The underground cave and dehydrated river bed at Ghar Dalam near Birzebbugia is one of the most important historic, archaeological and geophysical links between the African and European continents. It is also a most relevant link in Malta’s development history.
It serves as very clear evidence that Malta was once linked to the North African coast. This is verified by the animal finds at Ghar Dalam, African animals not found in Europe.
Roughly, the timeline is that a tremendous earthquake must have erupted in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and Malta and Gozo remained as the peaks of mountains that were submerged.
About 5,000 years ago, Sicilian farmers ventured southward and discovered a new land, first settling in Gozo – their first landfall. About 2,000 years ago the Phoenicians began their marine trading ventures across the Mediterranean and established Malta as their trading base.
Their most valid relique was the Semitic Language they brought with them, a language that is still the basis of Maltese 4,000 years later. In 60AD St Paul of Tarsus is recorded as having been shipwrecked in Malta on his way to Rome to stand trial and because the inhabitants spoke this Semitic tongue rather than the Roman Latin, he labelled them as “barbarians”.
How did the treasures of Ghar Dalam (meaning The Cave of Darkness) first come to light?
Arturo Issel was a naturalist from Genoa. At the time there were many speculations about the Neanderthal Era and possible links between Europe and Africa. He surmised that as Malta was one of the closest countries to the North African it was worth exploring to discover any possible link.
In 1865 he came to Malta to explore its many caves and ancient stone temples. One of the caves he explored was Ghar Dalam and found evidence of animal and human remains, including animals distinctly African, such as dwarf hippopotami and dwarf elephants.
His revelations were then further explored by the Briton, John Henry Cooke and Maltese explorers Napoleon Tagliaferro, Giuseppe Despott, Joseph Baldacchino, George Zammit Maempel and John J. Borg who is the Senior Curator for Natural History with Heritage Malta.
As a background to all this, political controversy raged in Malta and Gozo at the time in the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century. A substantial lobby strongly insisted that Malta in time formed part of the Italian mainland and should be regarded as being Italian. An equally strong lobby denied this and bolstered their claims by being strongly pro-British as these were the colonisers at the time.
Before the outbreak of the Second World, Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini despatched a team of Italian geologists and historians to Malta and demanded they bring him back ample evidence that Malta was part of Italy.
He was astounded when on their return they reported that not only did Malta NOT form part of Italian recorded and documented history but that Malta’s temples, remains and artefacts PRECEDED Italian history!
Back to Ghar Dalam; John J. Borg’s investigations located there is still life in the dark underground caves. The cave is the natural habitat of two species of bats, a colony of sparrows, bees, spiders and a number of other insects.
Perhaps the most interesting revelation was that of an endemic species of woodlice that is found nowhere else and inhabits the very inner darkness of the cave. It has no pigments, a transparent body and no eyes. When threatened, instead of curling up into a ball like other woodlice it flattens itself on a surface, very much like a limpet.
To ensure its continued heritage importance, Ghar Dalam was closed by Heritage Malta for a while to perform maintenance and restoration. This included the refurbishment of the two main halls, the main entrance, the shop, the interpretation service for adults and children while a number of new items were placed on display.
Lighting was improved within the cave and all alien floras were removed and an educational garden with indigenous floras installed. In the longer term the cave will be linked to four different valleys as an extended park.
Ghar Dalam was reopened to visitors on 24th October last year.
John J Borg explained the reasons why the cave differs from other prehistoric sites. It is an uninterrupted sequence of strata layers from the Ice Age to today. The cave was formed by the constant flow of a river above it, some one million years ago. However, the oldest layer of remains found in the cave is much more ‘recent’, going back between 130,000 and 180,000 years.
What for the rest of the world was the Ice Age, for Malta it was the Age for Rain with a long period of torrential rains as a result of which animals were swept away and valleys created. Most of Malta’s valleys were created in that period. Many of the animal bones found relate to this period.
About 7,500 years ago the first human inhabitants moved into the islands with Sicilian farmers venturing over the waters in rafts and taking up residence in an empty country and moving into empty caves, including Ghar Dalam and farming the lands around them.
The Cave of Darkness, 140 metres deep underground thus served as a dwelling not only for animals but also for humans and continued to do for many years until clusters built houses – and even then, some preferred to continue living in such caves.
However, down to more recent times, there was a highly curious incident on 11th June, 1940. The first air raid bombings took place over Malta and people in the locality were terrified. A group sought refuge in the cave and although it had been opened to the public since 1933 it was still being investigated and explored.
A watchman on duty turned the throng away but they menaced him and forced their way into the underground cave. The numbers grew and a month later there were 108 adults and 89 children living in the cave!
In September of the same year, the Government decreed the cave was officially closed, the people turned away and entry was made subject to military permission.
Ghar Dalam has always been a major attraction because of its links and its fascinations. Now, given “a new look” it has increased its attraction to appreciate the evolution of European history but particularly Maltese history.
A “must visit” if and when in Malta!
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