Malta’s historic sites surely know how to pack a punch. They’re ancient, they’re beautiful, and some of them are downright spooky… Spooky, you might think? Yes, some of Malta’s historical sites have some bloody backgrounds, some gory, gruesome details that are sometimes left out of the history books. Some of these spectral stories are based on popular legends, while some are proven to be true. Nevertheless, it is still fun to know some additional details about a historical site you’re visiting, and you can amuse your friends with your new found knowledge about the sites. Ready to delve into the macabre mysteries that surround Malta’s historical sites?
1. Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni
The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni is a spine-tingling place to visit. Located underground (from the Greek hypo – meaning under, and geum – meaning earth), this shrine was discovered by accident: workers stumbled upon it while digging a well. A series of subterranean chambers was unearthed, winding down into the bowels of the earth. These stone carved rooms are as mind-boggling as they are impressive, and it remains a mystery as to how these primitive peoples could construct such an intricate structure underground. Yet the mystery continues to unravel. During a school trip to the Hypogeum in 1938 by a fourth-year class and their teacher, the whole class vanished. Having scrambled down to the third level of the temple (a level which is now closed to the public), these children and their teacher lost their way back, and never saw the light of day again. The people of the area swore they could hear children screaming for up to four days after their disappearance, yet these poor pupils were never found. This incident was reported in the National Geographic of 1940, and while the Maltese authorities try to dispel the above occurrence as a “myth” designed to “keep children out of these underground places”, the truth may very well never be known.
2. St Paul’s Catacombs
During Roman rule in Malta, burials inside the city walls were prohibited. Early Christianity was on the rise, especially after St Paul’s visit, and these early Christians needed a place to bury their dead since Christianity dictated that the body would be resurrected just like the body of Christ at the end of times. Since they could not bury their dead in the Medina, they moved just outside the city walls and into the suburb of Rabat, where they constructed the earliest Christian tombs on the islands. These tombs were practically small interconnected hypogea, which spread, web-like underneath Rabat. What is creepy about these catacombs are the main halls, decorated with a large, circular and low-lying table; much like the tables, Roman homes used for dining. These early Christians used to gather here, near their dead, to pray and break bread, honouring their dead loved ones in commemorative rituals. These catacombs housed tombs for over 1000 people, making them the largest tombs of their kind on the island.
3. Mdina Dungeons
The dungeons beyond the ground level of the Magisterial Palace in Mdina are now notoriously known as the ‘Mdina Dungeons’, Malta’s only dark walk attraction. The dungeons now portray different aspects of the horrors of Maltese life of the past – from the Roman era, when Malta was probably used as a slave colony, to the heavy hand rule during the time of the Knights of St John. The Romans were famously inhuman in their punishments, from beheadings to crucifixions; these were not people to be messed with! Fast-forward to the time of the Order of St John, punishments were still as harsh as ever, with the culmination being the establishment of the Inquisitor’s office, whose aim was of suppressing heresy against the Catholic Church. This was done through a series of torture methods – but more on that below. The dungeons portray all the creative and imaginative ways that punishment was inflicted throughout Malta’s history. While certainly not for the faint of heart, this attraction is an insight into the gore and gruesomeness that once dominated everyday life on the islands. It sure makes us glad to be alive during a time when all these atrocities have been abolished!
4. Inquisitor’s Palace
When you mention torture and punishment in Malta, the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu comes to mind. After more than 500 years of its establishment, this imposing palace still manages to instill fear into the Maltese minds – exactly as it was meant to do all those years ago. The office of the Inquisitor was founded in Malta to put an end to heresy against the church, and this meant anything from witchcraft to blasphemy. The Palace excelled in extremely creative forms of corporal punishment – from the notorious ‘bir tas-skieken’ (well of knives – ouch!) to the ‘stringitore’, a wooden device which used to crush a victim’s ankles. These methods of torture were mostly implemented during trials, at the sight of which most people pleaded guilty straight away. Some of the torture devices were pure figments of the Maltese imagination, and only two persons are known to have been killed at the palace – both of whom were burned alive (still ouch!). The aim of the Office of the Inquisitor was definitely met, as the mere mention of the place still manages to send shivers down the Maltese people’s spines.