The megalithic monuments of Malta that we are about to investigate are customarily called "temples" (Zammit 1929). However, there are no written sources to support this assumption, and all the evidence we have on the function of these structures is circumstantial, as we shall soon see. To follow custom, I, too, will use the word temple to refer to the monuments built on Malta between 3800 and 2500 BC. But we should not allow ourselves to be lulled into thinking that we know what purpose they really served.
The temples of Malta, together with the most ancient megalithic monuments of northwestern Europe such as Kercado, are among the first stone constructions ever built, predating Egypt's pyramids and Stonehenge (very recently, new, exceptional discoveries by the group of Klaus Schmidt of Heidelberg University in the Turkish site of Gobekli Tepe are actually retro-dating megalithic constructions as early as 10,000 BC). Describing the Maltese temples is no easy matter, for we habitually conflate the interior and exterior plan of a building into a single entity, assuming that the exterior plan is synonymous with the outermost walls of the interior floor plan, the only difference being the more or less constant thickness of the walls. On Malta, however, the outside and inside walls are two different things entirely, for they have different shapes and are often positioned at significant distances from one another, such that tens of thousands of cubic meters of earth and rubble were required to fill the voids thereby created (both the exterior and interior walls are made with colossal facing stones). The exterior footprint was plotted by inscribing two circles onto the ground, centered on a line that would become the major axis of the finished building, then cutting away an arc of the outermost circle, and putting the facade in correspondence to this cut.
The interior floor plan is composed of one or more spaces, each configured as twin lobes, or apses, their axis perpendicular to the entrance. The exterior wall thus masks the complexity of the interior, like a simple, sturdy shell designed to contain and protect a more intricate organism within. The sequence of apses can vary in complexity and seems to suggest a kind of modular evolution, one that consists either of the successive addition of more apses while maintaining the overall plan, or of the addition of other temples alongside the preexisting ones. The guiding logic of the interiors of Maltese temples is unique in all the world, and at a first glance seems to elude all attempts at interpretation. It has been suggested, for instance, that it derives from the archaic tombs at Skorba, on the main island. But the argument seems forced, and in any case one would first need to explain the "lobed" floor plans of the Skorba tombs. In truth, however, the solution—written, of course, in the stones themselves—is readily apparent to anyone who knows how to look (so readers may figure it out before it is discussed in Chapter 15).
The temples were almost certainly covered by corbelled domes, a masonry technique in which courses of stone are tapered inward as they rise toward the top, eventually meeting in the center. Probably only a few of these roofs used stone for the uppermost courses, while the majority were finished with wood, though we cannot be sure since no roofs have survived. Of the approximately 40 megalithic temples originally built on Malta, only four are well conserved. Each of them underwent various phases of construction, whether it was the addition of apses to existing interiors or the construction of whole new adjacent temples. The oldest of them, on the island of Gozo, dates back to around 3500 BC, and never has a name been more appropriate (and unpronounceable) for describing a work of architecture: Ggantija, the place of the giants.
Ggantija is composed of two very similar structures built at a time difference of several centuries from one another. The basic module is a trilobate cloverleaf form, with an ovular entryway that leads inside by way of a small corridor delimited by giant facing stones. The design, execution, and scale of the temples are truly majestic: the interior walls are made from limestone blocks that soar more than 6 meters above the stone slab floors, and both buildings are enclosed by a peripheral embankment wall in the form of a bean, or pinched oval, built with an interesting technique that positions limestone slabs as large as 4.5 meters, alternating them vertically and horizontally. The facade that once connected the two temples has since collapsed, its enormous blocks now occupying the space between the entrances. The interior reveals a number of features common to Maltese temples, most notably the geometric dotted-line decorations chiseled into the stones.
While Ggantija is situated a ways inland, on the hills that slope gently down from the center of Gozo toward the sea, the site of the Hagar Qim temple is rather more dramatic, and extraordinarily beautiful as well (Plate 5). Hagar Qim (3000-2500 BC) indeed sits atop a ridge that plummets precipitously toward the coast in the direction of Filfla, an islet to the northwest of Malta. Its monumental facade, composed of two courses of megaliths, bears a very close resemblance to a carved scale model that was found at Ta Hagrat, another Maltese temple, today in ruins. The external walls incorporate the largest single stone block of all the island's temples: nearly 6 meters long, 3 meters wide, and more than 1 meter thick, its weight is estimated at over 30 tons. Following along the outer walls, the visitor is struck by other monoliths that seem to have their own distinct "personality" and their own symbolism; one towers over the rest like an obelisk, another is decidedly phallic, while two others abut to create a lacuna at their seam that renders the combined figure strongly reminiscent of a human pelvis, the gateway of life.
The interior floor plan shares the same lobate modularity we saw at Ggantija, though here it is more complex. In a certain sense, Hagar Qim is a double temple, originally built on a bilobate plan, later expanded on the left
(with respect to the entrance) with the addition of new apses. It is in these spaces that we find what appear to be stone altars whose oddly mushroomlike form may have been inspired (at least in my view) by certain natural features typical of the Gozo's coast. Some of the wall slabs are decorated with dot patterns, others are cut with rectangular "windows" that provide a view or access into other spaces.
As for the matter of the structure's purpose, it is not unreasonable to suspect that it may have been of a religious nature, even if the details elude us completely. What is certain is that a number of female statuettes were found at Hagar Qim that, like the sleeping figure we discussed at the beginning of the chapter, are endowed with highly exaggerated feminine features. Traces of what were probably animal sacrifice rituals have also been found here. Archaeologists find further evidence of religious activity in the so-called oracular windows, round holes cut through certain wall slabs which are thought to have been used toward oracular and confessional ends, the priest on one side, the congregants on the other. It is a nice idea, but it lacks even circumstantial proof. True, similar practices are well documented in Egypt and Greece, but not until thousands of years later.
From the ridge where the temple stands, the panorama encompasses the islet of Filfla, the coast below, and, about halfway down the steep slope, the
temple of Mnajdra. In ancient times Filfla may not have been separated from the mainland, given the shallowness of the sea floor between them, and was probably part of a small peninsula guarded by the temples; unfortunately, there is little hope of learning more, for the islet has been used for decades as an artillery training target. Mnajdra communicates with Hagar Qim by a footpath that is paved today but that certainly corresponds to an ancient road—the urge to call it Via Sacra is strong—that connected the two temples. All along both sides, one can still see the quarry banks from which the monoliths of hard gray limestone were hewn. The temple (3000-2500 BC) is composed of three trilobate structures, two of which share an oviform entrance space and an exterior wall; as at Hagar Qim, we find the same characteristic dot patterns and oracular windows. On one of the entryway stones of Mnajdra 2, there is a carved image of what the temple would have looked like fully intact.
The fourth well-conserved temple on Malta is Tarxien (3000-2500 BC), which consists of three buildings (there was a fourth, the oldest of all, of which very little remains today). The floor plan here is very complex, though fundamentally based like the others on a lobed structure with the addition of oviform apses. Enormous stones are everywhere; even the raised floor is made with huge limestone slabs. The feature that makes Tarxien so unique,
however, is in the first apse to the right of the entrance: a larger than life-size statue of a human figure. Though all that survives of the figure is from the waist down, one need only to have seen one of Malta's many other statues of fat women in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta to imagine her whole, standing at what would have been about 3 meters tall. Tarxien, like the other Maltese temples, is therefore interpreted as a shrine to a divinity traditionally called the Mother Goddess, with some scholars going so far as to say that the Tarxien statue is the goddess, given that it is the only one on such a grand scale that we know of (Plate 6).
The Tarxien excavation also brought to light a number of slabs carved with animal motifs in the dotted line technique we have seen elsewhere on Malta (the originals are conserved at the museum in Valletta, along with the original "Goddess"), as well as graffiti in one of the interior apses representing a bull and a sow with piglets. Evidence of animal sacrifices was detected in the large stone vases found in the temple, and in the concavities of the floor. The full picture, however, is still vague: the fact that the vases contained animal bones does not necessarily prove that animals were sacrificed ritually, for they may just as well have been slaughtered there to be eaten. To understand the difficulties we face when interpreting mute artifacts like these, the debate among archaeologists over the small circular holes found in many of the doorway slabs of Maltese temples (much smaller than the "oracular windows'') is particularly helpful: approximately half the scholarly literature on Malta's temples claims that these holes were like hitching posts, used to secure animals prior to sacrificing them.
The other half identifies them as rope holes for transporting the blocks.
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