Place of the Giants; megalithic temples in Malta

Ħaġar Qim on a painting by Jean-Pierre Houël, 1776

Sansuna, a giantess on the island of Gozo, once went to the town of Ta’ Cenc, put huge stones on one of her shoulders and carried them 4 km to their current resting place in Ġgantija, “the place of the giants”. With her other arm she carries her newborn baby, placing it at her chest…

In 2021 I visited the exhibition “Temples of Malta” in the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden. The temples date from the same time that the dolmens were built in the northeast of the Netherlands. Very intriguing to see what structures were erected on the island in the Mediterranean between 3600 and 2500 BC. In a few cases, new sites were superimposed on Neolithic temples in the later Bronze Age, causing confusion among early researchers who did not yet have modern dating technologies.

Some stone blocks are up to six meters high and weigh twenty thousand kilos. The rituals, religion, technical knowledge and abrupt end of existence of this megalithic culture is still shrouded in mystery. Temples and statues were deliberately damaged, broken and burned, after which hardly anyone seems to live on the islands for a hundred years… as stated by the National Museum of Antiquities on its website.

In this article, in addition to a look at these megalithic temples, I want to take a refreshing dive into the stories about the island and the special structures.

Odysseus and Calypso in the caves of Ogygia. Painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625)

The island of Malta is home to some incredibly ancient structures, including Ġgantija Temples, Ta’ Ħaġrat Temples, and Skorba Temples. The oldest date back to 3600 BC, making them one of the oldest ruins in the world. Partly because of this, Malta is seen as the mythical Atlantis.

There is speculation that Malta is in fact the only remnant of a much older civilization. Legend has it that when the city of Atlantis was destroyed as a result of its own evolved experiments with the natural forces of the Earth, the landmass that made up Atlantis split into pieces and sank into the sea.

The Maltese word for boulders (ħaġar) occurs in Ta’Ħaġrat and in Ħaġar Qim. The Tarxien temples owe their name to the place where they were found (from “Tirix”, a “large stone”), as did the excavations at Skorba. According to later Maltese folklore, giants are said to have built the temples, which led to the name Ġgantija: ‘Giant Tower’.

According to the Bible, Paul the Apostle — who was accused of religious rebellion — was on his way to Rome to appeal to Caesar in AD 60, when his ship was caught in a storm. The ship was wrecked on the Maltese island and Paulus was able to swim to safety.

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Map to the Book of Acts and the Apostles

The book of Acts claims that Paul was gathering firewood when a serpent bit him in the hand. The Maltese locals were sure that he would die from such a bite, but instead, Paul experienced no ill effects. Proof to the population that they were dealing with a God. It is possible that Paul was indeed the one who Christianized the island.

More stories are shipwrecked in this area. Gozo is one of the three inhabited islands that make up the island group of Malta. It would be the legendary Ogygia, the island where the nymph Calypso lives. In Homer’s epic poem (Odyssey), this is where Odysseus was shipwrecked and eventually held captive by Calypso for seven years. A widespread local legend, a number of historians also seem to support the claim, including the Greek historian Callimachus. The cave where Odysseus was believed to have been held captive is known as Calypso’s cave and overlooks Ramla l-Ħamra beach.

Let’s take a look at the various temples that can be found in Malta. To date, 23 temples have been found in Malta and Gozo. Every now and then archaeologists come across new remains. There are six megalithic temples to visit in the Maltese archipelago, all of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Unfortunately I don’t have my own photos of the real temples on the island. The visit to the island and the temples is definitely still on my wish list. But in Leiden I was able to take pictures of the models that could be seen in the exhibition “Tempels of Malta” in the National Museum of Antiquities. A camera moved above the models, so that a bird’s-eye view could be viewed on a screen.

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Typology of some temples in Malta

Of all the Neolithic temples in Malta and Gozo, the one at Tas-Silġ is unique in that a female deity was worshiped with a degree of continuity from Neolithic times through to the Christian era.

When the Phoenicians arrived in Carthage, their goddess Astarte was assimilated with the native Tanit (Tanit-Astarte). She was the consort of the god Ba’al Hammon (or Ammûn). Tanit is ‘Opener of the paths of the sun in all its stations’ which rules the daily rising and setting of the sun and also the rising and setting sun at various places along the horizon during the year, especially the equinoxes and solstices .

Tas-Silġ was founded around 700 BC. converted by the Phoenicians with remains of the earlier temple still standing in the new temple. The later Romans romanized Tanit to Juno Caelestis and dedicated a temple to her at Tas-Silġ.

The site was named by the first century BC orator Cicero. Cicero wrote in his “In Verrem” (70 BC) that the temple was revered by everyone, including pirates and Numidian princes, but the Roman governor of Sicily had stolen some of the temple treasures.

Punic stele decorated with a fish and the sign of Tanit: a circle with a horizontal line (representing outstretched arms) above a trapezoid or triangle

During the Byzantine era, the temple was converted into a Christian basilica. The basilica was built in the courtyard of the temple, which was covered with a portico. The square building had three naves with an apse on the east side. The prehistoric megalithic temple was reused as a baptistery, with the baptismal font in the center of the ancient structure. The church was abandoned shortly after the Arabs occupied Malta in 870 AD. The site was turned into a quarry and stones from the original structure were removed.

The original name of the hill is Ta’ Berikka, the name Tas-Silġ is derived from a nearby church of Our Lady of the Snows (Maltese: Knisja tal-Madonna tas-Silġ, built in the 18th century). Few remains of the original temple can be seen, but the spread of megaliths over the hill suggests that there was a large complex with at least 3 temples and possibly a village around it.

The brightest celestial bodies of the Tal-Qadi celestial table, the model of the stone clearly shows a semicircular figure. This could be a boat or the moon.

Left: the Tal-Qadi stone and a free interpretation of what the stone may have looked like.

Author Chris Micallef analyzed astronomical data from the Temple period in relation to the Tal Qadi Temple and found that the interval of days between certain lunar phases fits into the sequence recorded on the Tal-Qadi stone, in addition to findings on the temple’s alignment with the sun and the moon. He suggested that the stone may have been used to read the days between these phases, but acknowledged that his research could not provide a definitive answer. He later produced a documentary about the Tal-Qadi stone, which won an award at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival and was awarded the ‘Midalja għall-Qadi tar-Repubblika’ for the research.

The fan-shaped Tal-Qadi stone, found in the Tal Qadi Temple and about 4,500 years old, has radiating lines and symbols representing stars and the crescent moon; it may have been an instrument for star observations. The stone was on display during the exhibition in Leiden.

Kai Helge Wirth, a geographer and art scientist researching the stone, believes he has cracked the mystery. The stone, he says, was an ancient navigational aid: a map of not only the stars, but also the water currents in the Mediterranean. dr. Wirth points out that physicist Isaac Newton once theorized that the constellations we know were originally representations of ancient coastlines, projected onto the random star field by sailors to navigate the seas. If true, the Tal-Qadi stone would be the oldest representation of the zodiac ever discovered, thousands of years before the Egyptian Dendera. It would also mean that trade between civilizations on opposite sides of the world began thousands of years earlier than commonly believed.

Own photo of the model of the Temple of Mnajdra in the National Museum of Antiquities. The small cloverleaf temple (right) is the oldest and dates back to the Ġgantija phase 3600-3200 BC, then Mnajdra South (left) was built, followed by Mnajdra North (center)

For a long time it was believed that Mnajdra South was the only temple with astronomical features; however, research by John Cox and Tore Lomsdalen (2010) showed astronomical orientations and alignments at many more temples in Malta and Gozo. Evidence for intentionality continues to mount, pointing to a culture with astronomical knowledge.

There are two vertical standing stones decorated with rows of holes. Researchers argue that these were used to measure the days between stars rising.

Irene Friesen Wolfstone researched the temple of Mnajdra. This interdisciplinary study draws on the theoretical framework of cultural studies, including Afrocentric theory and archaeomythology, as well as Indigenous, feminist and environmental perspectives. The architecture of Mnajdra, with its intersection of astronomical and matricentric elements, reflects many aspects of North African cosmology, leading to her hypothesis that North African astronomical knowledge may have influenced Mnajdra’s astronomical design.

Culture is place and experience specific and thus relatively transient, while cosmology survives for millennia once anchored in the myths, legends, instincts and traditions of people. It is deep knowledge that is experienced, embodied and often not expressed in linguistic form. Remnants of cosmology are preserved in myths, rituals, signs and symbols, despite new technology and other cultural changes (Haarmann, 2007, p. 176). Irene does not use the term “religion” in this study because it implies a conceptual solidity documented in text, institutionalized rituals and priestly functions – three factors for which there is little evidence in Mnajdra.

Matriculture, a neologism coined by Tina Passman (1993), recognizes that women’s reproductive and creative powers are interwoven with human thought and action and explained in cosmological narratives—a worldview that reflects the essentialist ideology of universal patriarchy that defines Western archeology. science of the twentieth century is contested (Zweig, 1993, p. 151; Passman, p. 181).

The entrance to Mnajdra South is aligned with sunrise on the solstice and equinox. The first rays of the rising sun during the summer solstice illuminate the vertical orthostat in the left anterior apse. The first rays of the rising sun on the winter solstice illuminate the vertical orthostat in the right anterior apse. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the rays of the rising sun illuminate the central passageway and inner alcove.

Schematic representation of the equinoxes and solstices

Diverse artefacten die in Mnajdra zijn gevonden, suggereren dat een van de functies van Mnajdra was om geboortemoeders te ondersteunen. Mnajdra is mogelijk gebruikt als geboortecentrum, vergelijkbaar met de geboortekamer in Çatal Hüyük. Irene stelt dat de betekenis van Mnajdra’s architectuur alleen zal worden ontsloten als we begrijpen hoe de neolithische cultuur moederschap en geboorte zag. Ze denkt niet dat het gaat om bouwmanagers die gemotiveerd zijn door rivaliteit met naburige gemeenschappen en tempels hebben gebouwd, die zijn ontworpen voor gebruik door mannelijke elites, om de macht over de massa te behouden. 

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Photo of Mnajdra South, ca. 1900, note the pits on the front stone

Mnajdra was a place to reenact the cosmic drama of time, space, origin and regeneration. Irene’s research suggests that Mnajdra’s functions were centered on birth, not necrophilia.

Future studies may demonstrate astronomical knowledge in Neolithic Maltese pottery and weaving patterns, as in Tamazight culture.

Mnajdra is de zustertempel van Hagar Qim. Op een afstand van enkele honderden meters van elkaar moeten ze iets met elkaar te maken hebben. In Ħaġar Qim staat het woord Qim voor ‘verering’. De tempel Ħaġar Qim, op slechts 600 meter van Mnajdra, is de plek waar een stenen zonnewiel werd gevonden.

Own photo of the model of the Temple of Hagar Qim in the National Museum of Antiquities.

The building consisted of a central hall surrounded by five elliptical rooms. The temple site was discovered in 1839 under a mound of rubble and rubble. It was built between 3600 and 3200 BC. Gerald Formosa has discovered numerous examples of the so-called 2.72 foot megalithic yard. This mathematical constant is found at megalithic sites in the ancient European world. Here at Hagar Qim (and Mnajdra), examples of the megalithic yard can be found in the dimensions of the gate stones and in triangles etched on the temple floors.

Sun alignments have been made at the main temple of the Hagar Qim complex. On the morning of the summer solstice, the sun passes through an oval hole (known as the “oracle hole”) and enters an apse of the temple. The sun’s rays fall exactly on a stone in the room.

At sunset on the same day, the sun sets in line with the entrance to the high apse, illuminating the rear of a small alcove through a stone window.

This pottery fragment (right), with a sun wheel on it, was found at Hagar Qim. It is on display at the National Museum of Archaeology, Valletta.

Another alignment observed at Hagar Qim is the alignment of the major axis of the temple with the northern and southern maximum declination of the full moon. Interestingly, it is the only megalithic temple with two entrances (another “door” is located opposite the main entrance of the façade).

Hagar Qim is the site of the Venus of Malta, one of the ‘Fat Ladies’. Several ‘Fat Ladies’ were exhibited in Leiden: the figures that are usually seen as ladies or mother goddesses.

Location (and objects found in) Hagar Qim, 1861
Altar (with tree of life and many pits) and ornament in Hagar Qim

Ta’ Skorba was excavated between 1961 and 1963 under the direction of British archaeologist David Hilary.

Eigen foto van de maquette van de Tempel van Skorba in het Rijksmuseum van Oudheden.

The Gray Skorba (4500-4400 BC) and the Red Skorba (4400-4100 BC) represent the oldest settlement ceramics on the island. Excavation of the chambers of Ta’ Skorba revealed bovine bones cut by friction into phalluses, broken goat skulls, and especially stone and terracotta figurines. These figurines, the oldest in Malta, depict female torsos with a stylized breast and a well-marked pubic triangle. David H. Trump associates this set of female figurines with the worship of a “mother goddess” or a “fertility goddess” who is said to promote the productivity of the land.

Mother goddess or “goddess of fertility” discovered in Skorba (4400-4100 BC).
Detail of the temple of Skorba
The temple of Skorba

Ta’ Ħaġrat Temples are about 900 meters from Ta’ Skorba. The temples of Ta’ Ħaġrat were built between 3600 BC. and 3200 BC. used.

Own photo of the model of the Temple of Ta’ aġrat in the National Museum of Antiquities.

The main temple of the Ta’ Ħaġrat Temples is dated to 3600-3000 BC. and David Trump dated the subtemple to 3300-3000 BC. The latter was built of considerably smaller stones than the main temple.

On Monday, September 3, 1923, a sculpted scale model of a covered megalithic building was found in the East Temple. A sketch found in the parish registers of Mgarr is the only record of where this model was found.

Model of a temple which can show that the real megalithic temples were also provided with a roof

The Temple of Tarxien is from the later period. This temple contains the most richly decorated stone blocks. No stone is decorated in the same way. The spirals would have originated from the earlier holes/pits that can also be seen in other temples.

The temple was discovered in 1915 after farmers complained that large stones kept appearing on the surface. The four separate temples are connected by a square courtyard and each of them is accessed through separate entrances. The construction of these structures has been dated to between 3600 and 2500 BC, with a phase of reuse between 2400 and 1500 BC.

Own photo of the model of the Temple of Tarxien in the National Museum of Antiquities.

Particularly interesting, Tarxien provides rare insight into how the megaliths were built: stone spheres were left outside the southern temple. Of particular note at the temple site are the rich and intricate decorations, including images of embossed pets, altars, and screens decorated with spiral designs and other patterns.

It has been suggested that the Tarxien Temples were initially used for animal sacrifices. This is supported by the discovery of animal bones, tools (including a flint knife), altars and pet reliefs.

Special is the altar in the southwestern Tarxien Temple. The altar has a hidden cavity. A replica of this altar was on display during the exhibition in Leiden and a replica can also be seen in the temple. The original is in the National Museum of Archeology in Valletta.

Holes in the stone blocks flanking the entrances, leading to different parts of the temples, were probably some sort of ancient hinge for attaching a door made of a material that has long since decayed. All finds point to ritual activity, but the exact nature of this is still elusive.

These round stones would have been used to move the megaliths.

Middle: A statuette found during excavations of the Tarxien Temples. Now on display in the small visitor center.

Right: Replica of an altar in the southwestern Tarxien Temple. The clogged cavity at the front is clearly visible.

Ġgantija means something like giant tower. Here, on the island of Gozo, there are two temples within a reasonably preserved wall. The older of the two dates from 3400 BC. and is 27 meters long. The newer temple still dates from before 2200 BC. This temple has a length of 19.5 meters and would have been no less than fifteen meters high, so that it could be seen from a great distance.

Eigen foto van de maquette van de Tempel van Ggantija in het Rijksmuseum van Oudheden.

At the entrance of the temple is a large stone block with a niche. Archaeologists suspect that this was used as a purification station before entering the complex. Altar-like structures in several apses, a hearth that still shows traces of burning, pottery, ‘fat lady’ statues, animal bones, wall plaster painted with red ocher and a conical-shaped menhir or standing stone have been found.

Gantija, Southern Temple: watercolor by C. de Brochtorff, c. 1829 – northeast apse, with spiral motifs (National Library, Valletta, Malta).

On Malta is also the Gebla ta’ Sansuna in Xaghra, this ‘rock of the giantess’ is (probably) a dolmen. Giants have been a part of mythology, folklore and religion for thousands of years and it is only natural that they made their way into the Megalithic Age, a time when giant stones were mined, cut and built into structures long before advanced engineering. techniques had been developed.

Why did the advanced Temple period in Malta end around 2500 BCE? so suddenly? There are various theories, for example an enormous drought would have made the island uninhabitable, partly caused by the cultivation of the island. One thing is certain; for a time the area was abandoned after the megalithic Temple period. Another culture populated the island centuries later and the megalithic temples had fallen into disuse. Some buildings were given a second life. Thus, Tarxien became a cemetery in the Bronze Age.

To this day, locals believe that the temples of the islands of Malta and Gozo, especially those of Ġgantija, were the work of giants. The temple of Ggantija is said to have been built by the giantess Sansuna. This is how I started this article. Chewing fava beans is said to be the secret behind her enormous powers.

Archaeological finds show that Mnajdra may have been a birth center many thousands of years ago. And Sansuna carried a newborn baby on her arm, carrying the stones to Ggantija. It is impressive what information stories can transfer over enormous distances in time, maybe you should not take it all too literally… Marinda Ruiter

Ggantija, depicted in Voyage en Italie, and Sicile et à Malte – Louis Ducros, 1778

This is a translation of a Dutch article, sources can be found in that article: Plaats van de reuzen; megalithische tempels op Malta


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