Malta: Prehistoric Temples & Pagan Catacombs

April 23, 2017.  As promised, the theme for today’s memories of Malta is prehistoric peoples and pagans.  Now before you begin yawning on me, I guarantee that the photos and stories of Malta’s catacombs and megalithic temples (think Stonehenge on steroids) will rock your world, bad pun intended.  Jaw-dropping is the only way to describe them.  And I bet that by the end of this post, you’ll be booking your next vacay to see this stuff with your own eyes.

Pictured is a temple interior at Mnajdra. Matthew geeked out on all the incredible Stone Age construction — done without any metal tools or machinery!

Malta’s stone temples were a prime motivator in our own vacation plans.  As an architect, Matthew loves looking at building designs and construction techniques from just about any era.  And I’m an archaeology buff (my degree is in Near Eastern archaeology, meaning ancient Palestine and the people who passed through it, like the Egyptians, Assyrians, Hittites, Romans, etc.)

Check out the dresser, bed, in-ground water storage tanks for holding live bait, and the corner toilet in this Neolithic Skara Brae apartment — all made of stone around 3180 B.C. to about 2500 B.C.  Photo courtesy of Wknight94, Wikipedia. (My own photos are back in the States.)

Despite my original focus on ancient literate cultures, for quite a while now I’ve been fixated on folks who lived before written history.  I think my obsession started about ten years ago, while we were in Scotland on the Orkney Isles at the site of Skara Brae.  The fact that Stone Age Europeans could create such a surprisingly sophisticated apartment complex — one I’d happily live in today — totally blew my mind.  And made me question the idea that Fred Flintstone was merely a fictitious cartoon character.

My panoramic of one of the Tarxien Temples slightly distorts the image, but you can still see the semi-circular apses that link together to form a sort of cloverleaf pattern. Notice the size of those stones and their artistic carvings.  (Click for a bigger view.)

So for those of you who think prehistoric people all lived in caves and ran around clubbing their dinner dates over the head with giant drumsticks, the Megalithic Temples of Malta will come as quite a shock.  These masterpieces of ancient architecture are incredibly refined, with elaborate cloverleaf floor plans and intricate ornamentation, all done with stone and bone tools (no handy-dandy metal chisels), and all on a stupefying scale.  Many of the exterior walls alone have blocks that measure over 10 feet tall and weigh more than two tons.  Hence, the term megalithic, meaning “great stone.”

Over the centuries, Malta’s Stone-Age communities added to and updated their temple complexes to meet their changing needs, design preferences, and technical skills.  Note the differences in size and shape between the older temple (left) and the younger (right) at the Ġgantija Temple Complex. Photo: Heritage Books, Heritage Malta

Before I dive into the details of each temple complex, I thought you might like some “big-picture” facts to put everything into perspective.  First, there are around 30 stone temples located all over Malta.  They typically occur in groups, with slight stylistic changes that indicate each was built in different phases over time.  (The one human constant:  fashion changes.)  Due to their architectural uniqueness, age, and what they reveal about early human societies, seven of these complexes are currently listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Cultural remains, such as similar pottery styles and burial practices, tell archaeologists that people from Sicily settled Malta. Perhaps they made the 50-mile (80-km) crossing in boats like these, depicted in ancient graffiti found at the Tarxien Temples.

You’ll find these cloverleaf temples only on Malta, which is why some archaeologists theorize that the island may have held a special status as a sacred place for folks from mainland Sicily, who began settling there around 5200 B.C.  All of the temples date to between 3600 and 2500 B.C. (the Late Neolithic / New Stone Age), and together, they’re considered the oldest free-standing structures in the world.  For comparison, the Egyptian pyramids could be considered mid-lifers, dating only to around 2600 B.C., while Stonehenge is virtually a youngster, dating to 2000 B.C.

Temple figures typically depict obese people. Whether these husky hordes represent deities or leaders isn’t known, but it’s pretty clear that thin wasn’t in for temple art. Archaeologists think that chubbiness may have indicated an ideal state — prosperity, fertility, and an abundance of food for the community.

Ummm, and about that term “temple.”  Truthfully, archaeologists don’t know exactly what these buildings were used for.  It’s safe to assume that moving such large stones to build such a huge structure required long-term planning and a significant number of people.  And spending so much manpower, time, and energy on one edifice likely meant it served the entire community.  Yep, it could have acted as the town hall.  But the artifacts found inside — such as charred animal bones, altar-like tables, markers for tracking astronomical events, and massive “fat folk” statues — suggest that these buildings also served a ritual or religious purpose.

Okay, so that’s your quickie overview, now lets delve into the individual sites themselves.  By the way, should you get sick of my soliloquy on temples, feel free to scroll down to the paragraphs on Malta’s mysterious prehistoric “cart ruts” that run across the islands like Peru’s Nazca lines.  Or check out the catacombs at the end of this page.  (Catacombs buried at the bottom, get it?  Whoa, I’m on a roll with the bad puns today.)  One more thing: this is the longest post I’ve written yet, so you might want to take a bathroom break before sitting down to read.  What can I say?  I love this topic so much that I just can’t shut up about it.

To quote Monty Python, “it’s only a model,” but at least you can see the general layout of the Ġgantija Temples. Some believe that the basic floor plan is intended to mimic the  body shape of the “fat folk” figurines, with a head, plump arms, and tubby legs.  All of Malta’s temples share a similarly lobed layout.

The Ġgantija Temple Complex
With its two buildings having been constructed between 3600 and 3200 B.C., Ġgantija is the oldest of Malta’s temple complexes.  The site’s name comes from the Maltese word ġgant, meaning “giant,” because local legend has it that a giantess who ate only broad beans and honey built the oversized edifices.  (I’m wondering if the broad-bean-and-honey detail is modern man’s attempt to explain the kidney-bean shape and honeycomb nature of each structure.)  Ġgantija’s design seems to have set the tone for Malta’s temple-building tradition, as all the island’s megalithic monuments thereafter share the same basic cloverleaf shapes, general layouts, and construction methods.  Click through the gallery below for more fun facts and photos of Ġgantija from our visit….

Ħaġar Qim is the only one of Malta’s temple complexes that sits on a hilltop; the others rest on the slopes below hills overlooking fertile valleys. However, all of Malta’s temples are oriented southeast, probably to track the position of the sun in the sky.  Aerial photo by John J. Borg, Heritage Books, Heritage Malta.

The Ħaġar Qim Temple Complex
Probably the most atmospheric of all the temple complexes, Ħaġar Qim commands an amazing view out over the Mediterranean and is surrounded by a scrubby, wildflower-covered landscape known as garrigue.  A nearby nature trail makes it a great place to hike, and the path leads to another awesome temple, so you get two sites for the price of one.

The exterior wall of Ħaġar Qim’s Main Temple contains the largest stone ever used in these megalithic buildings; it measures 22 feet (7 m) by 10 feet (3 m) and weighs approximately 20 tons. Note the tethering holes at the base of the wall, where animals would likely be leashed in preparation for ritual sacrifice.

The Ħaġar Qim complex itself is made up of three temples spread out over a campus.  The large Main Temple is the most unusual, with a series of “chapels” that were added over time to one side of the original cloverleaf shape.  Fantastical elements such as “oracle holes,” porthole doors, fancy freestanding altars, and a solstice-tracking aperture, make Ħaġar Qim well worth a visit, as you’ll see in the photo gallery below.

How’s this for a sexy centerfold?  At least you can get a feel for the layout of Mnajdra’s temples.  The three-apsed East Temple (bottom right) is the oldest, from the same period as Ġgantija. The Center and South Temples are younger, dating to the Tarxien Temple period around 3150 – 2500 B.C.  Aerial photo by John J. Borg, Heritage Books, Heritage Malta.

The Mnajdra Temple Complex
A five-minute walk downhill from Ħaġar Qim will bring you to the Mnajdra Temple Complex — another astronomical observation hotspot.  The doorway and altar within the Main Temple work together as a kind of solar calendar by marking solstices and equinoxes, while a nearby smaller temple holds an altar for tracking the movements of stars and constellations.  Hey, when you’re a farmer, it’s pretty vital to keep tabs on the change of seasons.  Still think Stone Age people were all non-literate idiots?  Check out the photo gallery below or my video walkthrough, and I bet you’ll change your mind.

A colossal statue of one of the “fat folks” stands inside the first apse of Tarxien’s South Temple. Originally measuring 6.5 feet (2 m) in height, it’s the oldest monumental sculpture of a human ever found from Mediterranean prehistory.

The Tarxien Temple Complex
Okay, only one more temple complex, I promise.  Some might even say I’ve saved the best for last.  Tarxien represents the final phase of the temple-building tradition, where the cloverleaf shape gets multiplied into a chain of apses more ornately decorated than any that had come before.  The site also gives us a glimpse into what may have happened to the builders.  It seems that foreigners, with metal tools and new ways of living, moved into the neighborhood and transformed Tarxien into a cremation cemetery.  Whether the temple-builders themselves had already relocated, died off,  been killed off, or simply blended in with their new neighbors is unclear.  But luckily, these prehistoric people left behind some great edifices to remember them by.

From the sky, it’s easy to see how Clapham Junction got its name. Hundreds of mysterious tracks converge at this site, making it look like a train yard. (Sorry for the bad book photo, but I didn’t have the cash to rent a plane for an aerial view. Photo by Daniel Cilia, Heritage Books, Heritage Malta.)

Clapham Junction
The temples themselves aren’t the only ancient mysteries on Malta.  A surprising number of so-called “cart ruts” lace the islands, giving the landscape a sort of Nazca-line look from the air.  But unlike Peru’s glyphs, Malta’s furrows don’t create pretty pictures.  They seem to wander fairly randomly, except in places like Misraħ Għar il-Kbir, where the tracks cluster so heavily that the site has been nicknamed “Clapham Junction” after London’s busiest train station.

Matthew stands where two ruts diverge at Clapham Junction. The size, shape, and depth of these grooves raise queries about whether they were cut by wheeled carts, runner sleds, travois … or something else?

Questions abound and debates rage over who, what, when, and why the ruts were made.  And of course, extraterrestrial activity is always suspect.  (You knew that was coming, right?  If we don’t understand how humans were capable of achieving something, we blame it on aliens.  Sure shows a lot of confidence in us as a species.)  So Matthew and I spent some time pondering the probabilities while exploring the site.

No better place for a nature walk than Clapham Junction. Incredible vistas, wildflowers galore, and peace and quiet, except for the sound of sheep’s bells.  Now if only it were a bit warmer so I didn’t have to wear my wooly coat.

An absolutely idyllic spot for a stroll, the place was strewn with wildflowers.  Every step we took released the smell of tiny thyme and rosemary plants beneath our feet.  Without a doubt one of the most tranquil moments of our trip.  We didn’t solve any archaic riddles, but we did run across Punic tombs, ancient stone quarries, and the foundations of old fortresses that littered the landscape (and also provided clues about the site’s history.)  For more info, check out our photos below.

The Catacombs
Last but not least, we come to Malta’s catacombs.  Subterranean cemeteries have been the premier burial preference for many different cultures that have peopled the islands over the years.  Why would folks spend so much time and effort excavating these tunnels?  Limited territory often forced locals to bury their dead far below ground in order to preserve valuable farmland.  And tiny Malta has lots of soft, easy-to-excavate limestone that is often perforated by natural caves, which gave grave diggers a head start.  Carving out crypts for the final resting place of your loved ones seems like a no-brainer.

Pictured is the “Sleeping Lady,” who was found in one of the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum burials. You can see that she bears a resemblance to the “fat folk” figurines found in Malta’s megalithic temples.  She’s painted red, which some believe was the designated color of death for Maltese prehistoric people.

One of Malta’s most spectacular catacombs is the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, which consists of three levels of interconnecting tombs dating from 4000 to 2500 B.C.  When archaeologists first discovered the place, the body count here ran pretty high, with an estimated 7,000 people having been interred over the ages.  (The skeletons have since been removed from the site.)  Interestingly, many of the crypt façades resemble Malta’s megalithic temples, with trilithon openings, porthole doors, and a cloverleaf layout.  The theory is that the earliest tombs took advantage of natural honeycomb-like cavities in the limestone for burying the dead, and this pattern later inspired the basic temple floor plan.  (Interestingly, only a few Neolithic settlements have been found on Malta so far, but these also favored lobe-shaped wooden houses.)

How’s this for spooky lighting? The catacombs under St. Cataldus are part of an extensive network that runs beneath the cities of Mdina and Rabat.

Now that I’ve psyched you up for Ħal Saflieni, I have to let you down.  It was closed for restoration during our trip.  Yeah, a big bummer.  So we made a beeline for St. Paul’s Catacombs in nearby Rabat.  Our first foray into the “city of the dead” was from the basement of St. Cataldus Church (a.k.a. St. Agatha’s).  I’d highly recommend going here first, because its crypts are beautifully lit and really capture that creepy-cool feeling that you want for your first catacomb crawl.  Plus, you’ll get the “early-Christian” vibe that everyone likes to associate with these places.

Take a look at the incredible mosaic in the atrium of the “Domvs Romana.” Its center panel features doves drinking from a fountain. It’s a motif from a painting by Sosos of Pergamon, which became so popular that all the Roman aristocrats at the time had to have a copy made for their homes.

Having made the Christian connection, I now have to pop your bubble once again.  Christians didn’t really reinvent the concept of the catacomb to escape Roman persecution.  They simply staked out their own burial spaces in these necropolises, which were established by pagans long before Christianity became a thing.  (Incidentally, trying to hide in these crowded cemeteries would’ve been a bad idea.  It’d be hard to remain incognito with the whole town regularly traipsing in and out for family funerals.)

The earliest tunnels in St. Paul’s Catacombs were dug during the Phoenician-Punic period (7th – 2nd centuries B.C.)  Then the Romans came along and expanded the excavation project to its current cavernous proportions.  At St. Paul’s, you’ll find pagan Romans, Jews, and Christians from the same time period all buried side by side.  And if you’d like to learn a little more about the people who made the site the rabbit warren that it is today, visit the Domvs Romana, right next door.  You’ll find a partially-restored Roman town home with some fabulous mosaic floors that are totally worth a visit.

But back to St. Paul’s Catacombs.  The main monument is just down the street from St. Cataldus, and the huge cemetery dwarfs the church’s crypt in comparison.  The site straddles the road, has at least eight entrances to different sections of the complex, and each tunnel extends for what seems like miles.  But before you descend into the bowels of the earth, you MUST stop at the Visitor’s Center to learn the super-fascinating basics about ancient Roman, Christian, and Jewish burial customs.  To learn more about what you’ll see, click through the photo gallery below:

And on that note, I’ll end my dissertation about prehistoric and pagan Malta.  Tomorrow, a bit about the basics:  eating, sleeping, and hiking around the islands.

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