Malta is steeped in history. And not just your run of the mill history, but cool, mysterious history. The kind of history that the Egyptian pyramid builders should have been studying in school - and hey, maybe they were, but I know of no evidence to corroborate that - but you gotta think that they got their techniques for moving massive stones from somewhere. Well, the ancient Maltese temple builders figured it out, about 2500 years before the Egyptians. Not only had they figured out how to move massive limestone blocks (some weighing up to 4 tonnes), but they mastered their placement and the art of constructing intricate structures used for every-day religious purposes. There is also some evidence that they were using the temples they built to track the seasons and maybe even the heavens. Pretty impressive when you consider how simply our ancestors were living, not that long ago.
We were fortunate to visit three different temple complexes during our stay in Malta. They all followed the same basic plan, using monolithic slabs in various orientations to create walls and alters. Each temple featured central hall ways with opposing semi-circular apses, but the roofs were long gone. The Maltese government has undertaken various efforts to preserve the temples, ranging from scaffolding to massive tents to shield them from the elements. In some cases, they had removed some of the really important archaeological pieces (for protection in local museums) and replaced them with cast replicas. This was expertly done, though, so you really couldn't tell the difference. For me, the best part was the fact that you could get really close to these structures. Perhaps there is more risk to them given the throngs of poking and prodding tourists, but it allows you to get up close and personal, and perhaps experience a little bit of what these were like in their hey days.
This was the first temple that we visited. It is located in the heart of Xaghra, the village we called home-base for the first ten days of our trip, on the Island of Gozo. Perhaps it was because it was the first one we visited, or maybe it was the fact that it was uncovered, but this is the one that resonated with me the most. The sheer size of the stones, the precarious way in which they were arranged and the locale with a sweeping view of the country side to the south made a lasting impression.
This was the second temple we visited. It is located in a residential area about 20 minutes or so south of the Maltese capitol of Valletta. This one was covered with an elaborate tent. This was also the temple where most of the really significant artifacts were found, shedding some light on who these people were, and the rituals they followed. Make no mistake, though, their daily lives and sudden disappearance remain shrouded in mystery.
Hgar Qim and Mnajdra
These last two temples are located on a seaside bluff, overlooking the Mediterranean on the west side of the island of Malta, about half an hour west of Valletta. These temples have some interesting features that suggested the temple builders used them to track the sun in the sky, and mark the seasons through the equinoxes and solstices. There is also some marking to suggest they tracked constellations from this location as well. These temples, in particular, are very accessible. You can stroll through them as if they were nothing more than an elaborate limestone play structure, but the overhead protection and the diligent oversight of the site staff remind you just how important these temples are to the Maltese.
There are other temples scattered about Malta that we did not get the chance to see. However, these three sites impressed us greatly with their magnitude, complexity and peacefulness. It is unfortunate that we do not know what happened to the temple builders, but at least these sites have been discovered and steps are being taken to preserve them for future generations. And, they inspired Jamie to make his own version of the "lady legs" from the Tarxien temple for his ancient history project.