Before travelling to Malta and Gozo we did some research on what to see and do. We were surprised to find out that six megalithic temples of Malta are part of the UNESCO World Heritage, some of them since as early as 1980. Rarely have we visited sites that old, but we fondly remember a visit to Byblos in Lebanon: The city has been continuously inhabited for 4000 years. We also went to Sarazm in Tajikistan, a Neolithic settlement site that is even older than the temples of Malta. So we decided to explore all of the megalithic temples! Between cute historic towns and fortresses of the Maltese Knights we ventured back in time almost 5000 years. And this is what we found.
On the way to the megalithic temples of Malta
On the way to the southern coast we are going to pass the megalithic temples of Hagar Qim. So, we start to watch out for them from the crest of the hill. The public bus only goes once an hour and is full of tourists. We expect that most of them are going to the coast to visit the famous Blue Grotto. So are we, after all: The guidebook tells us that the light is better there in the morning.
The family in the seats in front of us is chatting happily in French, except for the young man scrolling through his phone. He seems to be reading an archaeological record in very small print, with pictures of pottery shards. Suddenly, almost all the tourists get off the bus, and nearby we can see the white protective tent marking the megalithic structures.
The megalithic temples of Malta – older than Stonehenge
Those megalithic temples are the oldest structures on Malta, dating back more than 5000 years to the Neolithic period. Their exact purpose is unknown because there is no written record or even oral tradition relating to them. The prehistoric people who built these structures apparently disappeared before the next wave of Bronze Age settlers.
After our detour to the Blue Grotto (no boat trips today because of high waves) we walk back up the hill to the Hagar Qim bus stop. Hagar Qim is properly spelled Ħaġar Qim and pronounced Hajar-eem. It is one of the most impressive and perhaps the most unusual of the megalithic temples of Malta. “Megalith” means “huge stone”, and the stone slabs in Hagar Qim are huge indeed. One of the biggest is 6 m long and 3 m high, weighing about 20 tons – our whole bathroom would fit inside that stone. And furthermore – the people who built the temple had nothing more than stone tools to cut it! We can still only guess how they managed to move it to its current location. The large stone slabs also reminded us of the Talaiot culture we visited on the Balearic island of Menorca.
Meaningful Sunbeams in the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra
The Hagar Qim Temple has an unusual layout as it is standing on the top of a hill, looking out in all directions. It has several entrance gates and corridors. On the outside wall, there is a kind of altar niche. Perhaps the Neolithic inhabitants of Malta used it for public ceremonies, as opposed to exclusive and sacred activities inside the temples. In the wall behind it, a small circular hole forms a connection to the interior of the temple.
As in the other megalithic temples, small semi-circular rooms adjoin the corridors inside the building. At Hagar Qim, some window-like stones have survived the millenia. Combined with interior walls, they seem to have screened those rooms from the corridors.
Only a short walk away, the temple of Mnajdra consists of three consecutive buildings, each with a clover-like layout that seems to be typical for most megalithic temples of Malta. In the visitor centre, scale models had elaborated on the sun rays on certain solstice days. They would shine through the circular hole in the wall of Hagar Qim, and gaps in one of the Mnajdra temples, lighting up some spot in the interior. Presumably that might prove something about the astronomical knowledge of the temple builders? But unfortunately, we didn’t get the point why that particular spot was special.
Megalithic temples of Ta Hagrat and Ta Skorba
The next day, we check out two more megalithic temples on our way to Malta’s Northern Island, Gozo. The UNESCO site of Ta Hagrat (Ta’ Ħaġrat) is a very small area with just a security warden but no ticket office (we brought the tickets from Valletta). The temple walls are still clearly discernible, but the main importance of this site lies in its age. Ta Hagrat may have been built as early as 3600 BC. The nearby temple of Ta Skorba is less scenic but at least as old. In addition, remnants of simple settlements from that time have remained nearby. Archaeologists have also found some important pottery shards and small figurines in the temple ruins.
The gigantic megalithic temples of Gozo
Finally, we get to see the arguably most impressive Neolithic temple complex of Malta. Ggantija is formally spelled Ġgantija and pronounced more like “gigantiya”. That sums it up: it is gigantic. Currently, some of the huge walls need metal reinforcements because the curators are uncertain how stable the stone slabs stand. Still, the two large temple entrances side-by-side are impressive. From each corridor, we can peer into five apses each and read the graffiti of earlier travellers. Even a bishop was vain enough to leave his name in the stone. In the 19th century, the megalithic temple of Ggantija became part of the European Grand Tour. Thus, people like Count Pückler-Muskau (whose gardens we have visited) and later Le Corbusier were tourists here before us.
The megalithic temple of Hal Tarxien
Probably the least impressive one of the UNESCO-listed megalithic temples was the temple complex of Hal Tarxien near Malta’s capital Valletta. The area is quite big and actually consists of four different adjunctive temples. Maybe because of the size of the area it was difficult to make out certain structures. Or perhaps the Hal Tarxien temple was just topped by a more impressive site. On the same day we also visited the magnificent Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni – a UNESCO site of its own.
Are the megalithic temples of Malta worth a visit?
Yes, yes, yes! The temples are an amazing feat of engineering by the inhabitants of Malta 4000 or 5000 years ago. Visualizing how they might have gone about it is mind-boggling. If you do not have time to visit all of the six temples, we would recommend seeing Hagar Qim and Mnajdra on Malta and Ggantija on Gozo.
Did you visit any of the Megalithic temples of Malta? Which temple was your favourite?
NB: We were not sponsored for our trip to Malta and paid all expenses ourselves.
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