Megalithic Temples of Malta are a series of
prehistoric monuments in the Maltese archipelago.
Archaeologists believe that these
megalithic complexes are the result of local innovations in a
process of cultural evolution. This led to the building of several
temples of the Ġgantija phase (3600-3000 BC) and culminated in the
large Tarxien temple complex
remained in use until 2500 BC. After this date, the temple building
Ġgantija temples were
listed as a UNESCO World
Heritage Site in 1980.
In 1992, the UNESCO Committee
further extended the existing listing to include five other
megalithic temple sites. These are Ħaġar Qim
, Ta' Ħaġrat
, Ta' Skorba
today protects the sites, while ownership of the
surrounding lands varies site-by-site. They are the oldest
free-standing structures on Earth
Many of the names used to refer to the different sites carry a link
with the stones used for their building. The Maltese word
for boulders, 'ħaġar'
is common to Ta’Ħaġrat and Ħaġar Qim. While the former uses the
word in conjunction with the marker of possession, the latter adds
the word 'Qim'
, which is either a form of the Maltese
word for 'worship'
or an archaic
form of the word meaning 'standing'.
as having built the temples, which
led to the name Ġgantija, meaning 'Giants’ tower'
Maltese linguist Joseph Aquilina
believed that Mnajdra was the diminutive of 'mandra'
meaning a plot of ground planted with cultivated trees; however he
also named the arbitrary derivation from the arabic
, meaning 'a
place with commanding views.' The Tarxien temples owe their name to
the locality in which they were found (from Tirix
a large stone), as were the remains excavated at Skorba.
Charcoal found on site at Skorba was
crucial in dating the Maltese Temple phases.
The temples were the result of several phases of construction, from
circa 3500 to 2500 BC; there is evidence of human activity in the
islands since the Early Neolithic
(ca. 5000 BC), testified by pottery shards, charred
remains of fires and bones. The dating and understanding of the
various phases of activity in the temples is not easy. The main
problem found is that the sites themselves are evolutionary in
nature, in that each successive temple brought with it further
refinement to architectural development.
Furthermore, in some cases, later Bronze-age peoples built their
own sites over the Neolithic temples, thus adding an element of
confusion to early researchers who did not have modern dating
technology. Sir Temi Żammit
eminent Maltese archaeologist of the late nineteenth century, had
dated the Neolithic temples to 3600 BC and the Tarxien Bronze Age
culture to 2000 BC. These dates were
considered "considerably too high" by scholars, who proposed a
reduction of half a millennium each. However, radiocarbon testing
favoured Żammit’s dating. A theory that the temple art was
connected with an Aegean
culture collapsed with this proof of the temples' elder
The development of the chronological phases, based on recalibrated
, has split the
period up to the Bronze Age
in Malta into
eleven distinct phases. The first evidence of human habitation in
the Neolithic occurred in the Għar Dalam phase, in c. 5000 BC. The
Temple period, from c. 4100 BC to roughly 2500 BC, produced the
most notable monumental remains. This period is split into five
phases, however the first two of these left mostly pottery shards.
The next three phases, starting from the Ġgantija phase, begins in
c. 3600 BC, and the last, the Tarxien phase, ends in c. 2500
Ġgantija phase (3600–3200 BC)
Ġgantija phase is named after
the Ġgantija site in
It represents an important development in
the cultural evolution of neolithic man on the islands.
date belong the earliest datable temples and the first two, if not
three, of the stages of development in their ground plan: the lobed
or kidney-shaped plan found in Mġarr east, the
trefoil plan evident in Skorba, Kordin and
various minor sites, and the five-apsed plan Ġgantija South,
Saflieni phase (3300–3000 BC)
The Saflieni phase
transitional phase between two major periods of development. Its
name derives from the site of the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni
period carried forward the same characteristics of the Ġgantija
pottery shapes, but it also introduces new biconical bowls.
Tarxien phase: (3150–2500 BC)
The Tarxien phase is named after the
temple complex found in Tarxien
The Tarxien phase
marks the peak of
the temple civilisation. This phase is named after the
temple-complex at Tarxien, a couple of kilometres inland from the
. To it belong the last
two stages in the development of the temple plan. The western
temple at Ġgantija represents, along with other units in Tarxien,
Ħaġar Qim and L-Imnajdra, the penultimate stage in development,
that is, the introduction of a shallow niche instead of an apse at
the far end of the temple. The final stage is testified in only one
temple, the central unit at Tarxien, with its three symmetrical
pairs of apses. The Temple culture reached its climax in this
period, both in terms of the craftsmanship of pottery, as well as
in sculptural decoration, both free-standing and in relief.
Spiral reliefs resembling those which are evident at Tarxien once
adorned the Ġgantija temples, but have faded to a level where they
are only clearly recognisable in a series of drawings made by the
artist Charles de Brochtorff
in 1829, immediately after the temples’ excavation. The Tarxien
phase is characterised by a rich variety of pottery
forms and decorative techniques. Most shapes
tend to be angular, with almost no handles or lugs. The clay
tends to be well prepared and fired very hard,
while the surface of the scratched ware is also highly polished.
This scratched decoration remains standard, but it becomes more
elaborate and elegant, the most popular motif being a kind of
Architecture and Construction
Part of the Kordin III Temple site,
with a two apse design
The Maltese temple complexes were built in different locations, and
over a wide span of years; while each has individual site has its
unique characteristics, they all share a common architecture. The
approach to the temples lies on an oval forecourt
, levelled by terracing if the terrain is
sloping. The forecourt is bounded on one side by the temples’ own
, which faces south or
south-east. The monuments’ façades and internal walls are made up
, a row of large stone slabs
laid on end.
The centre of the façades is usually interrupted by an entrance
doorway forming a trilithon
pair of orthostats surmounted by a massive lintel
slab. Further trilithons form a passage, which
is always paved in stone. This in turn opens onto an open space,
which then gives way to the next element, a pair of D-shaped
chambers, usually referred to as ‘apses
opening on both sides of the passage. The space between the apses’
walls and the external boundary wall is usually filled with loose
stones and earth, sometimes containing cultural debris including
The main variation in the temples lies in the number of apses
found; this may vary to three, four, five or six. If three, they
open directly from the central court in a trefoil
fashion. In cases of more complex temples, a
second axial passage is built, using the same trilithon
construction, leading from the first set of apses into another
later pair, and either a fifth central or a niche
giving the four or five apsial form. In one
case, at the Tarxien central temple, the fifth apse or niche is
replaced by a further passage, leading to a final pair of apses,
making six in all. With the standard temple plan, found in some
thirty temples across the islands, there is a certain amount of
variation both in the number of apses, and in the overall length –
ranging from 6.5m in the Mnajdra east temple to 23m in the
six-apsed Tarxien central temple.
The external walls were usually built of coralline limestone
, which is harder
than the globigerina limestone used in the internal sections of the
temples. The softer globigerina was used for decorative elements
within the temples, usually carvings. These features are usually
sculpted in relief, and they show a variety of designs linked to
vegetative or animal symbolism
usually depict running spiral motifs
trees and plants as well as a selection of animals. Although in
their present form the temples are unroofed, a series of unproven
theories regarding possible ceiling and roof structures have been
debated for several years.
The UNESCO Sites
Ġgantija temples stand at the end of the Xagħra plateau, facing towards the south-east.
The megalithic remains at
presence was known for a very long time, and even before any
excavations were carried out a largely correct plan of its layout
was drawn by Jean-Pierre Hoüel
the late eighteenth century. In 1827, the site was cleared of
debris – the soil and remains being lost without proper
examination. The loss resulting from this clearance was partially
compensated by the German artist Brochtorff, who painted the site
within a year or two from the removal of the debris. This is the
only practical record of the clearance.
A boundary wall encloses the two temples. The southerly one is the
elder, and is better preserved. The plan of the temple incorporates
five large apses, with traces of the plaster which once covered the
irregular wall still clinging between the blocks.
Ħaġrat temple in Mġarr is on the
eastern outskirts of the village, roughly one kilometer from the
Ta' Skorba temples.
remains consist of a double temple, made up of two adjacent
complexes, both in the shape of a trefoil. The two parts are both
less regularly planned and smaller in size than many of the other
neolithic temples in Malta, and no blocks are decorated. Sir Temi
Żammit excavated the site in 1925-27. A village on the site that
pre-dates the temples by centuries has provided plentiful examples
of what is now known as Mġarr phase
Ta’ Skorba (Skorba)
The importance of this site lies less in the remains than in the
information garnered from their excavations. This monument has a
typical three-apsed shape of the Ġgantija phase, of which the
greater part of the first two apses and the whole of the façade
have been destroyed to ground level. What remains are the stone
paving of the entrance passage, with its perforations, the
floors, and a large upright slab of coralline
limestone. The north wall is in better shape; originally the
entrance opened on a court, but the doorway was later closed off in
the Tarxien phase, with altars set in the corners formed by the
closure. East of this temple, a second monument was added in the
Tarxien phase, with four apses and a central niche. Before the
temples were built, the area had supported a village over a period
of roughly twelve centuries.
The oldest structure is the eleven metre long straight wall to the
west of the temples’ first entrance. The deposit against it
contained material from the first known human occupation of the
island, the Għar Dalam phase. Among the domestic deposits found in
this material, which included charcoal and carbonised grain, there
were several fragments of daub, accidentally baked. The charcoal
fragments were then radiocarbon dated, and their age analysis stood
at 4850 BC.
stands on a ridge some two kilometers away from the village of
The forecourt of Ħaġar Qim
Its builders used the soft globigerina
limestone that caps the ridge to
construct the temple. One can clearly see the effects of this
choice in the outer southern wall, where the great orthostats are
exposed to the sea-winds. Here the temple has suffered from severe
weathering and surface flaking over the centuries.
The temple’s façade is typical, with a trilithon entrance, a bench
and orthostats. It has a wide forecourt, with a retaining wall,
through which a passage runs through the middle of the building.
This entrance passage and first court follow the common, though
considerably modified, Maltese megalithic design. A separate
entrance gives access to four enclosures, which are independent of
each other, and which replace The north-westerly apse.
Part of the Mnajdra Temple site, with
a four apse design
L-Imnajdra temples lies in a hollow 500 metres from Ħaġar Qim. It
is another complex site in its own right, and it is centred on a
near circular forecourt. Three adjacent temples overlook it from
one side, while a terrace from the other separates it from a steep
slope which runs down to the sea. The first buildings on the right
are small irregular chambers, similar to the enclosures in Ħaġar
Qim. Then there is a small trefoil temple, dating from the Ġgantija
phase, with pitted decorations. Its unusual triple entrance was
copied on a larger scale in the second temple. The middle temple
was actually the last to be built, inserted between the others in
the Tarxien phase, after 3100 BC. It has four apses and a
The third temple, built early in the Tarxien phase and so second in
date, opens on the court at a lower level. It has a markedly
concave façade, with a bench, orthostats and trilithon entrance.The
southern temple is oriented astronomically aligned with the rising
sun during solstices
; during the summer solstice the first rays
of sunlight light up the edge of a decorated megalith between the
first apses, while during the winter
the same effect occurs on a megalith in the opposite
apse. During the equinox, the rays of the rising sun pass straight
through the principal doorway to reach the innermost central
The Tarxien temple complex is found some 400 metres to the east of
the Hypogeum of
. The three temples found here were seriously
excavated in the early twentieth century by Temi Żammit. Unlike the
other sites, this temple is bounded on all sides by modern urban
development; however, this does not detract from its value. One
enters into the first great forecourt of the southern temple,
marked by its rounded façade and a cistern, which is attributed to
the temple. The earliest temple to the north-east was built between
3600 and 3200 BC; it consisted of two parallel sets of
semi-circular apses, with a passage in the middle.
A carved relief at Tarxien
The south and east temples were built in the Tarxien phase, between
3150 and 2500 BC. The second one has three parallel semi-circular
apses, connected by a large passage; the third one has two parallel
sets of apses with a passage in a direction parallel to that of the
first temple. The first temple is solidly built with large stones,
of which some are roughly dressed. The walls are laid with great
accuracy, and are very imposing in their simplicity. The second
temple is more elaborately constructed, the walls being finished
with greater care, some of the standing slabs being decorated with
flat raised spirals. In one of the chambers, two bulls and a sow
are cut in low relief across one of the walls. The third temple has
a carelessly-built frame, but most of its standing stones are
richly decorated with carved patterns.
- Note that L-Imnajdra is the same as Mnajdra,
the difference being the addition of the definite article and the
- David Trump et al., Malta Before History (2004: Miranda
- Torba is a cement-like flooring material made from the
local globigerina limestone by crushing, watering and pounding.
This is found in many megalithic temple floors; a version of it
survived through to the modern era, and it was used in the roofing
of Maltese houses.
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