Exploring Malta’s Forgotten Temples
Believed to be almost 6,000 years old, Malta’s amazing megalithic temples are the oldest free-standing stone buildings in Europe and some of the oldest in the world.
That they’ve lasted this long is a testament to the skill and ingenuity of their builders, but their tragedy is that, despite being accorded UNESCO world heritage status, they’re remarkably little known. Many visitors to Malta only come across them by accident, if at all.
To the enthusiastic discovery-oriented traveler, of course, this only makes them more exciting. If you’re planning on taking a trip to the island, what can you expect to find among its ancient ruins?
Constructed mid-way through Malta’s temple-building period, the Ġgantija complex is undoubtedly its most spectacular. You might imagine that the name sounds like “giant”, and it comes from the same root, because later settlers believed that giants must have built this place, moving megaliths that weigh over 50 tons.
Stick to the paths to avoid damaging the site and you can still see a great deal, from fireplaces to furniture. Visit the Gozo Museum of Archaeology afterwards to learn more about how the temples are thought to have been used.
Photo CC Jose M. Rus
Now sheltering under a glass dome to protect it from the elements, Ħaġar Qim still commands a magnificent view out across the sea to the island of Filfla.
The main temple has several rooms with stone altars, and if you visit on Midsummer’s Day, you can see the inner chamber illuminated by the rays of the rising sun. The National Museum of Archaeology has statuettes taken from the complex – plump figures whose significance remains a mystery.
Made out of coraline limestone, Mnajdra’s three temples retain much of their original beauty; the lowest of them is still decorated with spiral patterns and is designed to be vividly illuminated by the sun on the equinoxes.
They are thought to have been used as an observatory, and they can still be used to tell the time and date. Though there’s a shelter around the site, respectful access to many areas is still permitted.
Photo CC by Marcin Bajer
Among the later constructions from the Maltese temple-building period, the Tarxien temples retain some of their original white cladding and a number of decorative images, including spirals and animals. The lower half of an enormous skirt-clad statue stands among them.
You can explore using an elevated walkway that protects the site from damage, and look down on the altars, where animal sacrifices are believed to have taken place.
One of the oldest surviving Maltese temples, Ta’Ħagrat has a beautiful but relatively remote hillside location, making it one of the less-visited sites – ideal if you like the idea of exploring quietly and having the chance to feel something of the magic that its creators might have experienced.
The façade of the temple is very striking, and inside you’ll find a courtyard and three chambers.
Photo CC Beta-J
Probably the oldest of the surviving Maltese temples, Skorba is sadly not in great condition today, but it remains an intriguing place to visit. It’s located not far from Ta’Ħagrat, so you can easily take in both in one afternoon.
Alongside the two temples on the site are several buildings that people actually lived in, some of which are thought to be even older, providing a fascinating window into the past.
Though Malta International Airport is fairly small, you can fly there from many major European cities, and great bus services make it cheap and easy to get around once you arrive. Driving is also an option, but frankly it’s not easy in Valletta’s narrow medieval streets, and if there’s anywhere you want to go that you can’t reach by bus, it’s generally easy enough to walk.
Holiday rentals and self-catering accommodation in Malta are a better bet than hotels because this is a place where you’ll want to be able to set your own schedule, in keeping with the easy-going attitude of the islanders, and there’s no shortage of great places to get food when you’re on the go.
Malta is a great temperature for exploring all year round, but most people prefer to avoid November and December because of the rain, and you should aim for July or August if you also want to spend some time on the beaches. You won’t find many friendlier places, no matter how far you roam. A meeting point for civilizations since the dawn of humankind, Malta is a location like no other, and its temples really should not be missed.