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“Ghar Dalam! What’s that?” you ask. Well, contrary to the appearance of its name it is not something you’d order to eat in an Indian restaurant after an onion bhaji. It’s a cave! But no ordinary cave. This is a very significant cave – the very place where the earliest evidence of human settlement on Malta was discovered … evidence that dates from around 7,400 years ago!
When it comes to pre-historic remains, the Maltese islands have more than their fair share of sites to see and visit. There are the Ggantija Temples on Gozo, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum and Hagar Qim. But none can compete with Ghar Dalam when it comes to sheer age, and like many thousands who have visited before, you’ll find it a truly intriguing place.
Experts, who would know about these things, say we have the Ice Age to thank for the formation of this particular cavern. When that period ended, the climate was much warmer and wetter than now with the enormous amounts of rainfall that fell largely responsible for the Maltese landscape we know and love today. That water also eroded away underground caverns and caves and one of those caves was Ghar Dalam!
The name translates as 'Cave of Darkness', and you’ll find this prehistoric site on the outskirts of Birzebbuga. We know this one is the genuine Ice Age article because when it was excavated the bones of animals that became extinct in Malta at the end of that period were found inside among the debris.
Along with the extinct species were skeletons of animals from a later time that no longer live on Malta too – like dwarf elephant, hippopotamus, deer and bear. The hippo, for example, became extinct here about 180,000 years ago, while the deer died off much later - about 18,000 years ago. The same animals can be found elsewhere in mainland Europe so this supports the theory that Malta was once connected to the European mainland rather than being attached to the African continent.
Along with all the animal remains in Ghar Dalam, this is also where the earliest evidence of human settlement on Malta was discovered. That was unearthed during the first formal investigation in 1885 but the cave was not opened to the public until 1933.
There was a slight pause in its role as a tourist attraction during World War II, when it served as a convenient underground air raid shelter and later as a fuel storage depot. Much later, in 1987, a team of Italian archaeologists discovered Palaeolithic cave art depicting human hands and several animal designs.
The site today consists of the cave and a museum. The cave is around 144m deep but only the first 50m stretch is accessible to visitors. The museum, which exhibits a remarkable wealth of finds from animal bones to human artefacts, sits at the entrance.
Ghar Dalam is to be found in the southeast corner of the island and is operated by Heritage Malta. You’ll find it open every day from 9am to 5pm, excluding some public holidays around the Christmas period. You can reach it using the public bus service if you go for the ones headed for Birzebbuga and ask the driver for the closest stop.
Admission is €5 for adults with discounts available for children, students and OAPs. Heritage Malta sometimes stages temporary or special exhibitions at the site and there may be an additional charge for them.
Address: Zejtun Road Birzebbuga
Phone : +356 2165 7419
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