The Megalithic Temples
Seven megalithic temples are found on the islands of Malta and Gozo, each the result of an individual development. The two temples of Ggantija on the island of Gozo are notable for their gigantic Bronze Age structures. On the island of Malta, the temples of Hagar Qin, Mnajdra and Tarxien are unique architectural masterpieces, given the limited resources available to their builders. The Ta’Hagrat and Skorba complexes show how the tradition of temple-building was handed down in Malta.
The Megalithic Temples of Malta are remarkable not only because of their originality, complexity and striking massive proportions, but also because of the considerable technical skill required in their construction.
All six components of the property are in a reasonably good state of conservation, although the Tarxien complex is less well preserved than the others. All their key attributes are within the boundaries of the property. Surviving vestiges attest to the techniques used in the building of these complex structures, and the knowledge and skill of the people who built them. However, the structures are vulnerable to both material and structural deterioration, so research continues to be conducted to identify preservation strategies for the buildings.
The six components of the property have a high level of authenticity. They consist of well-preserved remains of megalithic temples, with evidence of different phases of construction in Antiquity. The components have been recorded in travel accounts since Early Modern times, while photographic records of some components go back to the early 1900s. Various restoration interventions have been carried out on five of the six components since their excavation. These included moving decorated blocks indoors to protect them from weathering, and capping the surviving blocks with cement. Current conservation interventions are guided by international standards, guidelines and charters.
The Tarxien Temples site consists of a complex of four megalithic structures built between 3600 and 2500 BC and re-used between 2400 and 1500 BC. Discovered in 1913 by local farmers, the site was extensively excavated between 1915 and 1919, with a number of minor interventions carried out in the 1920s, by Sir Themistocles Zammit, Director of Museums at the time.
The earliest of the four structures, located at the easternmost end of the site and built sometime between 3600 and 3200 BC, survives only to near ground level although its five-apse plan is still clearly visible. The South Temple, the most highly decorated of megalithic buildings with its relief sculpture and the lower part of a colossal statue of a skirted figure, and the East Temple, with its well-cut slab walls and ‘oracle’ holes, were built between 3150 and 2500 BC. The Central Temple was constructed with its unique six-apse plan and contains evidence of arched roofing.
The site of Skorba lies in the hamlet of Zebbiegh, on the outskirts of Mgarr, overlooking the nearby valley and providing a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape.
Excavated by David Trump in the early 1960s, quite late when compared to other similar sites, this temple is unique for providing crucial evidence concerning the domestic aspect of the prehistoric people, including the temple builders themselves. This archaeological site includes the remains of two megalithic temple structures, one of which dates from the earliest phase of megalithic construction – the Ġgantija Phase, while the other was constructed at a later stage in prehistory, that is, the Tarxien Phase.
In addition, there are also the remains of several domestic huts, in which the prehistoric temple builders used to dwell. Some structures date from before the Temple Period (i.e. before 3600 BC), and therefore, are amongst the oldest constructed structures on the Maltese Islands. Scientific studies on these structures have provided crucial evidence on the life-sustaining resources which were available at the time and have also thrown light on the dietary patterns of the prehistoric people.
Set in the heart of Mgarr, a village in Northwest Malta, and smaller than most other sites of a similar nature, Ta’ Ħaġrat is home to two well-preserved structures. The site was excavated between 1923 and 1926 with some other minor interventions in 1953 and in the 1960s. The larger of the two buildings dates from the earliest phases of megalithic construction – the Ġgantija phase (3600 – 3200 BC).
The temple of Hagar Qim stands on a hilltop overlooking the sea and the islet of Fifla, not more than 2km south-west of the village of Qrendi. At the bottom of the hill, only 500m away, lies another remarkable temple site, Mnajdra found above the Southern cliffs. The surrounding landscape is typical Mediterranean garigue and spectacular in its starkness and isolation.
First excavated in 1839, the remains suggest a date between 3600 – 3200 BC, a period known as the Ġgantija phase in Maltese prehistory. Hagar Qimwas in fact never completely buried as the tallest stones, remained exposed and featured in 18th and 19th century paintings. The site consists of a central building and the remains of at least two more structures. The large forecourt and the monumental facade of the central structure follow the pattern typical of Maltese Prehistoric Temples. Along the external wall one may find some of the largest megaliths used in the building of these structures, such as a 5.2m high stone and a huge megalith estimated to weigh close to 20 tons.
The Ggantija Temples in Xaghra, Gozo, are one of the most important archaeological sites in the Maltese Islands and are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The site consists of two temples dating back to between 3600 and 3200 B.C.
The name Ggantija derives from the word ggant, the Maltese word for giant as the site was commonly associated with a race of giants. Notwithstanding its age, the monument survives in a considerably good state of preservation. This is evident in the boundary wall which encloses the two temples, and which is built in rough coralline limestone blocks. Some of the megaliths exceed five meters in length and weigh over fifty tons.
Mdina was inhabited and possibly first fortified by the Phoenicians around 700 BCE. The Phoenicians called it Maleth. The region benefits from its strategic location on one of the island’s highest points and at maximum distance from the sea. Under the Roman Empire Malta became a Municipium and the Roman Governor built his palace in Mdina. Tradition holds that the Apostle St. Paul resided in the city after his historical shipwreck on the islands. Much of its present architecture reflects the Fatimid Period which began in 999 AD until the Norman conquest of Malta in 1091 AD. The Normans surrounded the city with thick defensive fortifications and widened the moat. The city was also separated it from its nearest town, Rabat.
Malta passed to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in 1530 AD. Mdina hosted the public ceremony in which each Grand Master swore an oath to protect the Maltese Islands and the rights of his subjects. A strong earthquake in 1693 AD led to the introduction of Baroque design within the cityscape. The Knights of Malta rebuilt the cathedral, to the designs of Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafa . Palazzo Falzon, the Magisterial Palace and major restoration works are other projects undertaken by the Knights.
Most of Mdina’s palaces serve as private homes. The impressive Cathedral of the Conversion of St Paul is fronted by a large square. Only a limited number of resident and emergency vehicles, wedding cars and hearses are allowed within Mdina.
Valletta owes its existence to the Knights of St John, who planned the city as a refuge to care for injured soldiers and pilgrims during the Crusades in the 16th century. Until the arrival of the Knights, Mount Sceberras, on which Valletta stands, lying between two natural, deep harbors, was an arid tongue of land. No building stood on its bare rocks except for a small watch tower, called St Elmo, to be found at its extreme end. Grand Master La Valette, the gallant hero of the Great Siege of 1565, soon realized that if the Order was to maintain its hold on Malta, it had to provide adequate defenses. Therefore, he drew up a plan for a new fortified city on the Sceberras peninsula.
Pope Pius V and Philip II of Spain showed interest in the project. They both promised financial aid and the Pope lent the Knights the services of Francesco Laparelli, a military engineer, who drew up the necessary plans for the new city and its defenses. Work started in earnest in March 1566 – first on the bastions and, soon after, on the more important buildings. The new city was to be called Valletta in honor of La Valette.
The Grand Master didn’t live to see its completion and he died in 1568. His successor, Pietro del Monte continued with the work at the same pace. By 1571, the Knights transferred their quarters from Vittoriosa (Birgu) to their new capital. Architect Laparelli left Malta in 1570. He was replaced by his assistant Gerolamo Cassar, who had spent some months in Rome, where he had observed the new style of buildings in the Italian city.
Cassar designed and supervised most of the early buildings, including the Sacra Infermeria, St John’s Church, the Magisterial Palace and the seven Auberges, or Inns of Residence of the Knights. By the 16th century, Valletta had grown into a sizeable city. People from all parts of the island flocked to live within its safe fortifications especially as Mdina, until then Malta’s capital, lost much of its lure. In the ensuing years, the austere mannerist style of Cassar’s structures gave way to the more lavish palaces and churches with graceful facades and rich sculptural motifs.
The new city, with its strong bastions and deep moats, became a bulwark of great strategic importance. Valletta’s street plan is unique and planned with its defense in mind. Based on a more or less uniform grid, some of the streets fall steeply as you get closer to the tip of the peninsula. The stairs in some of the streets do not conform to normal dimensions since they were constructed in a way so as to allow knights in heavy armor to be able to climb the steps.
Fast forward a few centuries and the city built by gentlemen for gentlemen came under another siege; this time in the shape of World War II which brought havoc to Malta. Valletta was badly battered by the bombing, but the city withstood the terrible blow and, within a few years, it rose again. The scars of the war are still visible till this day at the site previously occupied by the former Royal Opera House in the heart of the city, a wound that has left Malta’s MPs divided these past 60 years over what should replace it.
During the post-war years, Valletta lost many of its citizens who moved out to more modern houses in other localities and its population dwindled to 9,000 inhabitants. However, in the last few years many individuals with a flair for unique architecture are trickling back into the city and investing in old properties.
Valletta, the smallest capital of the European Union, is now the island’s major commercial and financial center and is visited daily by throngs of tourists eager to experience the city’s rich history.