13 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 46

Knights to remember

Justin Kerr-Smiley

rro the romantic, Malta smells of thyme and fig; to the cynic, tar and goat — but, whatever a traveller's disposition, he can't deny that the country's place in Mediterranean history is unique. Malta's past is bold and bloody. In 1530 the emperor Charles V gave the Knights of St John their home after they had been forced out of Rhodes by Suleiman the Magnificent. The knights used Malta to raid the Ottoman fleets, sending gold and silver back to their protector, and in 1565 Suleiman finally tired of this and set out to destroy the 'Monks of War'; and so began the Great Siege.

For months the attackers pitted themselves against the walls of modern-day Valletta. They succeeded in storming Fort St Elmo, where the mostly French knights fought with extraordinary heroism. In the final assault, the exhausted, wounded nobles were too weak to stand and were strapped into chairs, wielding their great swords as the Turks poured through the breaches in the walls. Not one knight survived as the fort fell, but the jubilant janizaries could not take the city itself. Ultimately, the Turks left dispirited and defeated, so heralding the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Yet long before the Knights of St John, or even the Romans, inhabited it, Malta had a long-established religious tradition — it has the highest concentration of neolithic temples in the world. First, there is the Hypogeum at Hal Saflieni. It is advisable to book a tour as the temple has some idiosyncratic opening times. The Hypogeum is situated in the appropriately named Burials Street and was only discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, when a reservoir was being dug. An entire subterranean system of halls linked by corridors was found 20 feet below the surface. Pottery taken from it indicates that the Hypogeum is from the Mgarr period, 3200-2900 BC (Stonehenge dates from 2400 BO. The temple lies beneath the museum, and as you descend the steps the sunless cavern becomes even darker until your eyes become accustomed to the gloom. Within lies the oval-shaped Holy of Holies, a chamber carved into 4,500-year-old rock. During excavation by archaeologists, human remains corresponding to 6,000 skeletons were removed.

Outside again and the sun is a welcome furnace. A short distance away lie the temples at Tarxien, above ground and laid out like a mini Stonehenge. They were also discovered relatively recently, in 1914, when a farmer was ploughing his field and his blade struck something solid. The next year the field was excavated, revealing the limestone monoliths visible today. The temple itself is more recent than the Hypogeum, dating back to 2400 BC, but is the most intricately decorated of all the temples in Malta. Most striking are the spiral motifs carved on the stone slabs.

Take the road to Qrendi and driving south you come to the temples at Hagar Qim, occupying a slope overlooking the sea. It was here that some of Malta's most ancient treasures were discovered, which now lie in the National Museum. These include the famous neolithic statuettes of gargantuan women, and the Tree of Life. Hagar Qim is the most complex of the Ggantija epoch temples (3600 BO and is built exclusively of limestone blocks. Five hundred yards below are the monoliths of Mnajdra. For the surefooted, a scramble of a few hundred feet will take you down to a secluded cove perfect for swimming. You can't be seen from above, so it is quite possible to swim naked. In the evening the breeze freshens and the cooler air makes the steep climb back up the incline that much easier.

Inland. at Ggantija, two temples stand side by side on the Xaghra plateau and date from 3600 BC, which makes them 800 years older than the Pyramids. The stone blocks weigh several tons and the surrounding walls are 40 feet high. According to the legend, the giant Sansuna carried them on her head all the way from Ta'Cenc, where you can see cart tracks cut into the rock. Archaeologists believe them to be the equivalent of tramlines and used as such by neolithic man. There are more tracks at Dwejra Point above the beguiling Inland Sea, which, as its name suggests, is a landlocked bay, the sea entering via a semisubmerged tunnel in the surrounding cliffs.

Apart from the many neolithic sites in the archipelago, the Roman baths at Ghajn Tuffieh are well worth visiting. It is also where the famous Apple Tree Spring lies. The water source has been used since prehistoric times and still yields 15,000 litres per hour. For the water-loving Romans, it must have seemed a gift from the gods.

After neolithic man had moved on, Malta had several famous visitors. In the Odyssey, Homer writes, 'Odysseus . lay in an island tortured by sickness; the nymph Calypso, in her manor, kept him there by force. He could not return to the land of his fathers, for he had neither the men nor the boats to row back over the seas.' The Maltese say that Calypso's

island is Gozo, just a short ferry-ride away. On the north coast of Gozo, a fault in the cliffs dominating Ramla Bay is allegedly the grotto where Odysseus waited seven years with his captor, before the gods ordered her to allow the hero to continue his journey. If the nymph had let him, our hero would certainly have swum in the waters of Mgarr ix-Xini, which are surrounded by limestone cliffs perfect for diving.

St Paul was shipwrecked on the island in the bay which now bears his name, and he took shelter in Rabat. His cave lies in the cathedral's crypt; the catacombs here are impressive, with various tunnels and some fascinating early Christian wallpaintings. Hidden for centuries, they were only discovered during the second world war, when Luftwaffe bombs opened them up. They had been filled in by anxious Christians during the island's Moorish occupation in the 9th and 10th centuries, and were subsequently forgotten. The parish priest excavated them himself by hand. If you're lucky, he'll be there to show you round.

Another visitor to the island was Caravaggio. For admirers of Renaissance art, his paintings in St John's Cathedral cannot be surpassed. The Order provided the artist, on the run for murder, with a safe haven in return for some paintings. Caravaggio spent a year here and completed six canvases, including the huge 'Beheading of John the Baptist' and the smaller 'St Jerome', both on show. The 'Beheading' is the only work that the Lombard master ever signed — the letters can be seen at the lower edge of the bright splash of blood pouring from the Baptist's severed head. It seems strange that a murderer was not only welcomed by the Order, but actually ennobled during his stay. Doubtless the knights recognised genius when they saw it and, happily for the visitor, chose to ignore the rest.

Other more famous and touristy sights include San Anton Palace, the Armoury and the recently restored Fort of St Elmo. To walk through the echoing halls and shaded courtyards of these places is to walk in the footsteps of mailed knights, slippered cardinals, prostitutes and thieves. Away from Valletta is the governor's summer palace at Verdala, its massive walls exposed to the four winds. Then there is the silent city of Mdina, where cars are banned and the only transport is by two legs or four, the silence occasionally punctuated by the rattle of horse-drawn carriages, or church bells calling the faithful to prayer.

Although the archipelago's modern history is essentially Christian, the last word comes from an unknown Arab chronicler: 'Malta, rich in everything good ... a blessing from God . .. well populated, with towns and villages, trees and fruit.'