Mnajdra temple complex
Malta is associated in the public mind with many images, holiday beaches, The Knights of St. John, The Grand Harbour of Valletta, grandiose churches but few are aware that it has some of the earliest and most developed Neolithic sites extant including at Gigantija on the island of Gozo the world’s oldest stone building. The list of Malta’s heritage sites is dominated by the Islands’ prehistoric megalithic temples and underground chambers. This small island of 243 square kilometers has a far greater importance in European prehistory due to this extraordinary collection of megalithic temples.
It is on Malta and Gozo you find the oldest man-made free-standing constructions on Earth. Borg in-Nadur, Xrobb l-Ghagin, Tas-Silg, Tarxien, Kordin, Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum, Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, Ta’ Hagrat, Skorba, Tal-Qadi, Bugibba, Ggantija.
Situated 90 kilometers south of Sicily and 370 kilometers east of the Tunisian coast, the island of Malta appears to have been first settled during the early Neolithic period by a wave of immigrants from the island of Sicily. Several thousand years before the arrival of the Phoenicians, the Maltese Islands were the home to a remarkable culture. These people acquired the skills, and had the strength of spiritual devotion, to mobilise men and resources to build megalithic structures and hew out living rock into burial chambers. This culture was to vanish from the Islands whether through famine, fire, natural disaster or routed by invasion no one knows. The remains seen today are both fascinating and perplexing for there are no definite answers to how and why they were built or for what they were used.
Malta’s temples and the Hypogeum are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The ruins which remain are the bare skeletons of once magnificent structures, mostly roofed over, paved, furnished with doors and curtains, and beautifully decorated with sculptures and paintings. Some archaeologists assume that the period in which the early Maltese progressed from their first rock-cut common graves to their last massive temple complexes was between 3800 and 2400 BC. Around 2300 BC this extraordinary megalithic culture went into rapid decline. A major cause seems to have been the extreme deforestation and soil loss that accompanied the increase in population and the attendant clearing of land for agriculture. Other causes may have been famine, social disruption in response to an oppressive priesthood, and the arrival of foreign invaders. Following the decline of the temple culture, Malta may well have been deserted until the arrival of Bronze Age peoples around 2000 BC.
Statues – National Archaeological Museum
On the islands of Malta and nearby Gozo, the remains of 50 temples have been found, with 23 in various states of preservation. Nearly all of the Maltese temples are constructed in the same basic design: a central corridor leading through two or more kidney-shaped (ellipsoidal) chambers to reach a small alter apse at the far end. The earliest interiors were plastered and painted with red ochre. Later interiors were decorated with intricately carved spirals on steps and altars, friezes of farm animals, fish and snakes, and a simple pattern of pitted dots. Still evident are wall sockets for wooden barriers or curtains and niches for ritual activities. Some of the relief decoration is of such delicate work that it is difficult to understand how it could have been carried out using only stone tools. Artifacts and furnishings (now removed from the temples and placed in museums) indicate ancestor worship, oracular and fertility goddess cults. The temples seem to have been used only for ritual activity and not as cemeteries, for no burials have been found. Sacrificial flint knives are among the artifacts discovered in the temples but no human bones, indicating that sacrifices were solely of animals and not humans.
A good place to start the exploration of Neolithic Malta is the National Museum of Archaeology in the Auberge de Provence in Valletta. This is one of the “inns” or Auberge of the eight Langue or tongues of the Knights of St John which are represented on the eight pointed Maltese Cross.
Auberge de Provence, Valletta, now National Museum of Archaeology
Ceiling – National Museum of Archaeology
National Museum of Archaeology.
The National Museum of Archaeology displays an exceptional array of artifacts from Malta’s unique prehistoric periods starting with the first arrival of man in the Ghar Dalam phase (5200 BC) and running up to the Tarxien phase (2500 BC). The collection is housed in the Auberge de Provence, one of the first and most important buildings to be erected in Malta’s baroque capital city, Valletta, after the Great Siege in the late 16th century. The main hall is devoted to temple carvings, in particular the giant statue and altar blocks of Tarxien Temples. The collection continues with representations of animals, temple models, and the remarkable human figures. Of particular note are the exquisite figures of the ‘Sleeping Lady’ from the Hypogeum, and the ‘Venus’ of Hagar Qim.
‘Mother Goddess’ from Tarxien
Heading from Valletta to the “three cities” on the far side of the Grand Harbour just outside the Cottonera Line, the defensive bastion encircling the cities you come to the suburb of Paola where a short distance apart you find the Tarxien Temples and the Hypogeum at Hal Saflieni.
The Tarxien site (pronounced “tar-sheen”), discovered by a farmer in 1915 comprises three temples, one of which contains a famous statue of the lower body of a standing figure. Sometimes interpreted as a goddess statue by feminist writers (there is really no way of knowing this as the gender is indeterminate), it is one of the world’s earliest known and most powerful representations of a deity.
This site, dating from 3600 to 2500 BC, is the most complex of all temple sites in Malta and consists of four megalithic structures. The temples are renowned for the detail of their carvings, which include domestic animals carved in relief, altars, and screens decorated with spiral designs and other patterns. Of particular note is a chamber set into the thickness of the wall between the South and Central temples, which is famous for its relief of two bulls and a sow.
The site seems to have been used extensively for rituals, which probably involved animal sacrifice. Tarxien is also of great interest because it offers an insight into how the temples were constructed: stone rollers left outside the south temple were probably used for transporting the megaliths. Remains of cremation have also been found at the centre of the South temple at Tarxien, which indicates that the site was reused as a Bronze Age cremation cemetery.
Hypogeum at Hal Saflieni.
Another important temple, the Hypogeum at Hal Saflieni, departs from the norm of Maltese temples. Located close to the Tarxien temple complex in the modern suburb of Paola, it was discovered by chance in 1902 during the digging of a well. The Hypogeum is a multi-storey underground labyrinth (25 x 35 meters) consisting of chambers, halls, corridors and stairs, which over the centuries were extended deeper and deeper in to the soft limestone. Constructed (according to the orthodox chronology) between 4000 and 5000 years ago, the Hypogeum was both a sanctuary and a cemetery, and the bones of some 7000 humans have been found.
Plan of Hypogeum at Hal Saflieni
The most impressive chamber, commonly called “the holy of holies” has pillars and lintels that are architecturally remarkable. With its walls coated in red paint, it has been suggested that the chamber was used for animal sacrifices. Another chamber, the so-called Oracular room, has a square niche cut into the wall that may have been used so that a priest’s voice could echo around the temple. A mysterious quality of this particular room is that a man’s voice will powerfully reverberate around the chamber while a woman’s voice is all but absorbed by the ancient stones.
Heading to the south coast of the island on a cliff top you come to the sites of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra.
The massive ruins of Hagar Qim (pronounced “agar-eem”) and Mnajdra (pronounced “eem-na-eed-rah”) stand on a rocky plateau on the southwest coast of Malta, overlooking the sea and facing the uninhabited islet of Filfla, 4.8 kilometers away. This plateau is composed of two types of limestone; the lower, harder stone (gray coralline limestone) out of which Mnajdra is constructed, and the upper, softer stone (pale globigerina limestone) from which Hagar Qim is built.
Shrine altar – Hagar Qim
Model of Hagar Qim
The name Hagar Qim means ‘standing stones’ and previous to the excavations of these ruins all that could be seen was a mound of earth from which only the tops of the tallest stones protruded. Hagar Qim, possibly constructed in several phases between 3500 BC and 2900 BC, is built with some of the largest stones of any temple on Malta; one massive stone is 7 meters by 3 meters (22 ft by 10 ft) and weighs approximately 20 tons. The temple’s soft globigerina limestone walls have weathered badly over the millennia and later temple builders used the harder coralline limestone such as is found at Mnajdra complex just down the hill.
The Mnajdra temple complex is located about 500 meters to the west of Hagar Qim, closer to the edge of the promontory facing the sea. Mnajdra consists of two buildings, a main temple with two ellipsoidal chambers and a smaller temple with one chamber. Among their other possible uses, the temples of Mnajdra fulfilled astronomical observation and calendrical functions. The main entrance faces east, and during the spring and autumn equinoxes the first rays of light fall on a stone slab on the rear wall of the second chamber. During the winter and summer solstices, the first rays of the sun illuminate the corners of two stone pillars in the passageway connecting the main chambers. In the case of Mnajdra, the alignment today is good, but not quite perfect
Heading now across to the neighbouring island of Gozo we find many other Neolithic remains including the remarkable temple which is the oldest standing stone monument in the world named after the Maltese word for “gigantic”.
The largest and best preserved of all the Maltese temples is on Gozo (a 20-minute ferry ride from Malta). Constructed (according to the assumptions of conventional archaeology) between 3600 and 3000 BC, the temple of Gigantija covers 1000 square meters and its astonishing rear wall still rises 6 meters and contains megaliths weighing in at 40-50 tons. According to local legends, the massive blocks of Gigantija (the word means gigantic) were carved in the south of Gozo by a female giant.
How do we explain the fact that the oldest free-standing stone monuments in the world, which by virtue of there size and sophistication declare themselves to have been built by a people who had already accumulated long experience in the science of megalithic construction, appear on the archaeological scene on a group of very small islands – the Maltese archipelago – that had not even been inhabited by human beings until 1600 years ago? Wouldn’t you expect a “civilization history” to show up in the Maltese archaeological record documenting ever-more sophisticated construction techniques – and indeed wouldn’t you also expect an extensive territory capable of supporting a reasonably sized population (rather than tiny barren islands) to surround and nourish the greatest architectural leap forward of antiquity?
Paleoanthropologists excavating in the caves of Ghar Hasan and Ghar Dalam on Malta found evidence of Neanderthal humans along with the skeletal remains of animals (European deer, bear, wolf and fox) known to be extinct long before the end of the Paleolithic era. While the Neanderthal could conceivably have made the sea voyage from mainland Europe to Malta during early Paleolithic times (though there is absolutely no evidence of such sea migrations anywhere in the Neanderthal record), the animals could not have made such a sea journey and would therefore had to have somehow walked to the region of Malta. But isn’t Malta an island remotely located in the midst of a vast sea?
Malta has not always been an island and this fact we learn from oceanographers and the new science of inundation mapping. Around 17,000 years ago, at the time of the Last Ice Age, when the level of the world’s oceans was more than 120 meters lower than it is today, the islands of the Maltese archipelago were the mountain tops of one landmass joined by land-bridge to Sicily (90 kilometers to the north), which itself was joined to the southern end of what is today the Italian mainland. Therefore, until 16,400 years ago, Paleolithic humans and the animals they hunted could simply have walked from Europe all the way to Malta. These people would have lived, hunted (and perhaps farmed) mostly in the lowland areas and (like so many other cultures of antiquity) might have constructed some of their temples upon the peaks of sacred mountains. Given the many thousands of years of time during which Malta was connected by land to mainland Europe and the likelihood of information exchange from other cultural regions of prehistoric Europe, it is eminently possible that the extraordinary architectural style of the Maltese temples could have been developed.
Then the ice caps began to melt and the level of the oceans slowly rose, relentlessly inundating coastal areas and the land-bridges between higher altitude regions. By 14,600 years ago, the land-bridge to Sicily had disappeared beneath the sea and by 10,600 years ago the waters had risen so high that only the peaks of Malta were above the seas, forming the islands we have today of Malta, Gozo and Comino. In the process of this inundation the social centers in the lowland regions would have been lost beneath the waters and the people would have retreated to the higher altitudes of the Maltese peaks or would have migrated northward to Italy and the mainland of the European landmass. The Maltese archipelago would henceforth be completely isolated from European cultural influences and would therefore display unique developmental characteristics, which is exactly the case found in the archaeological record.
Perhaps the great temples of Malta were not actually constructed during Neolithic times but are in fact artifacts of a much older Paleolithic civilization (remember, there is no radio-carbon or other archaeological dating to substantiate the current assumption of a Neolithic origin of the Maltese temples). Perhaps the elegant astronomical alignments of the temples and the presence of advanced mathematics in their construction indicate that the island of Malta was once part of a pan-regional (or global) sacred geography, itself formulated by a long lost civilization of high scientific and spiritual achievement. To determine the answers to these questions it will be necessary to conduct much more extensive archaeological excavations on Malta and, equally important, at the many underwater archaeological sites known to exist in the waters surrounding the islands. Whatever their ultimate origin however, the Maltese temples are places of power not to be missed by any serious pilgrim and earth mysteries aficionado and a source of curious fascination to visitors.
“Venus” of Malta