Malta has three locations inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list – the City of Valletta, the Megalithic Temples of Malta and the Hal Salflieni Hypogeum – and several more on the tentative list. If you’re planning a trip to Malta, here’s why you need to pay these stunning sites a visit.
Malta’s capital city of Valletta is a fortified city purposely built following the Great Siege of Malta which took place in 1565. Dubbed as the city ‘built by gentlemen, for gentlemen’, Valletta was created as the new capital to take over from Mdina. Built on almost barren land known as the Sceberras peninsula, the city was the brainchild of Grand Master La Valette, the hero of the Great Siege, who decided that this area was the place to build defences to keep a hold on Malta. Francesco Laparelli, a military engineer, was enlisted to draw up the plans for the city which he did in the form of a grid-like network. Architecture in Valletta features ornate Baroque buildings, the exuberant St John’s Co-Cathedral, and the Grand Master’s Palace, not to mention the many small churches hidden away that transport visitors back to the time of the Knights.
There are seven main Neolithic temples in Malta, one of which can be found on Malta’s sister island of Gozo. All of these temples have been classed together as one World Heritage Site. The temples of Malta are said to be both older than those at Stonehenge, and approximately 1,000 years older than the Pyramids of Egypt. The temples Ggantija (‘giant’) temple in Gozo, Tarxien, Mnajdra, and Hagar Qim are the oldest, with Skorba, Hagrat and Kordin III being built much later. Built using mostly materials such as coralline rock and globigerina limestone, the Ggantija Temples, located in the Zaghra region of Gozo, are the oldest of the seven and date back to around 3600-3200 BC.
Discovered in 1902 during building work which was then immediately halted, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a series of underground burial chambers dating back to 2500 BC. Formed on three underground floors with several smaller chambers adjoined, the Hypogeum is said to have held the remains of approximately 7,000 people. The whole complex was built using basic tools, the markings of which are clearly visible throughout. Red ochre markings can still be detected on the walls – it was here that the infamous across Malta ‘Sleeping Lady‘ was found, which is now held in Valletta’s National Museum of Archaeology. In order to help preserve the structure, lighting is dim and visitors are restricted in both group sizes and times of the day. Bookings are made online, and due to the popularity of the site, it is advised to book a few months ahead, particularly at high season, to ensure a time slot.
The Victoria Lines are a barrier which span from east to west across the width of the island in the north region, and are so-called because they were built by the British and finished in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The Great Fault is a natural geographical barrier and can originally be dated back to prehistoric times, but it was the Knights who first made the greatest use of the natural feature as a defence in 1722. At various intervals along the way, the Knights built infantry entrenchments which in turn aided any enemy invasion from the north region of the island. In 1875 a number of forts and batteries were built along the fault by the British Military who made use of the same defence protecting the harbour from enemy attack.
The centre of Gozo is the home to Cittadella. Located on high land overlooking Victoria, the fortified town is the perfect location for overlooking coastal areas and the surrounding countryside, making the natural formation of high use to Gozo inhabitants. Records indicate that the first fortifications date back to the Bronze Age, and from a small settlement grew to become Gozo’s administrative centre during the Phoenician and Roman times. They gradually spreading from primarily just the hilltop to the plains surrounding the base, particularly during medieval times. Up until the 16th century, Cittadella thrived so much it was densely over-populated. The arrival of the Knights in Malta led to the area being used as a place of refuge and shelter when under attack. The 16th century saw the location being deserted as a residential township and become a purely military base. Medieval and Baroque architectural features remain at Cittadella: medieval in the form of the Folklore Museum and Casa Bondi, and Baroque in the form of the prisons, law courts and the old Bishop’s palace.
The walled city of Mdina (also known as the Silent City) was once Malta’s capital and renowned for being the place where both Maltese nobility and the rich resided before the Great Siege.The small city of narrow roads and a strict car restriction is a must-see for visitors, attracting more than 80,000 tourists a year. Full of Baroque buildings, palaces, churches and a cathedral, the entire location is like a step back in time. High-walled concealed residences hide behind unnoticeable doorways, yet behind them are vast lavish homes that have been passed down through the generations and are highly desirable and extremely hard to come by today. Mdina is on the tentative list as UNESCO believes, among numerous other factors, “it deserves every degree of protection possible to ensure its survival for the benefit of both future generations and national pride”.
Valletta’s Grand Harbour has been rich in history for attracting foreign occupation and as the island’s main location for defending off attack from the waters. Over the centuries the harbour has seen numerous fortifications being built by some of the highest military engineers of the times. Although some medieval fortifications existed, it was the arrival of the Knights of the Order of St John to Malta who established the harbour as naval base in 1530. Wonderful fortifications were built around the harbours of the peninsula following the Great Siege, which continued to be built for the following 200 years, forming a network of sturdy, permanent fortifications. Huge in scale, the fortifications have lasted for almost 500 years, making them particularly worthy of being on the UNESCO tentative World Heritage Site list.