Megalithic Temples of Malta

The Megalithic Temples of Malta are a series of prehistoric monuments in the Maltese archipelago. Archaeologists believe that these megalithic complexes are the result of local innovations in a process of cultural evolution. This led to the building of several temples of the Ġgantija phase (3600-3000 BC) and culminated in the large Tarxien temple complex, which remained in use until 2500 BC. After this date, the temple building culture disappeared.

The Ġgantija temples were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. In 1992, the UNESCO Committee decided to further extend the existing listing to include five other megalithic temple sites. These are Ħaġar Qim, L-ImnajdraШаблон:Ref label, Ta' Ħaġrat, Ta' Skorba and Tarxien. Heritage Malta today protects the sites, while ownership of the surrounding lands varies site-by-site. They are the oldest free-standing structures on Earth.<ref></ref><ref></ref><ref>David Trump et al., Malta Before History (2004: Miranda Publishers)</ref>



Many of the names used to refer to the different sites carry a link with the stones used for their building. The Maltese word for boulders, 'ħaġar' is common to Ta’Ħaġrat and Ħaġar Qim. While the former uses the word in conjunction with the marker of possession, the latter adds the word 'Qim' , which is either a form of the Maltese word for 'worship' or an archaic form of the word meaning 'standing'.

Maltese folklore describes giants as having built the temples, which led to the name Ġgantija, meaning 'Giants’ tower' .<ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The Maltese linguist Joseph Aquilina believed that Mnajdra was the diminutive of 'mandra' , meaning a plot of ground planted with cultivated trees; however he also named the arbitrary derivation from the arabic root 'manzara' , meaning 'a place with commanding views.'<ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The Tarxien temples owe their name to the locality in which they were found (from Tirix, meaning a large stone), as were the remains excavated at Skorba.



The temples were the result of several phases of construction, from circa 3500 to 2500 BC; there is evidence of human activity in the islands since the Early Neolithic Period (ca. 5000 BC), testified by pottery shards, charred remains of fires and bones.<ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The dating and understanding of the various phases of activity in the temples is not easy. The main problem found is that the sites themselves are evolutionary in nature, in that each successive temple brought with it further refinement to architectural development.

Furthermore, in some cases, later Bronze-age peoples built their own sites over the Neolithic temples, thus adding an element of confusion to early researchers who did not have modern dating technology. Sir Temi Żammit, an eminent Maltese archaeologist of the late nineteenth century, had dated the Neolithic temples to 3600 BC and the Tarxien Bronze Age culture to 2000 BC.<ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> These dates were considered “considerably too high” by scholars<ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>, who proposed a reduction of half a millennium each<ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> however radiocarbon testing favoured Żammit’s dating. A theory that the temple art was connected with an Aegean-derived culture collapsed with this proof of the temples' elder origins.<ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>

Temple phases

The development of the chronological phases, based on recalibrated radiocarbon dating, has split the period up to the Bronze Age in Malta into eleven distinct phases. The first evidence of human habitation in the Neolithic occurred in the Għar Dalam phase, in c. 5000 BC. The Temple period, from c. 4100 BC to roughly 2500 BC, produced the most notable monumental remains. This period is split into five phases, however the first two of these left mostly pottery shards. The next three phases, starting from the Ġgantija phase, begins in c. 3600 BC, and the last, the Tarxien phase, ends in c. 2500 BC.

Ġgantija phase (3600–3200 BCE)

The Ġgantija phase is named after the Ġgantija site in Gozo. It represents an important development in the cultural evolution of neolithic man on the islands. To this date belong the earliest datable temples and the first two, if not three, of the stages of development in their ground plan: the lobed or kidney-shaped plan found in Mġarr east, the trefoil plan evident in Skorba, Kordin and various minor sites, and the five-apsed plan Ġgantija South, Tarxien East. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>

Saflieni phase (3300–3000 BCE)

The Saflieni phase constitutes a transitional phase between two major periods of development. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> Its name derives from the site of the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni.This period carried forward the same characteristics of the Ġgantija pottery shapes, but it also introduces new biconical bowls.<ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>

Tarxien phase: (3150–2500 BCE)

The Tarxien phase marks the peak of the temple civilisation. This phase is named after the temple-complex at Tarxien, a couple of kilometres inland from the Grand Harbour. To it belong the last two stages in the development of the temple plan. The western temple at Ġgantija represents, along with other units in Tarxien, Ħaġar Qim and L-Imnajdra, the penultimate stage in development, that is, the introduction of a shallow niche instead of an apse at the far end of the temple. The final stage is testified in only one temple, the central unit at Tarxien, with its three symmetrical pairs of apses. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The Temple culture reached its climax in this period, both in terms of the craftsmanship of pottery, as well as in sculptural decoration, both free-standing and in relief. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>

Spiral reliefs resembling those which are evident at Tarxien once adored the Ġgantija temples, but have faded to a level where they are only clearly recognisable in a series of drawings made by the artist Charles de Brochtorff in 1829, immediately after the temples’ excavation. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The Tarxien phase is characterised by a rich variety of pottery forms and decorative techniques. Most shapes tend to be angular, with almost no handles or lugs. The clay tends to be well prepared and fired very hard, while the surface of the scratched ware is also highly polished. This scratched decoration remains standard, but it becomes more elaborate and elegant, the most popular motif being a kind of volute. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>

Architecture and Construction

The Maltese temple complexes were built in different locations, and over a wide span of years; while each has individual site has its unique characteristics, they all share a common architecture. The approach to the temples lies on an oval forecourt, levelled by terracing if the terrain is sloping. The forecourt is bounded on one side by the temples’ own façades, which faces south or south-east. The monuments’ façades and internal walls are made up of orthostats, a row of large stone slabs laid on end. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>

The centre of the façades is usually interrupted by an entrance doorway forming a trilithon, a pair of orthostats surmounted by a massive lintel slab. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> Further trilithons form a passage, which is always paved in stone. This in turn opens onto an open space, which then gives way to the next element, a pair of D-shaped chambers, usually referred to as ‘apses’, opening on both sides of the passage. The space between the apses’ walls and the external boundary wall is usually filled with loose stones and earth, sometimes containing cultural debris including pottery shards. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>

The main variation in the temples lies in the number of apses found; this may vary to three, four, five or six. If three, they open directly from the central court in a trefoil fashion. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> In cases of more complex temples, a second axial passage is built, using the same trilithon construction, leading from the first set of apses into another later pair, and either a fifth central or a niche giving the four or five apsial form. In one case, at the Tarxien central temple, the fifth apse or niche is replaced by a further passage, leading to a final pair of apses, making six in all. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> With the standard temple plan, found in some thirty temples across the islands, there is a certain amount of variation both in the number of apses, and in the overall length – ranging from 6.5m in the Mnajdra east temple to 23m in the six-apsed Tarxien central temple.

The external walls were usually built of coralline limestone, which is harder than the globigerina limestone used in the internal sections of the temples. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The softer globigerina was used for decorative elements within the temples, usually carvings. These features are usually sculpted in relief, and they show a variety of designs linked to vegetative or animal symbolism. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> These usually depict running spiral motifs, trees and plants as well as a selection of animals. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> Although in their present form the temples are unroofed, a series of unproven theories regarding possible ceiling and roof structures have been debated for several years.<ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>

The UNESCO Sites



The Ġgantija temples stand at the end of the Xagħra plateau, facing towards the south-east. Its presence was known for a very long time, and even before any excavations were carried out a largely correct plan of its layout was drawn by Jean-Pierre Hoüel in the late eighteenth century. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> In 1827, the site was cleared of debris – the soil and remains being lost without proper examination. <ref name = zammayr1>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The loss resulting from this clearance was partially compensated by the German artist Brochtorff, who painted the site within a year or two from the removal of the debris. This is the only practical record of the clearance.

A boundary wall encloses the two temples. The southerly one is the elder, and is better preserved. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The plan of the temple incorporates five large apses, with traces of the plaster which once covered the irregular wall still clinging between the blocks. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>

Ta’ Ħaġrat


The Ta' Ħaġrat temple in Mġarr is on the eastern outskirts of the village, roughly one kilometer from the Ta' Skorba temples.<ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The remains consist of a double temple, made up of two adjacent complexes, both in the shape of a trefoil. The two parts are both less regularly planned and smaller in size than many of the other neolithic temples in Malta, and no blocks are decorated.<ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> Sir Temi Żammit excavated the site in 1925-27. A village on the site that pre-dates the temples by centuries has provided plentiful examples of what is now known as Mġarr phase pottery.<ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>

Ta’ Skorba (Skorba)


The importance of this site lies less in the remains than in the information garnered from their excavations. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> This monument has a typical three-apsed shape of the Ġgantija phase, of which the greater part of the first two apses and the whole of the façade have been destroyed to ground level. What remains are the stone paving of the entrance passage, with its perforations, the torba floors,Шаблон:Ref label and a large upright slab of coralline limestone. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The north wall is in better shape; originally the entrance opened on a court, but the doorway was later closed off in the Tarxien phase, with altars set in the corners formed by the closure. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> East of this temple, a second monument was added in the Tarxien phase, with four apses and a central niche. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> Before the temples were built, the area had supported a village over a period of roughly twelve centuries.

The oldest structure is the eleven metre long straight wall to the west of the temples’ first entrance. <ref name= TrumpSkorba >Шаблон:Citation</ref> The deposit against it contained material from the first known human occupation of the island, the Għar Dalam phase. Among the domestic deposits found in this material, which included charcoal and carbonised grain, there were several fragments of daub, accidentally baked. The charcoal fragments were then radiocarbon dated, and their age analysis stood at 4850 BC.

Ħaġar Qim


Ħaġar Qim stands on a ridge some two kilometers away from the village of Qrendi. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> Its builders used the soft globigerina limestone that caps the ridge to construct the temple. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> One can clearly see the effects of this choice in the outer southern wall, where the great orthostats are exposed to the sea-winds. Here the temple has suffered from severe weathering and surface flaking over the centuries. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>

The temple’s façade is typical, with a trilithon entrance, a bench and orthostats. It has a wide forecourt, with a retaining wall, through which a passage runs through the middle of the building. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> This entrance passage and first court follow the common, though considerably modified, Maltese megalithic design. A separate entrance gives access to four enclosures, which are independent of each other, and which replace The north-westerly apse. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>



L-Imnajdra temples lies in a hollow 500 metres from Ħaġar Qim. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> It is another complex site in its own right, and it is centred on a near circular forecourt. Three adjacent temples overlook it from one side, while a terrace from the other separates it from a steep slope which runs down to the sea. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The first buildings on the right are small irregular chambers, similar to the enclosures in Ħaġar Qim. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> Then there is a small trefoil temple, dating from the Ġgantija phase, with pitted decorations. Its unusual triple entrance was copied on a larger scale in the second temple. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The middle temple was actually the last to be built, inserted between the others in the Tarxien phase, after 3100 BC. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> It has four apses and a niche.

The third temple, built early in the Tarxien phase and so second in date, opens on the court at a lower level. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> It has a markedly concave façade, with a bench, orthostats and trilithon entrance. The southern temple is oriented astronomically aligned with the rising sun during solstices and equinoxes; during the summer solstice the first rays of sunlight light up the edge of a decorated megalith between the first apses, while during the winter solstice the same effect occurs on a megalith in the opposite apse. During the equinox, the rays of the rising sun pass straight through the principal doorway to reach the innermost central niche. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>


The Tarxien temple complex is found some 400 metres to the east of the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The three temples found here were seriously excavated in the early twentieth century by Temi Żammit. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> Unlike the other sites, this temple is bounded on all sides by modern urban development; however this does not detract its value. One enters into the first great forecourt of the southern temple, marked by its rounded façade and a cistern, which is attributed to the temple. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The earliest temple to the north-east was built between 3600 and 3200 BC; it consisted of two parallel sets of semi-circular apses, with a passage in the middle. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref>

The south and east temples were built in the Tarxien phase, between 3150 and 2500 BC. The second one has three parallel semi-circular apses, connected by a large passage; the third one has two parallel sets of apses with a passage in a direction parallel to that of the first temple. The first temple is solidly built with large stones, of which some are roughly dressed. The walls are laid with great accuracy, and are very imposing in their simplicity. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The second temple is more elaborately constructed, the walls being finished with greater care, some of the standing slabs being decorated with flat raised spirals. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> In one of the chambers, two bulls and a sow are cut in low relief across one of the walls. <ref>Шаблон:Citation</ref> The third temple has a carelessly-built frame, but most of its standing stones are richly decorated with carved patterns.

See also

  • Xagħra Stone Circle


a. Шаблон:Note label Note that L-Imnajdra is the same as Mnajdra, the difference being the addition of the definite article and the euphonic vowel.

b. Шаблон:Note label Torba is a cement-like flooring material made from the local globigerina limestone by crushing, watering and pounding. This is found in many megalithic temple floors; a version of it survived through to the modern era, and it was used in the roofing of Maltese houses.



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  • Шаблон:Cite web
  • Houel, J.P., 1787, Voyage Pittoresque des Isles Sicily, de Malte et de Lipari, Paris.
  • Micallef, P.I., 1990, Mnajdra Prehistoric Temple a Calendar in Stone, Malta.
  • Mifsud, A., Mifsud, S., 1997, Dossier Malta. Evidence For The Magdalenian, Proprint Company Limited, Malta.
  • Trump, D., Cilia, D., 2002, Malta: Prehistory and Temples, Midsea Books Ltd., Malta. ISBN 99909-93-94-7
  • Renfrew, C., 1977, Ancient Europe is older than we thought, in National Geographic 152, (5): 614-623.
  • Żammit, Sir T., 1929, The Prehistoric Temples of Ħal Tarxien, Malta.
  • Żammit, Sir T., 1929, Malta: The Islands and their History, Malta.
  • Żammit, Sir T., 1931, The Western Group of Megalithic Remains in Malta, Malta.
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  • Żammit, Sir T., Mayrhofer K., 1995, The Prehistoric Temples of Malta and Gozo, Malta.

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