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MALTA - UNESCO MEGALITHIC TEMPLES

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What are the oldest free-standing architectural monuments in existence? Stonehenge? The pyramids of Giza? No to both. The Neolithic temples in Malta are a staggering 1,000 years older.

Aerial view of Ggantija on Gozo
Aerial view of Ggantija on Gozo
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Long before the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans arrived on Malta, located 100 kilometers south of Sicily, an advanced civilization constructed megalithic temples from huge rocks, each weighing several tons. How the enormous monoliths were cut, moved, lifted and fitted precisely together, before the discovery of metals and the wheel, remains a mystery.

Ggantija

Built 5,500 to 6,000 years ago, the two oldest megalithic temples are located in Xaghra village, on Gozo, just a 20-minute ferry ride from Malta.

Ggantija (pronounced gigantiya) has the largest stones of all the megalithic temples, measuring up to six meters high. Local legend claims that the stones were carried to Ggantija on the head of a "sunsuna" (giant woman), who carried her baby in a cradle on her back, and ate broad beans from her pocket.

Aerial view of Hagar Qim Temple (photo taken before Heritage Malta covered it with a protective tent in 2009)
Aerial view of Hagar Qim Temple (photo taken before Heritage Malta covered it with a protective tent in 2009)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Megalithic Temples of Malta

In 1980, the two megalithic temples at Ggantija, Gozo, became UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In 1992, UNESCO designated five more Maltese megalithic temples as World Heritage Sites.

Together, the seven prehistoric temples of Ggantija, Mnajdra, Hagar Qim, Tarxien, Ta'Hagrat and Skorba are called The Megalithic Temples of Malta.

While early temples, such as the two at Ggantija, have no carvings or decorations, later temples on the island of Malta are more ornate.

In 2009, Heritage Malta covered the temple complexes at Mnajdra and Hagar Qim with large tents to protect them from the weather and temperature extremes and to arrest stone corrosion.

Mnajdra

Spectacularly located, on a hill covered with wild red poppies and yellow daisies above the Mediterranean Sea, Mnajdra (pronounced neyedra) is on the south coast of Malta.

Aerial view of Mnajdra Temples on hill above the Mediterranean Sea (photo taken before Heritage Malta covered them with a protective tent in 2009)
Aerial view of Mnajdra Temples on hill above the Mediterranean Sea (photo taken before Heritage Malta covered them with a protective tent in 2009)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Mnajdra is the only temple complex in Malta that perfectly aligns with the rising sun during equinoxes. Pitting, which resembles small round holes, like polka-dots, decorates some of the stones.

Walking around the megalithic temple, with our knowledgeable guide, Laura Mifsud-Bonnici, we learn that the horseshoe-shaped outer wall is lined by an inner wall. Rubble fills the space between.

Stone door in Mnajdra (photo taken before Heritage Malta covered it with a protective tent in 2009)
Stone door in Mnajdra (photo taken before Heritage Malta covered it with a protective tent in 2009)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

At the entrance to Mnajdra, we find a stone bench for resting, and a curious donut-shaped stone embedded in the ground. "Visitors probably tied their animals here," explains Laura.

Inside the megalithic temple, she points out a well-preserved section of corbelling. Builders progressively narrowed the roof with stones to form a dome.

Peeking through a window in one of the rocks, we find an altar. It's a simple stone structure, not nearly as ornate as the one we discover at Hagar Qim (the temple with the best-preserved facade) just one kilometer uphill in the village of Qrendi.

At Mnajdra, a carving of a plant, symbolizing rebirth through its seeds, decorates the altar. (It is believed that pilgrims came here to commune with the Goddess of Fertility and consult her oracle.)

A niche on the outer wall contains symbols of the male and female reproductive organs. Even stronger evidence of a fertility cult was discovered in the 19th century, when the Mnajdra temple was excavated.

Large stone bowl in Tarxien Temple
Large stone bowl in Tarxien Temple
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tarxien

"Archeologists found several small statuettes," says Laura Mifsud-Bonnici, "including the Squatting Lady and the Venus of Malta." The headless, obese nude ladies are now on display in the National Museum of Archeology, along with a host of fat lady statuettes found at another megalithic temple, Tarxien, just outside the capital city of Malta, Valletta.

When the four megalithic temples at Tarxien were excavated, during World War I, they yielded the richest deposit of prehistoric objects on Malta. Today, a replica of the two-meter-high Goddess of Fertility is a centerpiece for several pieces of relief sculpture decorating the vestibule.

A procession of animals, including piglets and bulls, also symbols of fertility, parade across two slabs of stone. Altars and screens feature engraved spiral "eyes" to ward off evil coming into the holy of holies. A large stone bowl and several smaller basins, embedded in the rock, may have held water for purification ceremonies.

Built nearly 1,000 years after Ggantija, the Tarxien temple, not only has artistic carvings, but also a paved floor. (The floor of the Mnajdra temple is beaten earth.) Laura Mifsud-Bonnici shows us a section of Tarxien that was cut open to reveal meter-thick paving stones.

While Tarxien is the most advanced of the megalithic temples in Malta, we were surprised to learn that the largest underground prehistoric temple in the world is in the neighboring town of Paola.

Hypogeum

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is an underground labyrinth of chambers, laboriously carved out of limestone with flint and obsidian tools, some 5,000 years ago. Resembling the interior of a megalithic temple, the Hypogeum covers an area of more than 500 square meters, and descends three stories to a burial ground. The bones of over 7,000 people were found here.

Evidence suggests that the Hypogeum was more than a giant mausoleum. It may also have been a place of worship and a training ground for priestesses in Malta.

In 1902, when workmen were digging a cistern for a new house, they discovered a tiny 5,000-year-old terra cotta figurine. Called "the Sleeping Goddess," it portrays a pudgy topless lady reclining on a bed. Archeologists believe she is a priestess in a trance.

Even more mysterious than the ancient Maltese megalithic temples and their figurines, however, is what happened to their creators. About 2,000 B.C., at the height of their culture, they all vanished without a trace.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Visit Malta: www.visitmalta.com

Heritage Malta: www.heritagemalta.org

More things to see and do in Malta:

Maltese Patron Saint Festas

What to Eat and Drink in Malta

Rabat and Mdina Malta Tours

TV and Film Productions in Malta