Malta’s position in the Mediterranean Sea has long made it an important centre for the growth and exchange of cultures.
Relatively hot and dry, and with soil that doesn’t naturally lend itself to easy agriculture, it is not in itself a country that would’ve been popular for settlers. Except, that is, for its extremely strategic location between the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia.
It’s probably one of the reasons why humans found these islands so many millennia ago, and wanted to make their mark. Two of the World Heritage Sites in Malta show not just how early the country was inhabited, but also the ingenuity of the people who were here.
After the prehistory of Malta, which is considered to have finished in about 700 BC, control of the country passed between a lot of different empires and cultures, starting with the Phoenicians, and including the Romans, Byzantines, Aghlabids, and Sicilians.
However, none of them are specifically represented in Malta’s World Heritage Sites, which I think is a little odd.
(There is, though, a proposed site of catacombs from the Roman and Byzantine eras.)
The period of Malta’s history that is best represented in a World Heritage Site is that of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitaller.
They founded the City of Valletta, which would go on to be the tiny capital of modern Malta, and an incredibly fortified and beautiful city.
While many tourists these days come to Malta for the sunshine, the beaches, and the water, I think the country’s history is also a fascinating drawcard.
Only some of the story may be told through Malta’s World Heritage Sites, but those parts of it are pretty incredible!
City of Valletta
Malta’s capital, Valletta, is one of the smallest capital cities in Europe and, with all its history, has one of the densest collections of heritage buildings.
Much of what you’ll see here serves as a tribute to the group that founded Valletta, the Knights Hospitaller – particularly the imposing fortifications demonstrating their military prowess. But beyond that, there are many buildings that show an opulence that’s a bit unexpected for a small and isolate island.
The city’s distinctive skyline is dominated by the Baroque masterpiece of St John’s Co-Cathedral, while the grandiose Grand Master’s Palace is another highlight. But wander the narrow cobblestone streets, you’ll find a whole mosaic of architectural wonders.
With the French and the British both controlling Malta in later centuries, they left their mark with a range of styles, including Mannerist, Baroque, and Neoclassical. As a major cultural centre for the Mediterranean region, Valletta also has impressive museums and galleries.
It may not be large in size, but it’s easy to spend a day or two exploring the best things to do in Valletta, with a true depth of fascinating heritage.
Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum
At the top of a hill, just a couple of kilometres from Valletta, is the remarkable ancient burial complex known as the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum.
This underground network of alcoves and corridors was carved into soft limestone from as early as 4000 BC. For the next 1500 years or so, it was expanded over three levels, full of burial chambers and walls decorated with carvings and paintings.
Archaeologists have found remains of more than 7000 people in the Hypogeum, along with a variety of grave goods like pottery, jewellery, and tools.
Exploring the intricate maze of chambers, halls, and passages shows you the amazing architectural skills of the prehistoric people who once lived in Malta. The artistic works and what they say about the religion of the time is also one of the reasons the site is so significant.
Visiting the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a little tricky because visitor numbers are very limited – normally just eight tours a day with ten people on each tour. Tickets often sell out weeks in advance, although there is sometimes last-minute availability.
It is well worth seeing this special site, but try to plan ahead to guarantee you’ll be able to go inside.
Megalithic Temples of Malta
Even before they started carving out the burial complex, the ancient people who lived here were building huge stone places of worship, known as the Megalithic Temples of Malta.
The World Heritage Site is made up of six different locations of temples built during the 4th and 3rd millennia BC. The oldest are the two Ggantija Temples on the island of Gozo, which are some of the earliest manmade buildings in the world.
Although each temple complex is unique, there are some similarities in the designs. The external walls are made of large stone blocks, creating a concave facade with an entrance in the middle. This entry takes you through a passage to a paved court, with semi-circular chambers coming off it.
It’s quite incredible to think about the engineering skill that was required to build these up to 6000 years ago. The temples would also have been decorated with elements like bas-relief panels depicting spiral motifs, trees, plants, and animals.
The Megalithic Temples of Malta are a fascinating part of the country’s heritage and I recommend seeing at least one of the locations (prioritise Ggantija) – but visiting a few will give you an even better perspective.