The Megalithic Temples of Malta

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An overview of the megalithic temples of Malta which date back to the Neolithic period....These temples must have been built by the local communities over a span of 1,500 years at least.

Submitted: June 07, 2016

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Submitted: May 15, 2016





It is reckoned that the first settlers who first reached the Maltese archipelago, around 5200 BC came from Sicily, the nearest island to Malta, situated  92 kilometres North. Once settled on these islands there soon formed small farming communities on both Malta as well as on Gozo. They inhabited such caves, such as G?ar Dalam and built small huts similar to the traditional local girna.


At around 4,000 BC, a fresh inflow of immigrants settled in Malta, carrying with them their own cultural characteristics. These too came from Sicily, as they are easily recognisable from their pottery which were found mostly in tombs. This cultural group was also made up of farmers and so their survival depended on the natural benevolence of the earth and climate where they lived. They chose to live in valleys where they would best be served by more fertile land and a good water supply. This has to be said because, unlike Sicily, which is the largest island in the Mediterranean and quite hilly, one cannot  speak of rivers in Malta. Once these communities suffered a drought then they would be facing starvation. Thus they not only dug out cisterns of sorts to hold water for their collective use, they also built places of rituals and devotion where they would pray to their gods to deliver them from droughts.


Around 3,800 BC, these farming communities began to construct places of worship. This they did by using the only raw material that they found available, great stone boulders which, forat least  the first few attempts, they must have found lying around especially at the bottom of hilly outcrops. Eventually stone slabs as large as two to four metres in length were cut out from stone quarries.


One of the earliest constructed temples that was built was that of Ta' ?a?at, located in the tiny village of M?arr, Malta. It is believed that the ?gantija prehistoric temple built on the hilly terrain of Xag?ra in Gozo, was also contemporaneously built as the one in M?arr. In all, there are to be found some 26 megalithic temple sites in Malta and Gozo. Some of these are built in clusters of two or three temples, each, others stand on their own. One cluster in particular has four temples abutting each other. In all, these temple sites actually amount to a total of some 36 temples, or at least the ruins of them.  But there could have been more too.


All temples that were built follow the same pattern, or almost. They are megalithic structures built in the form of a trefoil shape, that is, they are often made up of three semicircular rooms that open onto a central courtyard like a trefoil leaf. The original structure was further enhanced quite often by another pair of rooms, abutting the first trefoil. Some interpret this architectural style to have been designed on purpose to represent, at least symbolically, the figure of the fat goddess, similar in shape to the ones often found as stone statues in various megalithic sites. These statues vary in size from a few centimetres to a larger than life sized figure of the Mother Goddess. Thus, the shape of the temples may have well represented the head, arms and legs of the fertility goddess.


The largest temple-complex ever found is that of Tarxien, a town situated on the south-eastern side of Malta. This is the most complete single monument dating to prehistoric times. The layout of this complex is made up of three temples, all built in different periods and then another one, probably the oldest and much smaller in size, is situated a few metres away. It is the temple in the middle that is apparently the youngest of them all, and so it had to be fitted in between two others in order to develop one unique grand temple premises. In some places a quantity of convoluted spiral designs were found to adorn the temple from the inside.


Excavations inside this Tarxien temple in between 1914 - 1916 yielded concrete proof that animals such as sheep, goats and pigs were sacrificed as part of a ritual to appease Mother Earth thus ensuring abundant harvests. Inside a sacrificial altar there were found bones of such domestic animals. Right next to the same sacrificial altar was located a statue that measured in size somewhat up to 2 metres in its original height.


Not more than 800 metres away from the Tarxien Temples there is the Hypogeum in the nearby suburb of Paola. This is different than all the other megalithic temples found on the Maltese archipelago. The Hypogeum is a conglomeration of rock-cut rooms that were dug out to serve as a burial place for the defunct of the same communities. It was discovered by accident in 1902, as a house was having its cistern hewn out underneath it. The upper chambers of this complex, those closest to street level, must have been extended from one or several caves that were to be found in an area where the terrain formed the topmost part of a rich valley. At the street level of the Hypogeum, it is believed was also a small megalithic temple.


The  deepest chamber within this complex  reach 10.6 meters beneath the road surface. Apart from the purpose of burial, more in the way of an ossarium, the Hyogeum must have attracted at a later time devotees who would hold rituals in some of the rooms, but especially in the temple part, known as the Holy of Holies. When discovered, the Hypogeum was estimated that the place could have held the remains of some 7,000 persons. The Hypogeum had many of its rooms painted in red ochre in designs that resemble exactly the spiral reliefs that were found in some of the megalithic temples. Various rooms and pits yielded numerous stone and bone amulets as well as bone and alabaster figurines. One of these figurines was made of clay that was fired to become one of the most significant artistic figures found from all the megalithic sites in Malta and Gozo. This statuette became very famous and eventually was named  the Sleeping Lady. Other personal ornaments such as beads and jewellery, and small carved designs of animals were also found.


The Ha?ar Qim temple complex is also an impressive monument, located as it is, one kilometre to the southwest of the village of Qrendi and the popular Blue Grotto, overlooking the southern coast of Malta.  ?a?ar Qim, which in Maltese means Standing Stones, was constructed totally from globigerina limestone boulders which were hewn out of quarries. The lower slabs of the outer walls, as well as the blocks of the internal chambers stand upright. On these boulders there rest on their sides, lines of stone slabsthat have other rows resting on them in a semi-circular manner as if they were intended to form a corbelling system to close up at the top. This, however, is not the case. The upper layers were intended to reach a certain height so that the space would be smaller and so the room would be covered over by wooden timber beams that stretched from one side to the other.


 The Mnajdra  temple complex, is situated a mere 300 metres downhill, to the North West of ?a?ar Qim. Here the stone slabs are also neatly dressed and carefully fitted together. This time however, the outer walls consist of coralline limtestone, which is a harder type than the globigerina of the ?a?ar Qim temple. Similar to ?a?ar Qim, some of  the walls are built in the corbelling fashion, as if to achieve the round shape effect according to a defined style.


All megalithic temples in Malta and Gozo share other common features typical of the temple period. One will note that holes are located inside the entrance of the temples. These were  perforated in order to receive hinges where light wooden door frames would be bound by rope. There are then also other larger holes that were used to fit inside them the end of a wooden beam across the passage. This was to reinforce the door from being broken in.


On the floor in front of the temple's main entrance there are to be seen other holes hewn out in the rock in pairs and joining one another like a tunnel hole from underneath, just like the holes of a shirt button, but larger of course. These holes were possibly used to tether animals to, but also for libation,  whereby the blood of the slaughteredsacrificial animals was poured into, as a way of fertilising Mother Earth. As a matter of fact, similar holes were also found in the innermost part of the Hypogeum , known as the Holy of Holies; in the latter case however, the meaning would be slightly different. The libations placed here were meant to appease the Earth and so ensure that those buried inside the Earth's 'womb' would be well preserved throughout their gestation period up until  they were reborn.


 It is believed that the Megalithic Temple period in Malta lasted until about 2BC. Therefore the span of years when the temples remained in use is vast, 1,500 years in all. For a people who were illiterate and deprived of any hieroglyphic messages whatsoever, it is astonishing to note that the this religious tradition kept on going from one generation to another. The temples were finally abandoned around 2,500 BC. Some attribute this phenomenon to an epidemic which must have destroyed all of the communities; others attribute this sudden demise of the temple culture to a drought that forced the indigineous communities to seek refuge in nearby Sicily where they aspired to survive in the bigger valleys that contain running water in greater abundance than in Malta.


There seems to be a lapse of some two hundred years before another cultural group becomes distinctly visible in the Maltese archaeological strata. These were yet fresh waves of migratory groups from Sicily, which were to be labelled by archaeologists as the Bronze Age people. These found some of the temple ruins useful to bury inside them their dead; or rather they used the Tarxien temple site as a form of  crematorium. Following this period some of the temples were evidently used by the sea-faring Phoenicians as well as from around 700 BC. Later on the temples fell into complete disuse and soon disappeared beneath the landscape, by their own broken vestiges that were soon covered over by natural vegetation.


7th June 2016

Martin Morana

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