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Exploring Malta’s Megalithic Temples

Malta is one of the smallest countries in the world.  It is just 316 square kilometers but it is also one of the most densely populated.  Even though it is so small the country has a disproportionate number of precious historical monuments.  It is the seat of one of the most ancient among Mediterranean cultures.

Malta’s strategically important location in the Mediterranean Sea has given it a vital place in history.  At various times it has been occupied by the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French and the British – all of whom have left behind architectural reminders of their presence.

Despite its long, very packed and eventful history many of Malta’s monuments have somehow managed to survive.  This is especially true of the eleven pre-historic monuments of which seven are listed as UNESCO Heritage Sites.  These remarkably well preserved structures are scattered all over the island.

Malta Megalithic TempleThe megalithic temples on Malta are among the oldest free-standing structures in the world.  They were built in three separate time periods from about 4100-3600 BC.  Unlike other similar structures around Europe these temples were not simply built and left alone.  What happened was rather evolutionary.  Each temple was refined and improved through successive building periods.  Sometime after 2500 BC the temple building stopped.

Archaeologists have divided Malta’s megalithic temple building into five periods.  However it is the latter three that produced the structures that still stand today.

The Ġgantija phase (3600–3200 BC) is the oldest of the three.  This phase takes its name from Ġgantija in Gozo.   Here you will see the figure 8 shape, the trefoil and five-apsed plans that were the blue print for later temple constructions and phases.

The Saflieni phase (3300–3000 BC) improved, developed and introduced several refinements to the Ġgantija style.

The Tarxien phase: (3150–2500 BC) is the last megalithic building phase on Malta.  It produced the most notable and finest structures.  This phase is so named because of the three lovely temples found at modern day Tarxien.  You could easily miss them because they stand in a back street of a modern built-up area with no immediately discernable entrance to mark its presence.

The Maltese temples are scattered all around the island and their construction took place over a period of two thousand years.  They have individual characteristics but all have similar important architectural layouts.

You enter through an oval forecourt, which is bordered on one side by the temple itself.  The temples generally face south.  The doorway to the temple is made up of large upright stone slabs with a massive stone lintel laid on top.  Stone slabs create a passageway leading to a central court.  There are slight variations to the layouts of course.

The temples are all unroofed.  The outer walls are generally made of hard coral limestone while a softer version is used inside, which permits sculpting and carving.  The decorations usually show animals but there are also a rich variety of patterns.

The major UNESCO Sites are:
Ta’ Ħaġrat
Ta’ Skorba
Ħaġar Qim
L-Imnajdra
Tarxien

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