The megalithic temples found on the island of Malta are shrouded in mystery. Their construction was an amazing feat of human ingenuity for a time when it would have been thought impossible for such creations. They are thought to be the oldest free-standing structures in the world; older than Egypt’s pyramids and England’s Stonehenge. They were built by ancient inhabitants of the island now known as ‘The Temple Builders’ during the Ggantija period of Maltese civilisation from 4000 BC to 2500 BC. For centuries the temples were lost to history, covered by the soil of passing time that kept them beautifully preserved until archaeologists re-discovered them in the 19th century. Their significance and uniqueness meant that they were designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Not much is known about the people that built these amazing structures. What is known is that they were descendants from Malta’s first inhabitants who are thought to have come from Sicily around 5000 BC. These people were farmers and are known to have worshiped a mother goddess. The only facts known about the sacred rites that took place in the temples is that there were animal sacrifices and that the inner rooms were only small enough to hold a few people; meaning that it is likely that only the spiritual leaders met here to practise the rites. However, there are still more questions than answers about these ancient people who did not leave any evidence of writing behind them when they seemed to mysteriously vanish around 2500 BC.
The temples are made from stone with a number of chambers in a cloverleaf shape with incomplete domes that would have been roofed using timber poles and animal hides. Inside the temples statues of a voluptuous woman have been found, representing a female deity. As the temple building period progressed, the temples became more sophisticated changing from a cloverleaf shape to a more circular floor plan. What can be safely said is that due to the huge complexity of building and maintaining of the temples for the time, they obviously played a very important role in the lives of the people.
The Mnajdra Temples sit isolated on the cliffs of the south coast of Malta near Qrendi. The site contains three separate temples sharing an oval forecourt. The first of these temples, the upper temple, was built sometime between 3600 and 3200 BC. The third temple, the lower temple, was built sometime between 3150 and 2500 BC and is arguably the most impressive megalithic temple in Malta. This temple has an entrance passage that leads from the forecourt. On the forecourt there are a number or benches. The temple lines up perfectly, so that the sun shines directly in during the equinoxal sunrises. It is fantastically adorned with spiral carvings on the stone and windows that let you peer into other rooms in the temple.
Hagar Qim Temples
The Hagar Qim Temples are only a few hundred metres from the Mnajdra Temples, but these are made from weaker stone and are older, having been built around 3600 to 3200 BC. The temples here consist of one main temple and three surrounding megalithic structures. It has a forecourt very similar to its neighbour, the Mnajdra Temples.
Borg In-Nadur Temples
One of the youngest temple sites in Malta are the Borg In-Nadur Temples. They can be found in the south of Malta near Birzebbuga and were built around 2000 BC. This temple complex is interesting because of its four apse temple and Bronze Age settlement that had a defensive wall. It is also interesting to note that the defensive wall was constructed in front of the settlement protecting it from possible attackers coming by land and not the sea behind it.
Other significant temples on Malta are the Tarxien Temples near the southern town of Tarxien, the Ta’ Hagrat temple in Mgarr, in Malta’s northwest; and the Skorba Temples near Zebbiegh.
I was astonished to read all the above about the Megalithic Temples in Malta, I had no idea they are even older that Stonehenge! We are so accustomed to regarding places like Greece as the perfect location for visiting historical sights that Malta has been almost completely shadowed by them. Since I have been to many historical locations in my life, Malta is definitely going to be the next one, as it seems to have an abundance of ancient and medieval places to see.
I am from Ireland and we also have some megalithic structures, such as the Newgrange, so Malta is not the only European region with Stonehenge to boast with such. However, Malta’s temples are unique and well worth visiting, as they bear witness to ancient religion and culture, which is otherwise rather unknown. I was most impressed with Mnajdra and Haqar Qim.