02 April 2012

Megalithic Temples of Malta

If someone had told me that the oldest free-standing structures on Earth were in Malta, I wouldn't have believed them. Especially if said person was Maltese (I'm skeptical of hyperbolic national pride). But here we are looking at the megalithic temples of Malta, which legitimately do take the cake. Still standing after all these years, they are a thousand years older than the oldest Pyramid. The oldest and, arguably, most important of Malta's ancient temples is Ġgantija on Gozo (seen above). Imagine Malta, an archipelago in the Mediterranean of which Gozo isn't even the largest island, that far back in time. Metal tools weren't a part of their existence yet. The wheel hadn't even been introduced.
Many archeologists hypothesize that Ġgantija was built as a place for fertility rites. A number of excavated statues (in what positions, I wonder) support the theory. Ancient animal bones at the site suggest that sacrifices took place as well. According to Maltese folklore, however, a giantess erected the temples for her own private worship. "Ġgantija" means Giant's tower. Residents knew about the ruins long before it was paid any official scientific attention. French and German artists traveling to Gozo in the late 1800s depicted the not-yet excavated site. In 1827, the Lieutenant Governor of Gozo cleared the site of "debris." It was a partial excavation which probably did more damage than good and the temples sat, decaying for about a hundred years afterward. But a hundred years of hard weather ain't nothing for these guys. They were studied and cared for properly beginning in the mid 20th century and declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
There are two temples in the Ġgantija complex. Encircled by a perfectly preserved wall, they were built in circa 3600 and 2500 BC, respectively. The older temple is actually better preserved and one can still see traces of original plaster. By all expert accounts, these temples are not just impressive by virtue of the fact that they were constructed at all, but more so because of artistic and architectural flourishes. In fact, the entire period of 3000 - 2000 BC is referred to as the Ġgantija Phase of Maltese history. It's an archeological point of reference in a history steeped country. And, yet, we walked around the temples completely alone.
In 1992, five other temple complexes in Malta were added to the UNESCO listing and it now reads "The Megalithic Temples of Malta," all of which fit into the Ġgantija era. Of the five, we visited two and they felt not only different than Ġgantija, but also different than one another. The Mnajdra temples have been covered by protective tents since 2009 - as is its neighbor the Ħaġar Qim temples. Unfortunately, this means that you can no longer see the sunset perfect in the doorway of Mnajdra's lower temple on the two equinoxes. The structure is perfectly astronomically aligned. However, protecting the structures is undeniably important.
The temples show signs of benches, tables, vaulted ceilings. Bowls, tools, moving stones and statues were found during a 1949 excavation - along with the requisite animal bones. The architectural design itself is amazing even to a layman like myself. Two different types of limestone were employed, one for the interior and one for the exterior. Small-stone corbelling supported the now-gone roof. Walls were built post-and-lintel with some pretty huge slabs of limestone. Some doorways are squares, some are arched and these pockmark designs look like prehistoric wallpaper. Each "room" has its own feel. The main altar is geometric perfection - so well lined that its image appears on the back of the Maltese euro one cent, two cent and five cent pieces.
A famous Maltese linguist suggests that the name "Mnajdra" comes from the Arabic word "manzara," meaning 'a place with commanding views.' I believe it. Mnajdra is coupled with the Ħaġar Qim temples by this simple walkway. An island floats out in the sea, shrubs are almost swallowed up by wildflowers. It is a beautiful place to worship, both for the original patrons of the temples and the rest of us, there to pay homage to the craftsmanship, skill and creativity of the ancient Maltese builders.
I wonder just how amazing it was to approach Ħaġar Qim from Mnajdra and vice versa with nothing but the beautiful Maltese landscape as their backdrop. Ħaġar Qim, though, severely needed the tent. These temples were made with a different, softer limestone than Mnajdra (globijerina, which flakes with age). The complex feels like a maze with a sort of hallway joining at least six different rooms. The spaces had different uses, according to the buried clues: pretty pottery, statues of obese women, animal bones. While this last one is a common finding, Ħaġar Qim appears to have been a particularly popular place for ritual sacrifices.
One of the things that makes all of the megalithic temples of Malta so intriguing and unique is the fact that not a single human bone has ever been found. Structures as old as these were always graves or burial plots. It gives the sense that the builders here really just wanted to create something for the beauty and communal purpose of it, as opposed to necessity or out of the human desire to honor one's dead.
Ħaġar Qim is ridiculously impressive and there is loads of information about every individual area. There's the fire place, the square reservoirs that collect rain and distribute the liquid down in a line, like an ice tray does when you tip it a little. A number of the pieces present are reproductions with the originals placed in a museum for safer keeping. You could walk around and try to spot everything in a book. While we were there, many people did just that. But it's also nice to just walk and marvel at the 17 foot tall, 57 ton slab of limestone set upright in the temple's facade. It is the largest stone of any in the megalithic temples of Malta.

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