Must See: the temples in Malta and on the sister island, Gozo.
It’s likely once you arrive in Malta, that you will be compelled, as I was, to visit the UNESCO World Heritage temple sites. Seeing them was a fascinating experience inspiring me to unearth exactly what they were built for.
THE OLDEST FREE STANDING STRUCTURES IN THE WORLD.
Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Ggantija
Carbon dating tells us that around 4100 bc the temples began to be constructed, not long after the first inhabitants of Malta settled around 5200 BC. They came from Sicily by raft, bringing with them flint and obsidian with which to make tools – rocks not found on Malta or Gozo. The temples are considered to be the oldest free standing structures in the world.
A feat of hard work and dedication
Upon entering, one is struck by the awesome size of the enormous megalith curiously placed. It makes one consider how anyone lifted and moved the 20 tonne plinth into position.
The large 20 tonne bastion stone at Hagar Qim, Malta.
It appears the plinth was levered on to ball bearings – without machinery, using only human power!
Both sites Hagar Qim, Malta and Ggantija on Gozo are built with semi circular apses each connected with a central passage.
Hagar Qim, is indeed intriguing, yet there is another independent temple complex, Mnajdra, connected by a 550 metre long track. A walk makes for a pleasant break from the site which can also be accessed by an electric mini car for a very small fee.
It’s a lovely walk down the track smelling the scents of both the sea and air. Across the garrigue terrain, dry earth loving Mediterranean and Africa shrubs and wild flowers, such as the sea squil and indigenuous species: flea bane and Maltese spurge prosper. Very sparse tree cover includes carob and fig trees.
Mjandra Temple, Malta
Unlike Hagar Qim this temple was constructed in two ways. On the outside with hard coralline limestone whilst the inner sanctum was constructed from the softer globigerina limestone, allowing decoration to be made more easily. Dimples and spiral patterns have been found on plinths here.
Mnajdra, built 3600 – 3200 bc is more mysterious. It’s a special place, pointing to the South East, overlooking the little island of Ffilifa. It is thought that it was used for calendric reasons as there are solar alignments. It is thought that it was probably used for astronomical observations. There is a model in the visitor centre which allows the vsitor to see what it looks like when the sun is in alignment with the entrance on the summer solstice and a similar alignment on the winter solstice. It reminds me somewhat of Stonehenge.
Ggantija Temples at Gozo
No trip to Malta would really be complete without taking the short ferry ride to Gozo. There the temple thought to have been built by giants stands. Gee- gant-ee-ya. These are the oldest free standing structures in the world.
I have discovered much about why the temple builders went to all this trouble of manoeuvring megaliths into temple sites.
What’s it all for and Why visit?
As most Neolithic sites tend to be burial chambers, but these aren’t, I wonder what made our ancestors construct such mammoth works of Art? To our Neolithic ancestors I understand that rituals and symbols were important to the temple builders’ way of life. Human beings have always had a thirst for creating; for making meaning out of living – not only living to eat, take shelter and procreate. With natural, found resources this has been possible. Scores of sharks tooth and pottery beads, figurines and animal representations have been found.
The ‘fat ladies’ are renowned as a symbol of fertility on Malta and Gozo: the belief that women were goddesses of fertility, an idea held in high esteem in Malta and Gozo. Could this have led to the erection of the temples?
But it seems that there were other uses for them too. None are used as burial chambers, like most in Britain, Egypt and other parts of Malta, for example the Hypogeum which was at first a sanctuary, only later becoming a necropolis.
One lady with a head – one without! (Found at Ggantija, Gozo)
What were the temples used for?
It seems that there were five chief uses :
Models of diseased pilgrims have been found in the temples making it likely that the temples were in part used for places of healing.
There is evidence of altar tables in the temples – a slab raised on a dais – the Holy of Holies – with a carving of a snake (now in Gozo museum). It has links to rebirth and reincarnation. There is a purification hole at Ggantija where one would wash their feet and hands before entry. Did people go there to be spiritually purified?
Many goddesses of fertility have been found in all of the sites including Tarxien and Skorba. Though they have either no heads, or detachable heads. Many of these fat ladies with large hips and ample bosoms have been found in Hagar Qim. Those were found squatting and headless – only two were found at Ggantija. Nobody clearly knows why. Except that Neolithic man saw in mother nature the link to the tree of life – to reincarnation – some figurines have been fond that are curled in the foetal position – perhaps awaiting rebirth. Neolithic man saw mother nature giving birth to children, the fruits, the crops and so it could be that symbols were created of her in reverence to her in the form of pottery figurines as a devotion to the goddesses of fertility.
There are altar tables though it is not clear what they were used for. It is highly likely it was for offering sacrifices. No human remains were ever found, but animal remains have been found suggesting some sacrifice was likely on the altars. Were they offered to the goddesses of fertility?
5. Oracle Holes, Astrological observations and Divination
Oracles were called upon to seek advice and maybe to interpret dreams. Oracle holes have been found across the sites in Malta and Gozo they seem uniform at 60cm in height. (Tarxien, Ggantija and Hagar Qim). They seem to be similar to oracle holes found in other parts of the world where cutting holes into stones was a ritual or a symbol.
It’s been fascinating – it has raised more questions about our humanity, but I have learned that Neolithic man had a sensitivity to nature, was grateful, was aware of time and was artistic.
If you would like to know more about some of the temple uses highlighted, or plan a trip for your self – further information can be found below:
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With thanks to the Ggantija Temple UNESCO site and Archaeological Museum , Gozo .
http://heritagemalta.org/museums-sites/hal-saflieni-hypogeum/ Check and book before going as it is currently undergoing renovation and holds only 10 people at a time. If you would like to read a blog about it: http://first2board.com/wanderlusty/2014/07/getting-last-minute-ticket-maltas-hypogeum-hal-saflieni/
The Heritage Malta Family Multisite Pass
enables admission for 2 adults & 2 children to 22 Heritage Malta sites and museums (except Hypogeum) plus the Malta National Aquarium. Holders of this ticket also benefit from a 10% discount at any Heritage Malta museum shop.
Price 40 euros – Adult
15 euros – Child.
It is valid for 30 days.
Bus no 201 from the airport, or Valletta. Or take the Hop on Hop Off sight seeing bus. Buses are regular and inexpensive.
Entrance Fee: Adult 9 Euros, Child 4.50 euros. Concessionary tickets are also available. See below for details on multi museum passes.
Best to: leave a full day to explore comfortably, the sites and the visitor centre.
Eating: There’s a good restaurant on site at Hagar Qim. Down at Blue Grotto there is a choice, though Blue Creek restaurant is particularly good, serving light snacks as well as sumptuous local fare, atop the Dingli cliffs overlooking the beautiful coast. Set Menu 25 euros a head, A la carte-9-16 euros
Nearby: Blue Grotto lovely swimming to cool off in summer, as well as boat trips out to the Blue Grotto caverns. m
Ggantija, Gozo: Most things are only 10 minutes away from the capital, Rabat – so the choice is yours!