A few years ago I had the pleasure of visiting Malta for two months. One of the world’s tiniest countries, it was easy to visit its celebrated historic sites. The Ggantija Temples sits on the island of Gozo’s Xagħra plateau. On cliffs high above the azure Mediterranean Sea, they face south-east, in the direction of the rising sun.
The day I visited the temple was cloudless blue with a refreshing breeze rising up from the sea. Tall palm trees nodded on the wind. There were only a handful of visitors to the site—a tour bus full of Japanese tourists arrived just as I was leaving the site—and other than the gulls crying in the air and the surf pounding far below the cliffs all was silent.
The Ggantija Temple is actually two connected megalithic structures from the Neolithic period erected sometime between 3600 – 3500 BC. They are the oldest free-standing buildings in the world, older even than the Pyramids of Egypt or England’s Stonehenge. The temple was possibly the site of a fertility cult; archeologists believe that the numerous figurines and statues found on site are connected with that cult. According to local Gozitan folktales, giantesses built these temples and used them as places of worship.
Despite the restorative work that was going on at the time, I was able to wander through the complex. The plan of the temple incorporates five large apses with traces of the plaster that once covered the irregular wall still clinging between the blocks. The temples are built in the typical clover-leaf shape (some think the shape resembles the womb, which would seem appropriate for a fertility cult) with inner facing blocks marking the shape which was then filled in with rubble. This led to the construction of a series of semi-circular apses connected with a central passage. The apses were originally covered by roofing. The structures are all the more impressive for having been constructed at a time when no metal tools were available to the natives of the Maltese islands, and when the wheel had not yet been introduced. Small, spherical stones have been discovered. They are believed to have been used as ball bearings to transport the enormous stone blocks required for the temple’s construction.
I slowly walked through the temple, the hot sun beating down upon me, and wondered what kinds of rites were practiced here. There was some evidence of animal sacrifice but the exact nature of the sacred rituals of these prehistoric Maltese remains a mystery to us. It is clear, though, that sacred sites such as these leave some imprint upon the environment, a spiritual essence that the sensitive visitor can still feel after so many thousands of years. It should come as no surprise that even today worshippers of the goddess find their way to the Ġgantija Temple to practice their modern-day rites.