The Island of Ancient Temples — Megalithic Malta …

The Island of Ancient Temples — Megalithic Malta …

From a geological standpoint, the Maltese archipelago is a handful of limestone, clay and fossil coral outcrops separated from the Sicilian coastline by a mere 80 kilometers (50 miles) of open sea. But its highly strategic geographical location for ships sailing the Mediterranean placed it at the crossroad of Mediterranean cultures since the dawn of history.

Malta has the highest density of Neolithic sites in the Mediterranean basin.

Among the many mysteries that surround the Megalithic past of these tiny islands, several revolve around the origins of their first settlers. This opaque prehistoric past has left behind the highest density of archeological sites in the region, testament to a tradition of ancient architecture that is unique to this part of the world. Archaeologists have discovered over twenty temples on Malta. While many are not open to visitors, six of them, classified by UNESCO as part of the ‘Megalithic Temples of Malta’ World Heritage Site, are.

The National Museum of Archeology

The Auberge de Provence is home to the National Museum of Archeology.

A good place to begin a journey of discovery into Malta’s enigmatic past is the National Museum of Archaeology. Housed at the Auberge de Provence, the grand historic  mansion built by the Knights of Saint John in the heart of Valletta, it is where Malta’s most striking archeological discoveries are displayed. Each section illustrates one of the successive prehistoric civilizations that settled on the islands, starting with remarkably advanced Neolithic stone tools dating back to 5200 BC and an amazing prehistoric architectural maquette of the Ta’ Hagrat temple (3600-3200 BC). 

The Sleeping Lady is one of the most prized treasures of the museum.

More impressive still are the beautiful prehistoric figurines of The Sleeping Lady (circa 3300-3000 BC) found at the Hypogeum, the fat deities believed to be symbols of fertility sculptures of Hagar Qim (circa 3600-3200 BC), and the elegant stone friezes from the Tarxien Temples (3000-2500 BC). By providing a comprehensive introduction to the prehistory of the Maltese islands, the museum is a catalyst for the exploration of its rich archaeological sites.

 

The Caves to Temples Enigma

Ghar Dalam ware is the oldest known in the Maltese islands.

While we still know very little about the early phases of life on Malta, there is strong evidence that the first Stone Age farmers arrived on its shores around 5200 BC and made their home in caves. The most important find to date is Ghar Dalam, a 144-meter (500-foot) tunnel and cave, located on the outskirts of the southern seaside town of Birżebbuġa. The household potteries vessels, flint and obsidian remains found here point to the settlers connections to Sicily and the Aeolian Islands.

The architectural design of the Tarxien Temples is unique in the region.

Then, the early part of the following millennium shows the emergence of a particularly enigmatic period now known as the Temples Period (or Tarxien Phase – 3600 to 2500 BC). This was a time, some 1000 years before the construction of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, when the people of Malta used megaliths weighing up to 50 tonnes to create elaborate buildings that appear to be oriented in relation to the winter solstice sunrise. These Megalithic temples are the oldest surviving free-standing structures in the world. Furthermore, neither their architectural design nor the sculptures found in them bear any similarity to those of any other Mediterranean cultures.

The Tarxien Temples

The two most notable temples of the Tarxien Phase are Hagar Qim and Tarxien.

The facade and trilithon entrance of Hagar Qim.

Hagar Qim — The site occupies a commanding position on a rocky plateau overlooking the sea  on the southwestern coast of the island. Behind a facade of  monumental boulders pierced by a striking trilithon entrance (made of two standing stones supporting third one – from the Greek ‘three stones’), the complex consists of a number of horseshoe-shaped chambers arranged around a central space. Many of these chambers may be accessed only through porthole doorways cut through a single megalith. The central court and surrounding chambers contain beautifully carved  pillars and mushroom shaped altars. 

Thes large broad-hipped female figures are believed to be fertility symbols.

Rolling stones were used to transport boulders to temple sites.

Tarxien — Located in the outskirts the present day town of Paola on the south side of the grand Harbour, the sprawling complex at Tarxien comprises four distinct buildings, the last of which were completed at a time where the age of temple building was coming to a close, sometimes around the mid-third  millennium BC. The four linked structures, built of massive stone blocks up to three meters by one meter by one meter in size are decorated with remarkably sophisticated spiral patterns and animal reliefs. A special interest of the site is that it provides a rare insight into how the megalithic structures were constructed: stone rollers used to transport the boulders were found outside of one of the buildings.

Large statues of a broad-hipped female figures were found in both places, with copies remaining in situ, while the original figures can now be seen at the National Museum of Archeology. Excavations of both sites revealed that they were used for rituals, which likely involved animal sacrifice.

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

Middle-level chambers of the Hypogeum

A short walk from the Tarxien Temples into the center of Paoli, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is the best preserved example of the Maltese temple-building culture and the star attraction of the islands’ Megalithic sites. 

The Hypogeum (from the Greek ‘underground’) is a subterranean sanctuary and necropolis meticulously carved out of the rock to simulate masonry construction. It is a world of interconnected halls, chambers and passages superimposed over three levels, with the burial chambers of the upper level dating from the early phases of the Maltese Temple Period, while lower chambers were created in later periods. Based on pottery sample analysis and examination human remains, the site is believed to have first been used as early as 4000 BC and continued to be until around 2500 BC. 

Ochre ceiling painting in the middle chambers of the Hypogeum.

Overall, the remains of some 7,000 individuals were documented by archeologists. A broad range of objects recovered from the site include intricately decorated pottery vessels, stone and clay beads, shell buttons, amulets, axe-heads, and carved figures depicting humans and animals. The most notable discovery is the Sleeping Lady, a clay figure thought to represent a mother goddess. Other figures range from abstract to realistic in style, with major themes thought to be related to veneration of the dead.

To ensure the preservation of the site, access to the Hypogeum is limited to 80 visitors per day, admitted in hourly pre-booked guided groups of ten. Tickets must be reserved well ahead for a specific day and time, but the visit of this intriguing and remarkably preserved site is well worth the advance planning.

Tarxien Temple carved staela.

Good to Know

Visiting — At the time of this writing, due to the Covid 19 pandemic social distancing requirements, visit times and regulation are subject to frequent changes. Check with the sites websites for updates. 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Valletta

A Languedoc Road Trip – Béziers to Adge

A Languedoc Road Trip – Béziers to Adge

A majestic Romanesque cathedral perched on a bluff, high above the long stretch of arches of a medieval bridge spanning a tranquil river – this is what most visitors to southwestern France are likely to remember of Beziers. This low-keyed town of 75,000, located just a few kilometers inland from the Mediterranean shore rarely rates more than a passing glance from tourists. Yet, founded in 36 BC as a Roman colony, Beziers quickly developed into an important staging post and trading center along the Via Domitia, the major trade route which traversed the coastal plain of Languedoc on its way from Rome to southern Spain.

From Roman Colony to Cathar Stronghold

Little remains of the original Roman amphitheater.

Unfortunately, with most of the stones from its early amphitheater repurposed as early as the 3rd century AD to construct the city walls, architectural remains of the Roman era are scarce. Nonetheless, an extensive collection of Roman artefacts discovered locally, including statuary, inscribed stones, glassware and amphorae can be seen at the Musée du Bitterois. The museum also traces the history of the city from the middle ages to contemporary times. However, the best way to explore the history of Beziers is to take a couple of hours to wander the cobbled streets of the old town.

The St. Nazaire Cathedral has retained its Romanesque facade.

Perched high above the river Orb in the heart of the medieval town, the St. Nazaire Cathedral is the foremost site of Beziers, both for its panoramic view of the plain below and for the tragic history steeped within its ancient stones. The grand Romanesque cathedral built in the 10th century was badly damaged and its interior completely destroyed in 1209 during the infamous seizure of the city by Catholic crusaders at the behest of Pope Innocent III.

Bezier-Cathedral St Nazaire

The cathedral’s interior was rebuilt iin Gothic style.

At that time, Béziers was a major stronghold of Catharism, a breakaway movement that opposed the entire structure of the Roman Catholic Church and the corruption of the clergy. This alternative, more ascetic Christian religion had become widespread in southwestern France, then under the control of local princes. Unsurprisingly, the Pope called for a crusade to eliminate the Cathars – with the tacit understanding of the French King Phillipe II. On July 21, 1209, an army consisting of knights (mainly from northern France) with their retinue and mercenaries overran the fortified city where some twenty thousand men, women and children, local Catholics and Cathars alike, had taken refuge. The Crusaders indiscriminately slaughtered the population and ransacked the city before setting the cathedral set ablaze.

A Gothic rose window was added at the far end of the nave.

Although most of the exterior walls remained, the interior was entirely destroyed except for the chancel with its Romanesque carved capitals. Repairs began on the remains of the building in 1215 and continued until the 15th century, giving the interior a Gothic appearance, including a 10-meter (33 foot) rose window at the far end of the nave. A few notable frescoes of the same period remain, protected for posterity by having been whitewashed after the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century.

A Mural Chronicle

A mural memorializes the Vintners Revolt of 1907.

More recently, following the lead of Lyon and other French cities, Beziers has turned 14 of its blank walls into building-size murals that chronicle major milestones of its history. Most notable is the Vintners Revolt of 1907, ignited when government regulators allowed the import of low quality (and low-priced) wines from North Africa, driving local growers into penury. The National Assembly sent a military force to suppress the rebellion. But confronted by over 160 000 protesters, this time the solders refused to draw their weapons on the crowd. Thus prompting law-makers to reverse their import decision.  Another mural memorializes a local engineer, Jean Marie Cordier, who in 1827 developed a steam device to pump water from the River Orb to supply the residents of the old town.

A Masterpiece of 17th Century Engineering

The terraced concourse offers panoramic views of the countryside and the Fonseranes Locks.

At the side of the cathedral, a terraced concourse offers magnificent views that include the 13th century Pont-Vieux (Old Bridge), and the amazing 17th century engineering masterpiece of the Écluses de Fonseranes (Fonseranes Locks), a flight of 9 staircase locks marking the eastern end of the Canal du Midi. The 240 kilometer (150 mile) long canal connects the Garonne to the West – and from there city of Bordeaux and the Atlantic Ocean – to the Etang de Thau on the Mediterranean. Although many elements have since been updated, the canal as a whole is considered one of the greatest construction works of its era, and is still in use today.

Underwater Treasures

The late Hellenistic bronze Ephèbe is believe to be Alexander the Great.

It’s midday by the time we leave Beziers and its tumultuous past for Cap d’Adge, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) east on the Mediterranean shore.  Once a settlement at the mouth of the river Hérault, originally founded by the Phoenicians in the 6th century BC, the area is little more than an over-built resort destination today, with one striking exception: it is home to the only underwater archeological museum in France. Open in 1987, the museum consists of a series of modern galleries surrounding a traditional farm house overlooking the harbor. Its collection is a treasure-trove of pieces recovered from the millennia of shipwrecks that clutter the seabed, including a number of important antique bronzes statues.

Ultimately, the museum owes it very existence to one single piece now known as l’Ephèbe d’Adge, a late Hellenistic period bronze of a young man, believed to be Alexander the Great. Recovered in 1964 from in the alluvial sands at the mouth of the Herault, it is the only work of its kind ever found in French waters. It was joined in 2001 by two Early Imperial Roman bronzes, of a royal child and of Eros. From the details of his attire – royal mantle, scepter and jewelry, the child is thought to be one of Cleopatra’s sons, either Caesarion (son of Julius Ceasar) or Ptolemy (son of Mark Anthony).

The collection includes a number of remarkable bronze household objects, from the 1st and 2nd centuries BC.

In addition to other remarkable Hellenic and Roman bronzes objects, the museum also hosts antique marine transport amphorae and household goods, as well a number to cannons and other weapons of the French Royal Navy spanning several centuries. Overall, the rich underwater discoveries of the past 50 years reflect the commercial history of the area through the centuries, and make the Ephèbe Museum well worth a stop in Adge.

From here we continue 150 kilometers (90 miles)  down  the coastal branch of the Via Domitia to Collioure, another Phoenician settlement turned fishing village and 17th century military fortress. The town, however owes its contemporary fame to Fauvist painters Henri Matisse and André Derain. Although the small historic town and waterfront make are exceptionally picturesque, we found the mapped walk through the old town, punctuated by reproductions of the famous Fauvist works, right on the spot where they were painted to be a highpoint of our visit.

The museum hosts a large collection of marine transport amphorae recovered from ancient shipwrecks.

 

Good to Know

Visiting –Musee du Bitterois, Caserne Saint-Jacques – Rampe du 96° Régiment d’Infanterie, 34500 Béziers. Opening hours vary throughout the week/year. For latest informations, contact: e-mail, or tel: +33 (0) 4 67 36 81 61. Musée de l’Ephèbe, Mas de la Clape, 34300 Le Cap d’Adge. Open from January through June, Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm and weekends from 9:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. July and August, open every day from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact:  e-mail, tel: +33 (0)4 67 94 69 60.

 

Location, location, location!

Beziers

Adge

A Languedoc Road Trip – Nîmes, France

A Languedoc Road Trip – Nîmes, France

To most would-be travelers, the mere mention of “the South of France” conjures up images of Provence with its much photographed back-country hilltop villages, lavender fields and colorful weekly markets. Then there are the sundrenched beaches of the Côte d’Azur (a.k.a. French Riviera) that reach all the way to the Italian border. But this wildly popular, traffic-clogged southeastern corner the country is only half of the South of France story. West of the Rhone Valley, from Nîmes to the Spanish border, the ancient province of  Languedoc  with its rugged landscapes dotted with prehistoric sites, Romanesque abbeys and medieval villages beckons to an exciting road trip back in time.

Follow the Via Domitia

The Roman Tour Magne (Great Tower) is built on the site of an earlier Celtic lookout.

Some 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland from the western Mediterranean coast, the modern A-9 highway follows the route the ancient Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul, to link Rome to Hispania. Actually, by the time proconsul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus came around to pave it and give it his name, the road was already ancient. Old enough that it may have been followed by Hannibal and his famous elephants on their way to the Alps in 218 B.C..

The Amphitheater in now a venue for bullfights.

While the legendary Carthaginian conqueror left no concrete signs of his passage, the Roman left us spectacular proofs of theirs. Starting with Nîmes, often hailed as the most Roman city outside of Italy for its spectacular and remarkably well preserved monuments dating back to the Roman Empire. Although the hill that overlooks the city had been the site of the Celtic settlement of Nemausus since the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., it didn’t develop into Nîmes until it became a Roman colony sometimes around 28 B.C., and Augustus made it a regional capital. Before long the city was home to some 50,000 people and the usual Roman construction boom was underway.

The Amphitheater

The vast interior passages of the Amphitheater are designed to accommodate crowds of spectators.

Built in the latter part of the 1st century A.D. the Nîmes Amphitheater is a remarkable example of the level of sophistication achieved by Roman engineers in the design and construction of this type of complex monumental buildings. Started shortly after the colossal Rome Coliseum, the Amphitheater is a perfectly symmetrical oval with a footprint of 133 meters (436 feet) by 101 meters (331 feet) and an exterior height of 21 meters (69 feet). The façade consists of two levels of 60 superimposed arches topped by a cornice. In Roman times, it could hold 24,000 spectators spread over 34 rows of terraces divided into four separate areas. Each was accessed via a web of short stairwells and passages designed leading to a main gallery. This alleviated the risk of bottlenecks as the crowds flowed in and out. While massive, this amphitheater is far from the largest of the ones that remain of the Roman world, but it is the best preserved of them all.

For several decades now, following extensive restorations, the venue is once again used for musical events as well as bullfights.

La Maison Carrée

The colonnade of La Maison Carrée borders the vestibule.

A few minutes’ walk from the Amphitheater, the Maison Carrée (Square House) was built between 20 and 12 B.C. Dedicated to Caius and Lucius Caesar, the heirs of Emperor Augustus, its architecture and decoration were inspired by the temple of Apollo and Mars Ultor in Rome. At the time, it dominated the Forum (the administrative and economic heart of the city). The facade is surrounded by Corinthian columns, six in the front and eleven on each side. Inside, the sanctuary would have housed the divinities – in this case Augustus and heirs.

Over the centuries, the building remained in use, serving successively as consular house, ecclesiastic residence, stable, seat of the departmental statehouse and finally the local archive before it was painstakingly restored in 2006-2008. Today its small interior includes a projection room continuously showing a film tracing the evolution of Nîmes from Celtic settlement to Roman city.

Le Jardin de la Fontaine

A formal 18th century French garden sits on the site of an ancient sacred spring.

The Temple of Diana is believed  to have once been a library.

One of the first public parks in Europe, the Jardin de la Fontaine was created in the mid-18th century in the classical French style of the time, at the site of an ancient sacred spring honoring Nimes the Celtic goddess Nemausus. The work carried out to dig the vast pond and construct the monumental stairway uncovered vestiges of a Roman temple devoted to Augustus, with a whole ensemble including baths and a theatre.

Set in the far left corner against a densely wooded backdrop, the garden also holds the remains of a gracefully vaulted Roman edifice known as the Temple of Diana, although nothing indicates that it was ever a temple, nor that it was dedicated to Diana. Rather, while its purpose remains unclear, it is supposed it may have been a library.

The upper part of the garden is dominated by the Tour Magne (or Great Tower). Standing at the highest point in the city, it is the only remnant of the ancient Augustan fortifications. It is a steep climb up the hill, but the reward is a superb view over the city and surrounding countryside.

 

Le Musée de la Romanité

After holding  pride of place in the city for two millennia, the Amphitheater must now share the limelight with its new neighbor, the spectacular recentely opened Musée de la Romanité

The rear of the Musée de la Romanité opens onto a vast  archeological garden.

Designed by Franco-Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc and inaugurated in June 2018, this new Museum of Roman Times bridges the past and the present with its ultra modern design and expansive green spaces. Within its rippling façade made of nearly 7000 shimmering glass tiles intended to evoke the folds of a Roman toga, visitors are immersed into the 25 centuries of history of the city. Of the museum’s rich archeological collection of some 25,000 artefacts, the curators have selected 5,000 pieces to be displayed in their own context for the current “permanent” exhibit, which includes a domus (Roman home), and two exceptionally well preserved room-size mosaics, known as Achilles and Penthus, They were discovered during nearby excavations in 2006-2007, their discovery becoming a major motivating factor in the creation of the museum.

The archeological garden at the rear of the museum is structured in three strata corresponding to the major periods of Nimes: Gallic, Roman and Medieval.

The Roman home features a display of household pottery unhearthed during local excavations.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Nîmes is located approximately 725 kilometers (450 miles) south of Paris, and 125 kilometers (78 miles) north of Marseille. By train:there are multiple TGV (high speed train) daily connections between Paris and Nîmes (3 hours travel time), and regular intercity links with Marseille and most main cities in southern France. By car: Nîmes is easily accessible through the French highway system, via Autoroutes A9 or A54.
  • Staying –For this first stop of our Languedoc road trip, we stayed at Antichambre 11 Rue Bigot, 30900 Nîmes, a lovely three-bedrooms boutique guesthouse ideally located within easy walking distance for all the sites of interest. The ultra-comfortable, well appointed rooms open onto a private courtyard. Free Wifi and a gargantuan breakfast are included. Caution – do book well ahead as this tiny charmer fills fast. Contact : Tel.+33 (0) 4 66 64 13 43, e-mail.
  • Visiting –  The Amphitheatre, Maison Carrée and Tour Magne are open daily. However, opening hours vary with the seasons. Details can be found on their website.The Jardin de la Fontaine, Avenue Jean Jaures, Nîmes, is open daily from 7:30 am to 10:00 pm from April through August and 7:30 am to 6:30 pm for the remainder of the year. The Musée de la Romanité 16, boulevard des Arènes, Nîmes, is open Wednesday through Monday, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm from April through August and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. Closed Tuesday, December 25th and January 1st.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Nimes