Digging through the layers of Malta’s religious past

Tim Wyatt finds a fascinating mixture of pagan, Christian, and Islamic history on the Mediterranean island

Published by the Church Times

FROM the outside, Tas-Silg, an archaeological site in the south of Malta, does not look like much at all. If you peer through the mesh metal fence that surrounds the complex, all you see is a windswept hilltop, covered in broken lumps of stone and sprouting with weeds.

But, despite its unassuming appearance, Tas-Silg tells the story of the Maltese islands. And, more than that, it also tells the story of religion in this corner of the Mediterranean — a story that stretches back more than 5000 years.

Archaeologists have discovered that the very same stones that now lie crumbled in ruins have been used and re-used, by no fewer than six cultures, to build at least three different places of worship, where about five separate religions were practised.

Roughly two and half millennia before the birth of Christ, the Stone Age peoples who then inhabited Malta built a temple at Tas-Silg. This passed through various forms of prehistoric worship throughout the Bronze Age, until Malta was conquered by the Phoenicians in 700 BC. Using the same stone blocks, they built their own temple to the goddess Astarte, which was then inherited and adapted into a shrine to Juno by the Romans who had taken over island in the third century BC.

But the catena of conversions was not yet complete. Centuries later, after the Roman and Byzantine Empires had converted to Christianity, the temple was again knocked down, and rebuilt as a monastery. Finally, yet another new faith came to Malta: Islam. During the Islamic period, which began in about 800, the new overlords of the island razed the monastery at Tas-Silg once and for all.

As the archaeologists who are still excavating the site today dig down, they go through layer on layer of accreted faiths, laid down over millennia. Peering through the accumulated strata of history, archaeology, and culture, a religious history of the island can be discerned…

Read the full feature on the Church Times website