hero Odysseus was held captive here for seven years in a cliff top cave by the nymph Calypso. Despite Calypso’s offer of eternal youth and Gozo’s gorgeous scenery, no lock was big enough to keep Odysseus from his homeland, and his own faithful wife Penelope.
George Azzopardi of Heritage Malta says Gozo’s caves have been a boon to archeologists. The cave at Ghajn Abdul in the western part of the island yielded the earliest evidence of human presence in Gozo: pottery shards dating to 5000 BC. Other nearby caves also show evidence of human occupation and some are said to have been inhabited as late as the 1950s.
The shelter of caves may have been a deciding factor in the location of one of Gozo’s most significant claims to fame, the Ggantija temples, believed by many to be the world’s oldest freestanding structures. The temples, which are set on a hill overlooking verdant Ramla Valley, date to 3600 BC, nearly a millennium before the pyramids.
“It was fundamental for the prehistoric community here to build their temples in areas abundant in caves, which could be easily turned into dwelling places,’’ said Azzopardi. “In fact, the village of Xaghra, where the Ggantija Temples are found, contains perhaps the largest concentration of natural caves on the island of Gozo.’’
While archaeologists can comfortably deduce why the site was chosen, explanations of how the temples were erected have proven less facile. Ggantija’s name is inspired by long-held local legend that only giants could have moved the megalithic boulders with which they are built. No consensus any more definitive has been reached.