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Malta and Gozo, located in the centre of the Mediterranean, have a rich history spanning over the last 7000 years or so! There are temples, goddesses, wrecks, hypogea, cemeteries, Bronze Age villages, catacombs, tombs, villas, baths, ‘cart ruts’, caves, auberges, palaces, fortifications, and so much more. All this is sure to interest any historian, archaeologist, or sightseer! But of all these, the oldest and perhaps the most spectacular are the prehistoric temples scattered all over the islands.
The evidence available suggests that man reached the islands by boat from Sicily about 7000 years ago. They were farmers who built extraordinary structures out of large slabs of stone. There is little argument that these structures were in fact temples because they are monumental in size, contain many symbols and altars, and show no sign of domestic use at all.
Inside the majority of the temples, statuettes (as well as one monumental statue) have been discovered which represent an opulent mother goddess, also known as ‘The Fat Lady’. It is believed that she was worshipped by the farmers in order to have good crops in the typically hot weather.
Even the shape of these temples is unique; they are either lobed, or made up of a series of apses. The incredible thing is that when viewed from above (as a bird’s eye view) the temples seem to have the same shape as the mother goddess, with large thighs! Interestingly, there is no such structure anywhere in the world which is remotely similar to our Maltese temples. This emphasizes the uniqueness of the island, present from even 7000 years ago!
There are some twenty three temples around the island, most of which stand alone or in pairs. These span from around 3600 to 2500BC, making them even older than the Great Pyramid of Egypt, which dates to 2550BC! These include the Ggantija temple, which is the oldest known temple found on the island of Gozo, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples, Tarxien Temples, Kordin Temple, Skorba Temple, and Ta’ Hagrat Temple, amongst others.
There is also a prehistoric underground burial know as the Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum which is associated with the Tarxien Temple, in that it is said to be its related burial ground. It is also completely unique and seems to be a cut-out copy of the temples, but underground. Apart from offerings and skeletons, two incredible chambers were discovered inside, known as the Holy of Holies, as well as the Oracle Room, known for its incredible use of sound. This hypogeum has been recently restored, lit up, opened to the public and been acknowledged as a UNESCO World Heritage site. But book ahead, as only groups of 10 are allowed in every hour and this is surely not one to miss!
Maltese Culture and Traditional Rituals
The rituals that took play within the temples were also very interesting and unique. Apart from the statuettes of the mother goddess, many other symbols were found, including phallic symbols, carved farming animals, and a curly spiral design which has become somewhat of a trademark on the island. The temples are divided into private and public areas where the priests and public were divided. Altars were used to sacrifice animals to the deities, and holes at the entrances were used for libration; the pouring of liquids such as water, wine or blood, to the goddess.
This incredible period in our history ended very mysteriously and abruptly! At the end of what is known as the ‘Tarxien Phase’, which is the latest phase in this period, the temples went completely out of use and it is almost as though everyone disappeared. In fact, at a later phase a new group of people moved into the temples and used them for completely different reasons.
Archaeologists still wonder what may have brought such an abrupt end to one of the most complex and advanced prehistoric cultures of its time!
write by Cosima