Interestingly, but no surprise, is that the population is 98% Roman Catholic. Now, that has a good quiz show stumper in there, and it's too bad you've already read the title of this entry or I might ask you to name an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation that has a dialect of Arabic as an official language....inextricably linked to the history of the military and charitable Order of St John of Jerusalem. It was ruled successively by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the Order of the Knights of St John. Valletta’s 320 monuments, all within an area of 55 ha [136 acres], make it one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.
...[these] prehistoric megalithic temples and underground chambers...are both fascinating and perplexing for there are no definite answers to how and why they were built or for what they were used...They have been described as the oldest free-standing monuments in the world...What is certain, is that several thousand years before the arrival of the Phoenicians, the Islands were the home to a remarkable culture. These people acquired the skills, and had the strength of spiritual devotion, to mobilise men and resources to build megalithic structures... This culture was to vanish from the Islands...whether through famine, fire, natural disaster or routed by invasion no one knows.
[See also Megaliths of Southern Italy and The Nuraghi of Sardinia.]added July 5, 2018
The Temple Builders
A remarkable culture, indeed. Some structures on Malta put in place by the "temple builders" are older than the pyramids of Egypt. And when they were not building up, they were building down to produce underground shrines and necropoli, the best known of which is the Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum (image, right)(Safliene is one of the eleven phases of Maltese pre-history). It was inscribed as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1980 based on the criterion that "it bears a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared." The complete UNESCO description of the site is here.
The UNESCO description starts:
The Hypogeum is an enormous subterranean structure excavated c. 2500 B.C., using cyclopean rigging to lift huge blocks of coralline limestone. Perhaps originally a sanctuary, it became a necropolis in prehistoric times. The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is one of the best preserved and most extensive environments that have survived from the Neolithic.
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum was discovered in 1902 on a hill overlooking the innermost part of the Grand Harbour of Valletta, in the town of Paola. It is a unique prehistoric monument, which seems to have been conceived as an underground cemetery, originally containing the remains of about 7,000 individuals. The cemetery was in use throughout Maltese prehistory, spanning from around 4000 B.C. to 2500 B.C.
The hypogeum itself is a series of three superimposed levels of chambers cut into soft limestone. One of the most striking characteristics of the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is that some of the chambers appear to have been cut in imitation of the architecture of the contemporary, above-ground megalithic temples. Features include false bays, and doorways and windows inspired by the trilithon (a megalithic structure consisting of two large vertical stones supporting a third stone set horizontally across the top, typical sites such as Stonehenge and those in Malta.) It is a very complex space.
Objects recovered from the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum include decorated pottery vessels, stone and clay beads, amulets, axe-heads, and carved figures depicting humans and animals, most notable of which was the Sleeping Lady, a clay figure thought to represent a mother goddess (image, right). The figure dates to 4000 - 2500 BC. The Sleeping Lady of Ħal Saflieni is held in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, Malta. The Ħal Saflieni site closed in September 2016 for renovation and reopened in April, 2017. photo by Jvdc, Wikipedia
Not mentioned in the UNESCO physical description of the hyopgeum are recent studies in the field of archeoacoustics (also paleo-acoustics), a field that combines archeology and acoustics to study why some ancient structures -- usually caves but also some surface structures such as certain arenas and amphitheaters -- seem to posses "sweet spots"; that is, spots where even the slightest whisper carries a seemingly impossible distance. There are various questions here: (1) Is it true? Yes, soft voices or even whispers spoken within certain parts of Ħal Saflieni are heard throughout the other chambers; (2) Did the builders do it on purpose? That is a bit more difficult to verify, but the ancients built amphitheaters that had good acoustics and certainly built them that way on purpose; thus, if there was a need for soft voices and whispers to carry a long way in an underground chamber such as a shrine or cemetery, it is plausible they were built like that for a reason. Here, one thinks of seers and sibyls of later Greek chambers (such as Cuma) delivering their prophecies; (3) Are certain vocal frequencies more conducive to enlightened states of mind than others? Is that why some religious rituals involve repetitive chanting and intoning of mantras? One theory advanced by scholars from the Italian universities of Trieste and Siena is, indeed, that the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum was constructed in such a way as to create acoustics that would affect the psyche of people, perhaps to enhance mystical experiences during rituals. There is a remarkable amount of scholarly literature on sound and altered states of consciousness, more than enough to make you wonder. And I wonder what happened to the temple builders.