Feature Articles – Malta: the small island of the giants
A small island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea contains some of the biggest megalithic monuments. Built before the pyramids by apparently a peace-loving people, the question is who they were and why they disappeared so suddenly.
by Philip Coppens
The three small islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino float in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, south of Sicily and east of the North African coastline. Though small, their history dates back thousands of years – and continues to throw a magical spell on many visitors. The question is whether the modern tourists are the last in a series of sun worshippers that came to these islands.
Around twenty Neolithic stone temples, dating from 4000 to 2500 BC, were built without the apparent use of any metal tools, yet they were working with blocks of stone weighing as much as fifty tonnes. Malta’s “Temple Culture” ended before the Egyptian pyramid building really got going. What is of interest, is that the Maltese temples are unique in style and that their builders – as is so often the case – are unknown to have been locals, or immigrants; however, as is the current trend in archaeology, that the natives did it all without any outside help, is the preferred theory. Malta is by far the biggest of the three islands: it measures 40 km in length and is 20 km wide. The eastern part of the island is where the main megalithic monuments can be found, those of Tarxien, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra being the most famous. But it seems that the oldest are in the west, starting on Gozo.
When the exploration of these sites began many centuries ago, the excavators lived under the impression that they were erected by an extinct race of giants, in antediluvian times, as is in evidence in a printed account of the Maltese islands published in Lyon in 1536, written by Jean Quintin d’Autun, who was auditor to Grandmaster Philippe Vilier de L’Isle Adam. Most of the excavation work, nevertheless, was carried out from the 19th century onwards, the first occurring in 1816-1826 at the temple complex at Gozo’s Ggantija – a site meaning “Giant’s Place”, reflecting the popular connotations these sites possessed.
First to be excavated, the Ggantija is also the oldest of the temples, dated to 3600-3000 BC. With its semicircular forecourt and kidney-shaped apses, leading to an altar niche, it became the template for all subsequent Maltese temples. Indeed, curves, not straight lines, dominate the Maltese temples and hence, they have been seen as symbols of the uterus, the vagina, the egg – references to the female body, for it was Marija Gimbutas who saw in the Maltese temples another expression of a cult that worshipped the Mother Goddess. The Ggantija also has another characteristic of Malta’s Temple Culture: the pairing of temples, in this case with the Xaghra Stone Circle. Such pairing is most prominent at the Hagar Qim and Mnjadra, where the two temples are but a few hundred metres apart, suggesting that both temples were part of one complex. This “pairing” of temples is nevertheless not a fundamental rule. David Trump noted that of 23 know structures, six were alone, ten in pairs, and there was one group of three and one of four. Pairing is therefore not a rule, but definitely has a majority. Other “paired sites” in Malta are those of Skorba and Mgarr, and Tarxien and the Hypogeum. Amongst the paired sites, a rule has been noticed: one structure is located on high ground, almost on top of a hill, while the other on lower ground. What is clear, is that all temples in Malta adhere to a template, which is of great help, as portraying what a typical temple must have looked like in its heydays is quite hard, partly because of the great antiquity of the temples, resulting in piece-meal archaeological discoveries at individual sites.
The façade of the Tarxien has disappeared, but to witness the wall of stone that would meet visitors, one can look at that of the Hagar Qim or of the Ggantija. The latter’s original façade might have been as high as 16 metres. At present, some stones are still five metres high and weigh 15 tonnes. Colin Renfrew called this façade “perhaps the earliest architecturally conceived exterior in the world” – and it continues to impress the tourists. The temple of Ggantija contains – according to UNESCO – the largest free standing stone in the world. In itself, this is not that impressive, as there are larger stones elsewhere – they are just not free standing. Despite its gigantic size, there is only one, rather small, entrance, in the middle of the structure.
Inside this megalithic “church” is a series of oval-shaped “chapels” – typical for the Maltese temple structure. At the end of each, there is normally a niche, in which – one assumes – a cult object was placed. What makes the temple of Tarxien unique amongst its peers is that the site has its own spring. Archaeological finds in the form of vessels suggest that water must have played an important role on this site – and it is more likely that the role of the spring and its water was spiritual, rather than economical.
The megalithic monuments no longer have a roof, but drawings that date from previous centuries and small models that were left by the megalithic builders themselves (especially one at Ta’Hagrat, now on display in the National Museum in Valletta) reveal that the temples were once roofed. It appears that the roof was made from stone and how they may have looked from the inside, is perhaps best visible in the Hypogeum, where the Holy of Holies reveals a circle of stone that continue upwards, giving the room a bell-shaped, conical appearance. Seeing that this is yet another curve, it clearly fit in with the designs of the builders. More curves are in evidence in that many temples are decorated with spirals, especially on slabs that served as altars. The spirals vary in form, some providing a more plant-like display, while others are spirals that somewhat resemble those enigmatic spirals of the Irish site of Newgrange.
Tarxien also has a chapel with drawings of goats, sheep and pigs. Below the main altar, a flint knife and a mass of horns and bones have been found, suggesting the animals might have been sacrificed as part of the temple rituals. Many of the niches were crammed with horns, skulls and half-burnt bones of oxen, sheep, goats and pigs. The presence of a roof means the interior was dark-ish. Darkness must have been enhanced through a system of doors; several doorways still show signs of rope-holes, clearly in evidence at Tarxien.
Most temples also contained statues, though most have been partially destroyed – either by the passing of time, or by a deliberate act of destruction at some point in the past. Some of the statues seem to be of giant women, with giant breasts, thighs and arms and one statue, at Tarxien, has been labelled the “Maltese Venus”. In origin, the statue would have measured no less than three metres tall, but only the lower legs and part of the skirt remain. Is the statue of a giant woman evidence that this structure was indeed built by giants, or for a Mother Goddess? Or both? Or neither? John D. Evans has pointed out that “many figures are genderless, and yet others are male. Some figurines are clearly female with well defined breasts and triangle motifs symbolizing aspects of fertility. However, there are far more genderless figurines than there are female ones, and this begs the question of whether indeed a cult of a Mother Goddess really existed.”
But however God was conceived to be, it is clear that the temple builders incorporated solar alignments – like their megalithic colleagues elsewhere in Europe. One of the first people to push the solar-lunar connection was Joseph Ellul. Ellul’s father was the caretaker of the Hagar Qim complex – a privileged position to learn much about the complex and be confronted with a wide variety of visitors, each giving their own insights into the structure, whether from professional archaeologists or interested tourists.
As a result, Ellul was able to identify that certain chapels of the complex were carefully orientated towards the sunrise and sunset of the equinoxes and solstices. Ellul was even able to photograph how certain doors “framed” the full moon at the start of the 19 year Metonic cycle. Others have noted that at Mnjadra 3, pitted marks on two pillars that flank the entrance to the inner chamber of the smallest and oldest temple are believed to be linked to the counts of days between the heliacal rising of stars, beginning with the Pleiades on April 6 and ending with Beta Centaurus on October 2-3. Taken together, it is clear that detailed planning went into these complexes – and great powers of observation and precision. The astronomical orientation can, however, be taken further. Several of the paired sites are located on a southeast facing slope, with the first temple to be built the western one, which is also always the most massive. The second temple was built to the east. More importantly, the temples were built facing East-South-East, which means that the first rays of light of the winter solstice sunrise entered the doorway and reached a specifically designed area inside the temple. For those familiar with Newgrange, a giant stone wall, a small doorway which plays with the winter solstice sunrise will not sound unfamiliar. And it appears that as in Newgrange, so in Malta. How was this accomplished in Malta? It appears that it was accomplished by using poles planted in holes in each temple doorway. The shadow the pole cast was then used to identify the location where a niche or altar upon which the sun was meant to throw its light had to be erected.
In Ta’ Hagrat, Skorba and Ggantija South, the first light of the winter solstice sunrise was directed towards the central apse. At Tarxien – built later – sunlight from the winter solstice sunrise was directed onto a carefully planned altar situated on the western side of the central passage; the same applies at the Ggantija North, Mnajdra Central and the Hagar Qim temples.
Observers have noted that this is not all: the façade of each temple is claimed to have been planned in such a way that its radius of curvature depended on the length of the sunbeam at the winter solstice sunrise inside every particular temple. The length of the beam was also used to calculate the width of the facade. So, as in Newgrange, so in Malta indeed. At Mnajdra, it has been observed that the unit of measurement used in the distances between the foci, the main axis and the perimeters of the main temples was the megalithic yard, as defined by Alexander Thom, and based upon a common megalithic unit of measurement that he found in monuments in Northern Europe.
Paul Micallef has shown that when the sun on the summer solstice rises, it casts an image shaped like a flag for a few seconds on a great stone slab to the left of the temple entrance of Mnajdra. The opposite occurs on the winter solstice, when the sun illuminates a slab on the right of the entrance. Today, Tarxien is surrounded by modern buildinsg, but wedge yourself in a side street, and you will note that we are not only on a hill, but that the sea is also visible. The same, of course, applies for the Hagar Qim/Mnajdra complex. Coincidence, or design? Off the coast of this complex lies the small island – some call it a rock – of Filfla. The Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Filfla are roughly aligned, but certain doors and windows from these temples are clearly aligned to the island, suggesting it held some importance. Hence, archaeologists have noted that the island is cleft-shaped, and evokes a bull’s horns. Coincidence, or evidence that the site was chosen because of the presence of this island, and its bull-like connotation?
The Hagar Qim is deemed to be the most impressive of all Maltese monuments. The finesse that was used to join the stones can be compared with the precision employed in the Valley Temple, next to the Sphinx, at Giza (Egypt), where the builders equally carved out massive stones and placed them together as if it was the easiest job in the world. But it is only the massive size of the stones that allows for such a comparison. Other than that, both sites have their own unique design and decoration. Still, as we know, that the Maltese monuments predate the Valley Temple by many centuries… could this Maltese knowledge of working with giant stones have made it into Egypt? Though there is currently no evidence for it, it might at least explain what happened to this civilisation in ca. 2500 BC: officially, it is unknown what transpired and John D. Evans wrote it up that the “temple builders vanish as if by magic”. That was the end… but what about the beginning? Near the Ggantija, the Xaghra stone circle has a subterranean complex of natural caves, which seem to have been used as a cemetery – thus apparently identifying this location as a Gozo counterpart of the Hypogeum on Malta’s mainland, considered to be Tarxien’s paired site. But – more importantly – we have here a “normal” megalithic stone circle, which seems to have become enhanced, upon which the temple nearby was constructed; then, this design was exported to Malta – though to no other island or country near Malta – like Sicily, which is only 90 miles north and on a very clear day, can even be seen from the island.
So who were these people? The only early village so far discovered is at Skorba, dating from 4400 to 4100 BC, showing that people lived in small oval huts made from mud bricks and wattle-and-daub built on low stone foundations. A shrine in one of the huts contained fragments of small female terracotta figures with exaggerated breasts and genitalia. By 5200 BC, the people of Gozo and Malta were familiar with agriculture and it appears that this – as elsewhere – allowed for “free time”, which was devoted to building the temples.
It is believed that up to 10,000 people lived in Malta during the Temple Culture and no hint of conflict between groups or any cultural or religious divergence between them has been found in the archaeological record. There are no signs of armed conflict; or of weapons.
But though the Temple Culture is seen as typically Maltese, by the Maltese, they were not socially isolated. At Hagar Qim, 26 flint instruments have been found, yet Malta does not have this type of stone. It is known that Malta’s Temple Culture imported certain materials, including certain stones not found on the island, from mainland Italy, Sicily and some of the smaller islands off Sicily. Stentinello pottery from around Syracuse in Sicily has been found on the island of Malta. Malta is only a day’s sail from Africa and Sicily. For an ancient mariner, the crossing would have involved just a fair wind, but no sophisticated navigation. It is towards the sea and the legend of the giants that we need to look to find a possible answer as to where the earliest settlers came from. A local legend on Gozo recounts that the first settlers were the children of a giantess. The giantess lived – somewhere – very happily in a wood with her son and daughter. One day, some strangers came in a boat, landed and snatched her children away. She only found out after she took them some food at midday. Looking out to sea in her distress, she saw the boat sailing away and realised what had happened. She dived into the water after her offspring and being a giantess, soon caught up with the boat, even though it was by now far away from land. As she held the sides of the boat to pull herself into it, one of the seafarers cut off both her hands with an axe and she fell back into the sea and drowned. The boat sailed on and eventually reached the Maltese islands, where the daughter of the giantess married on Gozo, and the son in Mosta (mainland Malta), begetting the first dynasties. The story suggests that the Temple Culture was somehow a foreign import, brought to the island by foreigners – an opinion that is, of course, anathema to modern archaeological doctrine.
Still, the idea of giants on the islands is supported by local folklore – and archaeological evidence? Paediatrician Anton Mifsud has stated that a local workman in Gozo told him that he had found a giant some years ago while excavating the foundations of a building complex. The labourer had hidden the bones so that he would not be stopped by the authorities from continuing his work. From the evidence that he showed Mifsud, it seems that between 4000 and 6000 years ago a man, 2.64 metres tall, was buried upright in the soil. A true giant indeed. Engravings on slabs at Tarxien also show a number of different Neolithic boats. One has an upturned prow and stern like the Egyptian boats, but also similar to the Maltese dghajsas. Hence, there is now evidence of giants and boats. But what about a deluge, as the earliest excavators believed? Of course, at a time when the world was felt to have been created in ca. 4000 BC and the Deluge ca. 2500 BC, these writers were right to argue that these were “prediluvian”. In fact, some argue that Malta is primary evidence that a deluge did occur, and some believe the Temple Culture ended because of a Deluge that swept across the island.
Some of Malta’s prehistoric temples are currently indeed underwater. The most spectacular of such stories was launched by Hubert Zeitlmair, who in 1999 claimed to have discovered an underground temple one mile off the Maltese coastline. He organised a diving expedition off the coast of Sliema, bringing back footage of what some recognised as a megalithic temple, though left others – including official archaeologists – apparently unconvinced.
Graham Hancock, for his book and television series Underworld, investigated the story and was able to trace it back to a newspaper clipping from the Malta Sunday Times, dated February 13, 1994, in which Commander S.A. Scicluna was quoted as having found the site “last summer”, 2.5 km from land, at a depth of no more than 25 feet. Alas, Scicluna died just before Hancock wanted to interview him and details of this site remain controversial and unconfirmed – including its precise position.
It is nevertheless known that a megalithic structure once existed inside Valletta’s Grand Harbour, at the foot of Fort Saint Angelo. According to Jean Quintinus, this temple extended over “a large part of the harbour, even far out into the sea” as late as 1536 and in 1606, Megeiser could still see that it was constructed of “rectangular blocks of unbelievable sizes”. Today, we know that the sea level in 5000 BC was no less than 15 metres lower than it is today; by 2500 BC, the water level had already risen by almost ten metres! Hence, rather than a sudden deluge that might have killed all, there is instead a slow sinking of the islands. So, what happened in 2500-2200 BC, when the Temple Culture ceased to exist? It is clear that magic was not involved in the disappearance of these people, but the loss of magic might have resulted in a migration. First of all, 2500-2200 BC roughly coincides with a shift in the zodiac, from Taurus to Aries; and the civilisation of Malta lasted ca. 2500 years – meaning that this civilisation coincided when the sun was in the sign Taurus (the Bull). When the sun moved out of this house, were the temples of Malta simply no longer aligned to the sun, and had they therefore become useless? It might have resulted in a search for new lands, if not a new style – away from the power of the stone – which nicely describes the bull as animal, towards a design that was more in keeping with the ram. Wherever they found it, it was not in Malta, where the temples became forgotten, but the legend of the giants remained. This article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine 5.4 (July-August 1999) and has been largely rewritten.