From a geological standpoint, the Maltese archipelago is a handful of limestone, clay and fossil coral outcrops separated from the Sicilian coastline by a mere 80 kilometers (50 miles) of open sea. But its highly strategic geographical location for ships sailing the Mediterranean placed it at the crossroad of Mediterranean cultures since the dawn of history.

Malta has the highest density of Neolithic sites in the Mediterranean basin.

Among the many mysteries that surround the Megalithic past of these tiny islands, several revolve around the origins of their first settlers. This opaque prehistoric past has left behind the highest density of archeological sites in the region, testament to a tradition of ancient architecture that is unique to this part of the world. Archaeologists have discovered over twenty temples on Malta. While many are not open to visitors, six of them, classified by UNESCO as part of the ‘Megalithic Temples of Malta’ World Heritage Site, are.

The National Museum of Archeology

The Auberge de Provence is home to the National Museum of Archeology.

A good place to begin a journey of discovery into Malta’s enigmatic past is the National Museum of Archaeology. Housed at the Auberge de Provence, the grand historic  mansion built by the Knights of Saint John in the heart of Valletta, it is where Malta’s most striking archeological discoveries are displayed. Each section illustrates one of the successive prehistoric civilizations that settled on the islands, starting with remarkably advanced Neolithic stone tools dating back to 5200 BC and an amazing prehistoric architectural maquette of the Ta’ Hagrat temple (3600-3200 BC). 

The Sleeping Lady is one of the most prized treasures of the museum.

More impressive still are the beautiful prehistoric figurines of The Sleeping Lady (circa 3300-3000 BC) found at the Hypogeum, the fat deities believed to be symbols of fertility sculptures of Hagar Qim (circa 3600-3200 BC), and the elegant stone friezes from the Tarxien Temples (3000-2500 BC). By providing a comprehensive introduction to the prehistory of the Maltese islands, the museum is a catalyst for the exploration of its rich archaeological sites.

 

The Caves to Temples Enigma

Ghar Dalam ware is the oldest known in the Maltese islands.

While we still know very little about the early phases of life on Malta, there is strong evidence that the first Stone Age farmers arrived on its shores around 5200 BC and made their home in caves. The most important find to date is Ghar Dalam, a 144-meter (500-foot) tunnel and cave, located on the outskirts of the southern seaside town of Birżebbuġa. The household potteries vessels, flint and obsidian remains found here point to the settlers connections to Sicily and the Aeolian Islands.

The architectural design of the Tarxien Temples is unique in the region.

Then, the early part of the following millennium shows the emergence of a particularly enigmatic period now known as the Temples Period (or Tarxien Phase – 3600 to 2500 BC). This was a time, some 1000 years before the construction of the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt, when the people of Malta used megaliths weighing up to 50 tonnes to create elaborate buildings that appear to be oriented in relation to the winter solstice sunrise. These Megalithic temples are the oldest surviving free-standing structures in the world. Furthermore, neither their architectural design nor the sculptures found in them bear any similarity to those of any other Mediterranean cultures.

The Tarxien Temples

The two most notable temples of the Tarxien Phase are Hagar Qim and Tarxien.

The facade and trilithon entrance of Hagar Qim.

Hagar Qim — The site occupies a commanding position on a rocky plateau overlooking the sea  on the southwestern coast of the island. Behind a facade of  monumental boulders pierced by a striking trilithon entrance (made of two standing stones supporting third one – from the Greek ‘three stones’), the complex consists of a number of horseshoe-shaped chambers arranged around a central space. Many of these chambers may be accessed only through porthole doorways cut through a single megalith. The central court and surrounding chambers contain beautifully carved  pillars and mushroom shaped altars. 

Thes large broad-hipped female figures are believed to be fertility symbols.

Rolling stones were used to transport boulders to temple sites.

Tarxien — Located in the outskirts the present day town of Paola on the south side of the grand Harbour, the sprawling complex at Tarxien comprises four distinct buildings, the last of which were completed at a time where the age of temple building was coming to a close, sometimes around the mid-third  millennium BC. The four linked structures, built of massive stone blocks up to three meters by one meter by one meter in size are decorated with remarkably sophisticated spiral patterns and animal reliefs. A special interest of the site is that it provides a rare insight into how the megalithic structures were constructed: stone rollers used to transport the boulders were found outside of one of the buildings.

Large statues of a broad-hipped female figures were found in both places, with copies remaining in situ, while the original figures can now be seen at the National Museum of Archeology. Excavations of both sites revealed that they were used for rituals, which likely involved animal sacrifice.

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

Middle-level chambers of the Hypogeum

A short walk from the Tarxien Temples into the center of Paoli, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is the best preserved example of the Maltese temple-building culture and the star attraction of the islands’ Megalithic sites. 

The Hypogeum (from the Greek ‘underground’) is a subterranean sanctuary and necropolis meticulously carved out of the rock to simulate masonry construction. It is a world of interconnected halls, chambers and passages superimposed over three levels, with the burial chambers of the upper level dating from the early phases of the Maltese Temple Period, while lower chambers were created in later periods. Based on pottery sample analysis and examination human remains, the site is believed to have first been used as early as 4000 BC and continued to be until around 2500 BC. 

Ochre ceiling painting in the middle chambers of the Hypogeum.

Overall, the remains of some 7,000 individuals were documented by archeologists. A broad range of objects recovered from the site include intricately decorated pottery vessels, stone and clay beads, shell buttons, amulets, axe-heads, and carved figures depicting humans and animals. The most notable discovery is the Sleeping Lady, a clay figure thought to represent a mother goddess. Other figures range from abstract to realistic in style, with major themes thought to be related to veneration of the dead.

To ensure the preservation of the site, access to the Hypogeum is limited to 80 visitors per day, admitted in hourly pre-booked guided groups of ten. Tickets must be reserved well ahead for a specific day and time, but the visit of this intriguing and remarkably preserved site is well worth the advance planning.

Tarxien Temple carved staela.

Good to Know

Visiting — At the time of this writing, due to the Covid 19 pandemic social distancing requirements, visit times and regulation are subject to frequent changes. Check with the sites websites for updates. 

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