Time Travel: The Temples of Malta
If you’re the sort of person who enjoys delving into the history of countries that you visit, you can really indulge yourself in Malta!
The Ggantija Temples of GozoCertainly the most striking memory will be the two Ggantija Temples which stand at the end of the Xaghra plateau. These are amongst the oldest man-made religious structures in the world, dating back to the Neolithic Age, over 5,500 years ago. The southerly temple, which is the larger, elder, but also better preserved of the two, dates back to approximately 3600 BC. This is thought by many archaeologists and historians to be the oldest stone structure in the world; predating Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids by many hundreds of years. Now that has got to be worth a pilgrimage!
There is ongoing preservation work underway and you may find that you cannot visit inside the northerly temple area, but you will still get to see enough to leave you in awe at a truly amazing Mediterranean civilisation.
Myth, Legend and Archaeological Discovery
‘Ggantija’ means ‘Giant’s Tower’, and for those of a romantic nature, its creation was attributed to a mythical giantess, Sunsuna, who built the temple in one day and one night while nursing a baby! However, modern calculations would suggest that the southern temple alone would have taken some 15,000 man-days to construct.
Some archaeologists say that the Ggantija temples were dedicated to the Great Earth Mother, goddess of fertility. The many figurines and statues found on the site are believed to be attributable to a fertility cult which used the temples. Evidence suggests there was an oracle or priestess here, as at the later Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It is also thought that Ggjantija was a place to pray for healing, and drew pilgrims from across the island and even from as far as North Africa and Sicily. Together with other similar structures around Malta, these temples have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, collectively named “the Megalithic Temples of Malta”.
The Megalithic Temples of MaltaThese are not just a pile of old stones, – the two adjacent temples, which cover a total of 10,000 square feet, surrounded by a common wall, and sharing a forecourt, have survived particularly well and in places, the walls still stand to a height of around 22 feet. With its round and curved architecture, reflecting the body of the Earth Mother Goddess, you will still see traces on the internal walls of the plaster that once covered them.
The layout is similar to all the Maltese Neolithic temples, – the forecourt – where congregations may have stood to attend rituals, a concave facade, two pairs of semi-circular apses flanking a central passage leading to a central altar in a fifth apse. In the southerly, larger and more detailed temple, there are altars in the side apses, relief carvings and libation holes but the second has none of these features.
As you marvel at the huge size of the upright slabs and massive lintel, just remember that all this was built in a time when there were no metal tools and no wheels. From evidence found on site, it is thought that the builders may have used roller stones, about the size of cannon balls, to move the massive stones weighing several tons each. And just think how hot it can get in Malta!
The Museum of ArcheologyA short distance away from the Ggantija site, some of the fascinating artefacts retrieved from the temples can be viewed in the Museum of Archeology (formerly known as the Gozo Museum) which is housed in the Citadel at Gozo’s capital town, Victoria.
Perhaps one to save for one of those occasional rainy days, or when you just want to escape the heat, a visit here can thoroughly captivate you as you are drawn in by the wide variety of exhibits which tell the rich tale of Malta and Gozo’s history from the Neolithic and Bronze periods through to the Medieval era and the rule of the Knights. These include two carved heads and a snake in relief from the Ggantija temples, as well as a set of ‘stick’ figurines found at the Xaghra Stone Circle, dating back to the Tarxen phase of 3150 – 2500 B.C. On the ground floor of the museum are exhibits from the Neolithic Period, the Temple Period and the Bronze Age (5200–700BC), including a selection of pottery vessels, stone and bone implements and pendants from various settlements and tombs around the islands. The first floor display is given over to the Phoenician, Punic, Roman, Medieval, and Knights’ periods. Here you will find jewellery, coins, marble statues and oil lamps as well as a number of inscriptions, the oldest of which is carved in Punic characters during the second century BC, commemorating the building and restoration of sanctuaries. You’ll even come across some ancient shipwrecks!
Of course, once you’re in the Citadel, you probably won’t be able to resist exploring further – not only is there the cathedral and its own museum, but for an inclusive fee you can combine your visit to the Museum of Archaeology with the Folklore Museum, the Old Prison and the Natural Science Museum. It’s a great day out in Gozo if you like your history!
Find the Ggantija Temples of Gozo
The Ggantija Temples can be found a little way north of the ferry port of Mgarr in Gozo. The ferry crossing from Cirkewwa in Malta to Mgarr takes approximately 25 minutes, and you can expect a 10 minute drive to the temples at Xaghra, Gozo. Xaghra is well sign-posted so head for this town and you’ll see the signs for the temples before you reach the main square of Xaghra.
Address: Triq It Tafla, Xaghra XRA 2161, Malta
Tel: 00 356 2155 3194