We live on a truly remarkable, enriching and fascinating planet. Every other day new prehistoric discoveries from another age are made that spark interest in the evolution of humankind. Many of the unearthed new discoveries make their way to becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As defined by UNESCO – A “World Heritage is the designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy”.
Each year across the world the number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites continues to grow. At the time of writing this blog post, there are a total of 1155 monuments located across 167 countries.
The small Maltese Archipelago floating in the central Mediterranean Sea is home to three of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of which were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1980. This is a truly amazing and remarkable inclusion for a group of small islands that are the foundation of a very small country.
- Malta’s capital city of Valletta (create link to Magical and Mystical Malta) has one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world, comprising 320 monuments in a small 55 ha area. This historical city is also a unique place, as no important modifications have been made since 1798.
- The prehistoric monument of Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum dating back to around 2500BC is the only known subterranean structure of the Bronze Age.
- The Megalithic Temples – UNESCO initially considered only the Ġgantija Temple on Gozo as a world heritage site, however soon recognised other prehistoric temples on the islands of Malta and Gozo, giving seven megalithic temples a shared assembly and renaming as “The Megalithic Temples of Malta”.
Whilst visiting the islands of Malta and Gozo I took the opportunity to visit four of the seven megalithic temples, two on the island of Malta with a local historian, Francis Aloisio author of twenty plus books on the topic of the temples; and two on the island of Gozo.
The small island of Gozo is home to 32 prehistoric sites dating back five thousand years.
The two UNSECO world heritage sites I visited were the Ġgantija Temple complex, consisting of two prehistoric structures built between c.3600 and c.3200 BC that are located on the Xagħra plateau on the island of Gozo. The Ġgantija Temples are the second oldest known Bronze Age temple structures in the world. These mighty structures are older than the pyramids of Egypt and are the oldest within the temple group comprising the Megalithic Temples of Malta.
Entry to the Ġgantija Temples is through an interpretation centre that offers all visitors an opportunity to explore the various aspects of life during the Neolithic period, together with learning about many of the artefacts discovered across various prehistoric sites found on Gozo.
Information found in the interpretation centre suggests that the Ġgantija Temples were a focal place for ancient rituals. The architectural layout of the temples and features found within them, indicate that these were places where the community gathered to follow or perform rituals. These rituals at times likely involved the participation of the community. In addition to more simple actions such as passing over thresholds, or sitting round a fire; would have also constituted a ritual.
Additional and interesting reading was noted in the early accounts of the 17th century megalithic blocks, or the remains of megalithic buildings and being associated with exceptionally large and strong people, the giants. Over the centuries, the remains in Gozo became widely known as Ġgantija or Giant’s Tower by locals and foreigners. Certainly not so surprising considering the extraordinary height to which this megalithic structures soared. Local folklore fables are inspired by these remains and by the mythical giants who built them.
The sequence of information and artefacts found in the interpretation centre certainly supports the visitor with the tools and insights needed to engage with Ġgantija’s historical tale and opens the imagination to a time long past.
Stepping outside from the interpretation centre your eyes are open to the vast landscape the lies before you and beckons you to take your first step along the wooden walkways into the mysteries of another age and time. The introduction plaque reads as follows:
“The awe-inspiring megalithic complex of Ġgantija was erected in three stages over a period of several hundred years (c.3600 – 3000BC) by the community of farmers and herders inhabiting the small and isolated island of Gozo (Malta) at the centre of the Mediterranean. Ġgantija consists of two temple units built side by side, enclosed within a single massive boundary wall and sharing the same façade. Both temples have a single and central doorway, opening onto a common and spacious forecourt that is in turn raised on a high terrace. Rituals of life and fertility seem to have been practiced within these precincts, while the sophisticated architectural achievements reveal that something really exceptional was taking place in the Maltese Islands more than five thousand years ago. This complex stayed in use for some 1000 years, down to the mid-third millennium BC, when the Maltese Temple Culture disappeared abruptly and mysteriously. Eventually, the successive inhabitants of the early Bronze Age (c. 2500 – 1500BC) adopted the site as a cremation cemetery.
These were the first of the Maltese prehistoric monuments to be cleared of the accumulation of earth and debris. Soon after his transfer to Gozo as Commandant of the British Troops and Administration of the Islands in 1820, Lt. Col. John Otto Bayer cleared the site by employing convicts from the Gozo Prison and forking out all expenses from his own pocket. Prior to their excavation, these ruins resembled a large mound encircled by a colossal wall and were (was) believed to be the remnants of a defensive tower built by a race of giants sometime in the long forgotten past, thus the name Ġgantija. Eventually, following Otto Bayer’s excavation Ġgantija remained uncared for and open to depredations for over a century, until 1933 when the land on which the ruins stand was expropriated by the Government. Substantial restoration works were carried out and the site was officially opened to the public in 1949. In 1980, Ġgantija became the first of the Maltese megalithic temples to be inscribed on UNSECO’s World Heritage List”.
The first sight of the Ġgantija Temples are the giant stones that are now only a section of what was originally a enclosed wall around the temples. Yet this wall reveals little of what actual lies beyond. Walking around the giant stoned wall opens you to a deep valley that overlooks more of Gozo’s plateaus.
The Ġgantija temples rest on one of the highest locations in Gozo and the vast open plains of the Xagħra plateau with a wonderful vantage point to see Gozos’ oldest village,Ix-Xewkija. Ix-Xewkija is known for having Gozos’ largest church with its dome being a distinctive landmark that is visible across many parts of the island.
The open area in front of the temples was once an ancient Neolithic piazza that offers insight into the sites purpose and function. Let your imagination wonder as you open to seeing large gatherings of people coming together outside the giant stone outer wall to listen to the sacred and mysteriously hidden events taking place within the stoned walls and away from the gaze of the common people.
It is believed that the location for the Ġgantija temples site was no accident. The rich soil and fertile springs with close access to the sea was and still is a productive farming community. The introduction of agriculture to the island was revolutionary, with people coming to settle and thus the population grew. Pottery remains found were evidence that these early communities originated from Sicily, as identical pottery was found in Sicily.
An aerial view provides perspective of the enormous scale of the two temples enclosed by a single giant stone wall and a façade with two entrances to the two separate temples, built 400 years apart. Both temples comprise a number of apses adjoining a central corridor.
The temple (on the left, south) has five apses and is the older and better preserved of the two temples.
The entrance is over a huge flat threshold slab. A hole in the inner floor slab suggests this could have served for pouring remedies/potions.
Whereas the four near perfect symmetrical holes carved out on each of the inner upright slabs, is believed to have held crossbars.
One doesn’t need too much of an imagination to believe the apparent need to secure the only access to an otherwise impenetrable enclosure suggests incentives of protection and safe keeping of whatever was contained inside.
In the first apse to the right are two rectangular altars, the one on the left (at a closer look) still shows traces of a spiral decoration.
A few more steps to the second apse on the left, leads to three trilithic (a structure consisting of two upright stones with a third placed across the top) niches complete with capstones, with some historians suggesting a triple divinity.
Unlike the South Temple, the North Temple was built in later years however was also built during what archaeologists call the Ġgantija phase as confirmed during excavations in 1954. The floor plan and size of the temple is considerably smaller with a four-apse plan.
The Neolithic builders made use of two locally sourced limestone materials in the building of their temples. A hard wearing coralline limestone was used extensively for the exterior, whilst the softer globigerina limestone was reserved for the inner interior furnishings such as doorways, altars and decorative slabs.
As you move towards the smaller temple entrance (on the right, north) you notice large fallen stones surrounded by a smaller stone forming a wall. The information plaque adjacent notes, that “remains of plastering indicate that the rough walls could have been covered over, giving a very different look from what is seen today”. “Accounts and drawing from the early 19th century show the wall was hidden by a mound of debris and rubble. When the debris and rubble was removed 100 years later, fragments of plaster with red ochre was found on the walls”, which was on display in the Interpretation Centre – protected for years by the mound.
The leaning paving slab showing two small hollows are believed to be libation holes and would have once been part of the floor and the libation holes used for the pouring of liquid offerings.
The entrance is similar in design and structure to that of the larger South Temple, however is more narrow and shorter. It is also believed that upright circular holes were used for holding crossbars to secure the doors.
The first two apses (one right, one left) are consistent in design, however not equally symmetrical. In support of the lack of available evidence these two apses appear to have never contained anything of specific purpose except two unusual altar niches on either side of the inner apse passages.
Again little available evidence was found in the remaining two apses and the rear wall apse which is overshadowed by the giant outer stone wall.
With many ancient structures across the world having been dismantled and building material being repurposed throughout history; having walked along the wooden paths in respect of this ancient land, one can admire and appreciate the extensive undertaking by those who revealed these prehistoric temples, that remain in a well preserved state.
Gratitude to those responsible for planting more than two hundred local native trees and shrubs, giving colour and form to protect the natural flora landscape of an ancient land.
Yet, as one leaves the site there are more questions than answers and more intrigue than practicality with regards to what took place within the enclosed giant stone walls. What was witnessed by only a few, and what was observed from afar by a greater community.
Let your imagination wonder.
Nearing the end of my visit to Gozo I went in search of another one of the 32 prehistoric sites on Gozo, that I had been told about. The Temple of Borġ l-Imramma found on the Ta’ Cenc plateau.
Catching a local bus to the village of Sannat was the easy part. From the village of Sannat the elusive location can only be found on foot. The directions by a helpful local; were to head up towards the Ta’ Cenc Hotel and walk approx. 500/600 mtrs along the dirt path passing the old reservoir and then I’d find the site mid way between two lanes. With a memory vision of a photo that I was shown of the sparse ruins of Borġ l-Imramma Temple and in particular a photo of one of three ruined dolmens that also showed the village church of Ix-Xewkija, I found what I was in search of. I’d actually found two of the three dolmens in the area.
I learnt that I would be standing approx. 145 mtrs above sea level with the view of the church in sight together with a backdrop of the sea. Very impressive views!
Gazing around me, I then noticed a prominent dolmen. Learning later that the dolmen or alter was originally part of the Borġ l-Imramma Temple, and would be exciting for many archaeologists, as this meant this temple was older than than the Ġgantija temples.
Other ruined rock formations in the immediate vicinity were also once part of The Temple of Borġ l-Imramma.
I had learnt from Francis Aloisio when I spent a day with him visiting some of the other Megalithic Temples found on the island of Malta and revisiting the Mosta Rotunda that a number of the prehistoric temples and landmarks found across Malta and Gozo formed sacred geometry formations. The alignment running from Ta’ Cenc line through to the oldest village of Ix-Xewkija and the largest church in Gozo and connection to the Ġgantija temples complex in Xaghra was one such triangle formation that represented sacred geometry.
Notwithstanding the present church in the village of Ix-Xewkija being newish, this church was built on the same site as previous churches in the centre of the village. As this village was the first village founded and inhabited in Gozo, research also found that up until the 17th century a large dolmen was visible on the side of the present church. Evidence found that a 15ft square capstone together with four uprights measuring approx. 5 1/2 feet were used as part of the present day church, along with a 25ft menhir stone (upright stone from the bronze age period) and other assorted prehistoric stones.
As I roamed around the Ta’ Cenc plateau along a section of the sea cliffs back to the Sannat I also noticed some unusual track marking. I was to learn that these marking were known as Cart Tracks. Very little information and a lot of hypothesis suggest how these cart tracks were formed and for what purpose. However, the most compelling theory is that the cart tracks formed in the soft limestone as heavy large stones were moved from one place to another in the construction of the surrounding prehistoric temples and circle sites.
Whilst staying in Gozo, I returned to Malta for a day trip to meet with Francis Aloisio, a knowledgeable man who has dedicated the later stage of his life to learning, writing and sharing the mysteries of the temples found across the islands of Malta and Gozo.
Our first temple stop was in the heart of the village of Mġarr, formerly known as Mgiarro in northwest Malta.
L-Imġarris a typical rural village in an isolated region surrounded by rich farmlands, vineyards with scenic views out to Mediterranean Sea and a short six kms from the larger and heavily dense township of Mosta; home to the Mosta Rotunda.
L-Imġarris also home to two important prehistoric sites of the temple group comprising the Megalithic Temples of Malta. Ta’ Ħaġrat Temples site and a smaller temple site known as Skorba.
Arriving to see local housing neighbouring the concrete block fencing surrounding the boundary of the small Ta’ Ħaġrat Temples site, was a unique sight with a backdrop of rich agricultural fields.
The Ta’ Ħaġrat Temples are also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and another of the temple group comprising the Megalithic Temples of Malta.
As shown in the photo taken of an information plaque at the site, there are two temples located within the Ta’ Ħaġrat Temples site. The larger of the two dating from the earliest phases of megalithic design and construction, known as the Ġgantija phase: 3600 – 3200 BC.
The period of construction for the second smaller temple is uncertain, however ceramic artefacts from both earlier and later periods were found suggesting the temple was constructed and used during what is known as the Safliene Phase: 3300 – 3000 BC.
It is also known that these temples were constructed on an older site dating from 4100 – 3800 BC.
The larger of the two temples is set in the centre of a large semicircular courtyard that is approx. 2.5 x 4.5mtr surrounded by a raised stone edging. The entrance to the temples is through an enormous doorway, a stone façade and two large stone steps placed with precision and accuracy that lead to a corridor held by two enormous upright coralline limestone stones, being the most prominent feature. The semicircular courtyard and what is believed to be bench seating that runs along the length of the façade is also a notable feature.
It should be noted that the main entrance doorway was restored in 1937 with the replacement of the door lintel in its original position.
The central corridor of the larger west temple comprises three semi-circular design chambers. Evidence shows that alterations were made during the Saflieni phase when section of the chambers were walled and closed off. The three apses were constructed with rough, unfinished stone walls and the floor was also made of stone. A design feature known as corbelling that is a technique used to support the superstructure of a building’s roof, suggested that the temple originally had a roof.
The smaller east temple was constructed with four apses and linked to an adjoining apse with the larger west temple.
The Ta’ Ħaġrat temples show evidence of being a less planned and of smaller size to that of other prehistoric Neolithic temples found in Malta. Unlike other prehistoric megalithic temples in Malta, no decorated blocks were discovered, however what was most interesting presented during the excavation of the temples site with the first excavations taking place during 1923 – 1926 and a second period during 1953 – 1961. During the excavations a large number of ceramic pottery was unearthed showing that the site had been a village that predated the temples. The ceramic pottery has been dated to what is known as the Mġarr phase 3800 – 3600 BC.
With my imagination conjuring up all sorts of mystical and magical images and thoughts and a barrage of more unanswered questions, we leave the mystery of the Ta’ Ħaġrat temples and make our way to Skorba, another prehistoric site only one kilometre away that also takes its place is ancient history and the natural environment on the northern edge of Żebbiegħ that forms part of L-Imġarr parish.
Like the Ta’ Ħaġrat temples, the Skorba Temples site is also uncovered and left to the elements of the changing seasons. And, both sites are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and are part of the temple group comprising the Megalithic Temples of Malta.
Here at the Skorba Temples prehistoric meets with modern day 21st century living as neighbours in the fertile rich farming land that has been serving humanity for millennia. All that separates the two periods in time is a block concrete wall.
For a period of approx. twelve centuries before the Neolithic Temples were built in the village of Skorba, a village already occupied the area. The earliest structural form is an eleven metre long straight wall that stands to the west of the prehistoric temple site. Deposits forms found at the base of the wall are believed to contain material from the first known human occupation on the island of Malta, during what is known as the Għar Dalam phase. The finding of charcoal tested using carbon analysis shows that the original village settlement dated as 4850 BC.
The site of the Skorba Temples was one of the last temple sites in the Maltese Archipelago to be excavated, in the early 1960s. Many other megalithic sites, with some having been studied extensively and excavated more than once started when interest was sparked during the early 19th century.
Yet, the Skorba village is believed to be one of the earliest village locations before the temples were built. The Skorba site map shows the early Neolithic village of Skorba; courtesy of researchgate. Note the * denotes the locations where pottery artefacts were found.
Pottery found on the original village site is categorised by two styles, the first being Grey Skorba phase and as the name suggests this pottery is distinguishable by the grey coloured pottery with no motifs. The second category is known as the Red Skorba phase and again as the name suggests is distinguishable by the red coloured pottery that uses the base colour grey mixed with red ocher; a red earthy hematite used as a pigment to create the red colour pottery.
The two Megalithic temples ruins are shown to the right with the larger temple door entrance opening to a three apses structure. This larger temple was constructed earlier during the Ġgantija Phase.
A number of megalithic uprights were found at the Skorba temple site, one being 3.4m in height together with paving slabs with libation holes and the torba floors of a three apse temple. The torba floors are cement like solidified and very stable material used specially to make floors during the Neolithic temples of Malta and Gozo. A method of crushed globigerine lime combined with a bed of small stones that is similar to the lime press technique of moistening and tamping several times.
The door entrance to the larger temple shows the same near perfect symmetrical holes carved out on each of the inner upright slabs, as seen in the Ġgantija temples, and believed to have held crossbars.
The entrance is over a huge flat threshold slab with a number of stone or earthen holes made into the inner floor slab just before the entrance that suggests this could have served for pouring remedies/potions.
The smaller of the two temples was constructed during a later phase, known as Tarxien Phase.
An information plaque at the site also notes that the larger of the two temples was also modified as spaces in the temple were used in a different way.
A decorated stone was removed from the original location and used as a step to provide access to one of the side rooms.
The entrance to the central apse was also closed off in part leaving only a trilithon doorway at its centre.
The greater part of the first two apses and the whole façade have been destroyed or been repurposed and used as building materials in other ways as little remains of the either temples.
During the Neolithic period farmers lived in caves or villages, including Skorba and produced pottery similar to that of contemporary eastern Sicily. Whilst little remains of the actual temple ruins, evidence of a number of prehistoric dwellings, consisting of walls and floors that are thought to predate the temple period were believed to be used as domestic huts by farmers and/or the temple builders and their families.
Note: Location of the domestic huts are shown by the misshapen circles to the left of the larger of the two temples, on the site map.
Additionally of interest and intrigue was the discovery of a small limestone scale model of a roofed temple building that is now an exhibit at the Valletta National Museum of Archaeology.
Although very few artefacts were unearthed at the site of the Skorba temples, what was of a great and particular significance and fascination was the roughly carved stone figurine of a scarcely identifiable female human figurine that was found amongst a series of fragmentary female figurines on the floor of the larger temple red shrine.
This preserved female figurine as shown in the photo, was found in three pieces with notable features, being the exaggerated thighs and more exaggerated buttocks.
Similarly, is another female figurine that has become a Maltese icon and was found in the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, in Malta that is known as ‘The Sleeping Lady’.
The figurines found at the the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum burial site have very similar features to others found in above ground temples, being the exaggerated thighs and exaggerated buttocks. The sleeping lady is depicted as lying on her side in a position that represents a woman in a natural sleeping position. From the waist up, she is naked and from the waist down is dressed in a skirt that shows decorative embroidery.
As the sleeping lady figurine was found in a place of burial, there are a number of hypotheses however, the most common ones being the sleeping lady represents death…the eternal.
These artistic figurines created during the Neolithic period represents one of the Maltese islands prehistoric developments denoting the uniqueness and cultural independence specific to this island location on our planet.
I am left with many, many unanswered questions and my interest and intrigue has been sparked to new heights. Who where the larger women? What was the geographic purpose of the various temple locations? When did a new population of humankind inhabit these mystical and magical ancient islands that brought with them the mysteries of another age? My imagination has been enriched having visited “The Megalithic Temples of Malta”.
Having now witnessed the preservation of the past, across different locations of the Maltese Archipelago it has become evident that our present commitment is to understand the past and to preserve the identity of the people of Malta and Gozo and their ancestors who millennia ago made the voyage from Sicily.
This blog is the third; therefore last of a three part series of posts sharing my time visiting the Maltese Archipelago and the mysteries of another age. I hope you enjoy reading and that I bring some inspiration (if needed) to visit this amazing and historically enriching part of the world.
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