This week’s journey takes us back (waaaay back) to the Megalithic Temples of Malta. Constructed from approximately 3600 to 700 BC, these prehistoric religious complexes – scattered across the Mediterranean island nation – are considered by many the oldest free-standing structures on Earth.
The earliest of the temple complexes – Ġgantija, on the island of Gozo – was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. Twelve years later, UNESCO added five additional Maltese temples – Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, the Ta’ Ħaġrat Temples, the Skorba Temples and the Tarxien Temples – to the World Heritage list, collectively naming these six structures the Megalithic Temples of Malta. Each complex is a unique architectural masterpiece and witness to an exceptional prehistoric culture renowned for its remarkable architectural, artistic and technological achievements.
We were fortunate to visit three of the temple sites – Ġgantija, Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra – during our August 2017 holiday in Malta, and are delighted to share some of our photographs below.
The first stop on our exploration of Malta was the Ġgantija temples, located on Gozo’s Xagħra plateau. Older than the Egyptian pyramids, the temples at Ġgantija were erected during the Neolithic period (c. 3600–2500 BC), making these structures more than 5500 years old (and the world’s second oldest existing man-made religious structures after Göbekli Tepe in Turkey). While Maltese folklore credits giants for the temples’ construction (Ġgantija meaning ‘giant’s tower’), archaeological excavations produced figurines and statuary suggesting the temples were actually used for ceremonial fertility rites.
The Ġgantija monument consists of two temples and an incomplete third, of which only the facade was partially built before being abandoned. It faces the equinox sunrise, built side by side and enclosed within a boundary wall. The plan of the temple incorporates five large apses, with traces of the plaster that once covered the irregular wall still clinging between the blocks. The temples are built in the typical clover-leaf shape, with inner facing blocks marking the shape which was then filled in with rubble. This led to the construction of a series of semi-circular apses connected with a central passageway. Archaeologists assume that the apses were originally covered by roofing material.
Like other megalithic sites in Malta, Ġgantija faces in a southeasterly direction. At the entrance to the southern temple sits a large stone block with a basin, which led to the hypothesis that this was a ritual station for purification. The five apses contain various altars; the finding of animal bones in the site suggests the temple was likely used for animal sacrifice. A number of libation holes in the floor may have been used for the pouring of liquid offerings, while the use of fire is evidenced by the presence of several stone hearths.
It was at least 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius) during our visit, and B. was desperately uncomfortable with morning sickness. This palm tree offered the only blissful shade on the entire site!
Following our visit to Ġgantija, we traveled to the temples of Ħaġar Qim, perched atop a ridge overlooking the sea on the southern edge of the island of Malta. The complex consists of a main temple flanked by three additional megalithic structures. The main temple was built between 3600 and 3200 BC; however, the northern ruins are considerably older. Like Ġgantija, features of the site’s architecture reveal possible associations with fertility rituals, including corpulent figurines and statuary, together with solar alignments and a megalith which some argue appears phallic. The presence of an altar with a concave top indicates a possible use for animal sacrifices, while screened doorways at the heart of the complex point towards possible use by oracles. No burials exist in the temple or the area surrounding Ħaġar Qim, nor have any human bones been discovered in any Maltese temples.
Ħaġar Qim shares its basic architectural design with the Ġgantija, Mnajdra and Tarxien temple complexes, including forecourt and façade, elongated oval chambers, semi-circular recesses and a central passage connecting the chambers. Its builders used local globigerina limestone to construct the temple; an unfortunate choice, as this soft material’s exposure to sea winds has caused severe weathering and surface flaking over the centuries. A protective tent was erected over the temple in 2009.
Our final temple stop on Malta was Mnajdra, located only 500 meters from Ħaġar Qim on cliffs overlooking the isle of Fifla. This complex was constructed early in the 4th century BC, and consists of three conjoined but not connected temples. The lowest temple is astronomically aligned and was likely used as an astronomical observation and/or calendrical site. On the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, sunlight passes through the main doorway and lights up the major axis. On the solstices, sunlight illuminates the edges of megaliths to the left and right of this doorway. Artifacts recovered from within the temples suggest these structures were used for religious purposes, perhaps to heal illness or promote fertility.
Despite its proximity to Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra was built with coralline limestone rather than the softer globigerina variety. Nonetheless, a protective tent was also added to this complex in 2009.
Entrance to the Megalithic Temples is available for a small admission fee and restricted to daylight hours. Even in sweltering heat, our visits to these monuments are among our fondest memories of our time in Malta. It isn’t every day that we wander through truly prehistoric structures – we couldn’t recommend a visit more highly!
Thank you for joining us on this journey into the ancient past in Malta! -T. & B. June
Next week’s journey: Point Lobos State Nature Reserve – California, USA