The Malta Connection
The envelope we found in Olsen Archer’s house contained two brittle pages from the August 1940 issue of National Geographic. It was an article about the ancient underground burial chambers, known as the Hypogeum, on the island of Malta, with additional notes handwritten in the margins by Archer himself.
Gathered around a polished wooden coffee table, in the lounge area of Craig’s dormitory, we lunched on pizza and Coke. The old magazine pages almost came apart in Roger’s hands when he unfolded them. He laid them gently on the coffee table beside the half-empty pizza box. Except for the four of us, the lounge was deserted.
Nancy looked cozy with her legs curled up in a blue stuffed easy chair. From the window behind her a halo of warm sunlight rimmed her jet-black hair.
Roger and Craig sat on the matching blue stuffed couch. Roger leaned forward, studying the magazine article, knees rising above the table like folded crane towers. Craig rested his head on the back of the couch, an open encyclopedia on his lap. My comfortable round wicker chair looked like a big tan seashell with curved edges and a deep seat.
“This is incredible,” said Roger, referring to the National Geographic article. “In 1935, a schoolteacher took a group of kids on a field trip into the Hypogeum. They apparently got lost down there and were never seen again. After that, the government closed certain tunnels to the public.”
“I remember reading somewhere that Samuel Taylor Coleridge went to Malta,” I said. “Something about the warm climate being good for his health, when he was trying to kick his opium addiction. I’m not familiar with the Hypogeum, though.”
“The Hypogeum was discovered by accident,” said Roger, skimming and summarizing Archer’s notes as well as the magazine piece. “In 1902, a construction worker, digging a foundation for a house, broke through into a chamber containing thousands of skeletons. Some of the bones dated back to 3000 BC. It’s a vast network of underground chambers and passageways, carved in rock, three levels deep. Some of the walls are painted with swirling, curling lines and web-like patterns, all in shades of yellow-gold and reddish-orange ochre, one of the earliest pigments known to man. Besides being a tomb for the dead, it was also a temple.”
“What kind of temple?” I asked.
“They don’t know, exactly,” said Roger. “Some ancient religion. What have you got, Craig?”
Craig had the encyclopedia open to Malta, but he referred to it only sparingly as he filled us in. I knew he was an anthropology major but he sounded like a history teacher.
“Malta is an island in the Mediterranean Sea,” he said. “It’s below Italy and above Africa. Some of the earliest temples known to man were built on Malta between 3000 and 2000 BC.”
“That’s the Megalithic era,” I said. “Stonehenge was built in England during that era.”
“Yeah,” said Roger. “By the Druids, right?”
“Right,” I said, happy that Roger remembered my old ramblings about the Druids from our younger days.
Nancy said, “What happened to the people who built the stone temples in Malta?”
“Well,” said Craig, “Nobody knows exactly what happened to them. But around 1200 BC, the Phoenicians rose to prominence. The Phoenicians built a lot of ships and they were big-time crucial in establishing a trade route that circled all around the Mediterranean Sea, along the top coast of Africa, the southern coast of Europe, and Asia, and the western coast of Middle East. Malta is like a hub to all these countries, not really in the center, but close enough, so the Phoenicians began using it as an important base of operations around 700 B.C. Down through history, a lot of different nations and empires have ruled Malta, because it’s a perfect location for both commerce and military strategy.
“A group of Phoenicians founded the city-state of Carthage in North Africa in 700 B.C. and Malta came under Carthaginian rule around 509 BC.
“Next came the Romans, attacking Carthage. That’s what the Punic Wars were about, Rome taking everything away from Carthage, one territory after another until Carthage was wiped out and Rome ruled an immense empire. Malta came under Roman rule in... let’s see... 218 BC. Rome still ruled Malta in 60 AD when Saint Paul was shipwrecked there and the snake bit him.”
“So, that really happened?” I asked.
“They have a monument to it,” said Craig. “That’s all I can say for sure.”
“The important thing,” said Roger “Is that something happened, and somebody construed the hell out of it!”
I asked Nancy, “You believe it, don’t you?”
“It seems kind of far-fetched,” she said.
“But your Dad’s a preacher,” I said, amazed.
“Do you believe everything your parents tell you?” she said. “Anyway, Craig, what happened to Malta after Rome?”
“It seems everybody wanted Malta,” said Craig. “The Arabs took it from Rome in 870.
“The Normans took Malta from the Arabs in 1090.
“In the meantime, Charlemagne was trying to revive the Roman Empire, and that turned into the Holy Roman Empire, which expanded to include so many territories that at some point they claimed Malta.
“In 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor gave Malta to the Knights Hospitaller, who needed a base of operations after being driven out of the Holy Land. The Knights valiantly and successfully defended Malta from the Ottoman Turks in 1565.
“The French, under Napoleon, took Malta in 1798.
“The British took it from France in 1800, and Malta voluntarily became part of the British Empire. It was an important naval base for Great Britain during World War II, bombed by Germany and Italy, but never defeated.
“Finally, in 1964, Malta became an independent nation.”
Nancy was beaming with admiration at Craig’s display of knowledge. This made me a little jealous. I mean, he did have the encyclopedia in his lap.
Roger didn’t help much when he said, “Damn, Craig, you know your shit, man!”
“I want to know more about the people disappearing underground,” I said. “That’s what I want to write about.”
“Look what I’ve got,” said Nancy.
She reached into her handbag, which sat on the floor, leaning against the side of her chair, and pulled out a glossy travel brochure for the Maltese Islands.
“Let me see that,” I said.
The picture on the front of the brochure showed a long, sunny beach, dotted with vacationers, an ocean of deep blue water, thinning into white foam along shore. Beyond a white high-rise hotel lay an amazing variety of Mediterranean/European architecture in shades of cream, tan, brown, and brick red.
I opened the brochure and read aloud, “The Maltese Islands are an archipelago (a group of islands). The three main islands are Malta, Gozo and Comino a total population of 400,000 …”
“Does it say anything about the Hypogeum?” asked Roger.
“Yeah,” I said, still reading. “It says pretty much the same thing we already know, but nothing about school children disappearing.”
“I wonder if the Maltese government has any record of that,” said Roger. “It’s always good to have more than one source for a story. Three sources, if possible. Newspapers, police reports, excavation records.”
“There’s a list of government agencies on the back,” I said. “Maybe there’s someone we can contact. Hey, here’s the Ministry for Urban Development. Roger, didn’t you say the Hypogeum was discovered on a housing site?”
“Yeah, they were digging a foundation for a house.”
“Oh, man!” I said. “Listen to this address! Ministry for Urban Development and Roads; House of the Four Winds; Valletta, Malta CMR 02!”
“So?” asked Craig.
“It’s the number four again,” said Roger.
“House of the Four Winds,” I repeated. “Paul Clemmons carved “Four Winds” into the wall of the dome in the woods. Remember? Maybe he went to Malta!”
“Maybe we should go to Malta,” said Roger, reaching for the pizza box.
“That’s kind of what I had in mind when I got the travel brochure,” said Nancy.
Roger opened the lid to the pizza box. There were exactly four slices left. We each scooped up a slice, pausing in mid-scoop, and looked at each other. For a moment, it was like the cliché where a team forms a circle and they all place their hands together in the middle in a show of camaraderie.
“I say we go to Malta,” said Craig.
We each drew our slice of pizza from the box and ate heartily, laughing and talking.