The Megalithic Temples of Malta

Take this expedition to Malta to discover the Megalithic Temples, from prehistoric times.

By National Museum of Archaeology, Malta

The Boundary Wall - Ggantija TemplesNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

Malta is an island country in the Mediterranean Sea about 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Sicily and 284 kilometres (176 miles) east of Tunisia. The archipelago’s strategic location made it an important naval base for a succession of empires and countries from ancient times. But the islands were settled as long ago as 5200 BCE, long before Phoenicians, Romans and Moors dominated the region. On this Expedition, we’ll visit some of the mysterious megalithic structures prehistoric settlers left behind there.

The temple complex of Ħaġar Qim on the island of Malta is one of the oldest megalithic sites on earth. In fact, the ancient temples on Malta are the oldest free-standing structures in the world. The main temple building of Ħaġar Qim was constructed sometime between 3600 and 3200 BCE. The design is typical of the temples on the islands: an entrance through a monumental façade leads to a central passage connecting oval chambers and semi-circular recesses.

The entrance in the middle of the main temple’s façade is a trilithon construction consisting of 2 uprights standing on either side of a threshold and supporting a horizontal lintel. Many temples on the islands share this feature.

Hagar Qim facadeNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

The monumental concave façade has become an icon of the Maltese islands. It faces southeast and is approached across an oval forecourt. Notice how the horizontal stone slabs at the top are notched into the massive upright megaliths at the corners.

The external wall contains largest megaliths. It would have required a great deal of organisation to raise such megaliths, and since it does not appear to have any structural function that could not be fulfilled by smaller blocks, it seems to have been placed here primarily as proof of the capabilities of the prehistoric builders.

Just 500 meters from Ħaġar Qim, the temple complex of Mnajdra sits in an isolated position on a rugged stretch of Malta’s southern coast. The complex comprises 3 separate buildings accessed from a common forecourt. The North Temple was built between 3600 and 3200 BC, that is, at around the same time as the main Ħaġar Qim temple. The South Temple, built between 3150 and 2500 BCE, is considered by some archaeologists to be the best example of Maltese megalithic architecture.

The 3 Mnajdra temples form a semicircle around a common forecourt. Part of the forecourt is paved, and the concave façade of the South Temple is lined with stone benches on either side of the central entrance.

The South Temple shows that its builders had developed knowledge of astronomy. It was designed to receive sunlight at particular points during the spring and autumn equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices.

Excavations in 1910 and 1954 revealed that the Central Temple was constructed on an artificial stone platform. Its builders piled up stones against the wall of the South Temple to level off the area over which the Central Temple was constructed.

The Central Temple was built between 3150 and 2500 BCE. It sits at a slightly higher level than the South Temple. The taller upright stone to the left of the right-hand entrance bears an engraving of a temple façade.

The megalithic temple complex in Tarxien in southern Malta comprises 4 separate but attached structures. The buildings were constructed at the height of the late Neolithic period (between 3250 BCE and 3000 BCE) on a site that has been used by humans over a span of several millennia. The value of the Tarxien temples lies in the fine stone carvings and the wealth of ancient artefacts archaeologists have uncovered there.

The colossal statue is remarkable because of its sheer size. The statue appears to be the oldest monumental anthropomorphic representation known from Mediterranean prehistory.

The South Temple was one of the most important temples constructed on Malta between 3000 and 2500 BCE. With its relief sculpture and what remains of a once colossal statue, it is the most highly decorated of the islands’ megalithic buildings.

Tarxien altar blockNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

A unique feature of the South Temple was an elaborate decorated altar, consisting of a mensa and a niche that reflected the typical enclosed trilithon structure known from various Maltese temples.

Set in Mġarr village in northwest Malta and smaller than most other sites of a similar nature, Ta’ Ħaġrat was excavated between 1923 and 1926, with some other minor excavations in 1953 and in the 1960s. The complex comprises 2 well-preserved structures. The larger of the buildings dates from the earliest phases of megalithic construction (3600–3200 BCE). The Ta’ Ħaġrat temples were built entirely of local Coralline limestone.

You are now inside the West Temple, which has a monumental façade with a stone bench running along its length. The central doorway was restored in 1937 with the replacement of the massive lintel in its original position.

The doorway leads to an inner courtyard measuring approximately 2.5 metres by 4.5 metres and surrounded by a raised stone kerb. The courtyard provides access to 3 semi-circular chambers.

The East Temple, built on a 4-apse plan, was probably constructed later than the West Temple, to which it is directly linked through a doorway. Important artefacts, including a sculpted scale model of a megalithic building, were reportedly found in this temple.

The Skorba temples site is located on the outskirts of Mġarr not far from the Ta’ Ħaġrat temples. It includes the remains of 2 megalithic temple structures, one of which dates from the earliest phase of megalithic construction. Studies of this site were late in comparison to other similar sites—it was not excavated until the early 1960s. The temple structure and the site as a whole provide important evidence concerning the domestic lives of the prehistoric people who lived here.

The earliest temple was built on a 3-apse plan. All that remains now are foundation stones, paving slabs, and several megalithic uprights, one of which is 3.4 metres high. A later temple structure has 4 apses and a central niche.

The site includes the remains of several domestic huts in which the prehistoric temple builders once lived. Some structures date from before 3600 BC. They are among the oldest man-made structures, not just on the Maltese Islands, but in the world.

The Ġgantija temple complex is a unique prehistoric monument located on the Xagħra plateau on the island of Gozo. The site consists of 2 temples dating back to between 3600 and 3200 BCE. The name ‘Ġgantija’ derives from the word ‘ġgant’, the Maltese word for ‘giant’—the site was once associated with a race of giants. Notwithstanding their age, the hard-wearing Coralline limestone temples survive in a good state of preservation.

The larger of the 2 temples, the South Temple, was built on a 5-apse plan. Interior decoration at Ġgantija is found mainly inside this temple and includes pitting on the front of the large stone step leading into the central space.

The North Temple was erected some 4 centuries after the South Temple, and its central corridor is much smaller than that of its sister temple. Animal bones and ash found in this temple suggest that animal sacrifices took place here.

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