Friday, 9 January 2015

The Longlist: The Megalithic Temples of Malta

What's the Longlist? It's the list for all the other great man-made spectacles in the world that haven't quite made my shortlist. I don't feel the need to research them or visit them, but as long as this blog is about the world's best man-made structures, they deserve some kind of mention. Today, the Megalithic Temples of Malta.

When you think of ancient civilisation, you probably don't tend to think of Malta. Well, you'd be wrong. Predating the Egyptian pyramids by over a thousand years, and almost the oldest man-made constructions on Earth, are the Megalithic Temples of Malta.

To confuse things a little, Malta has rather a lot of ancient megalithic temples spread across thousands of years, and I suppose they all fall under the general banner of this Longlist entry. But the ones I'm particularly interested in are the old ones. The really old ones. Which also, happily, appear to be the best ones. UNESCO has placed a bunch of them on their World Heritage List. Their names - wait for it - are Ġgantij, Ta' Ħaġrat, Skorba, Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, and Tarxien. Oh, you crazy Maltese.

Megalithic simply means big stone, and that gives you a pretty good idea of what, ahem, Ġgantij, Ta' Ħaġrat, Skorba, Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, and Tarxien are all about. I assume you've committed these names to memory by now. Made by man at the dawn of civilisation - before the dawn of civilisation you might argue - they are a bunch of temples built from many large chunks of stone, rolled or pushed or somehow transported into place. We don't really know how they did it - there were no metal tools and the wheel was still a distant dream. And we're not altogether what they were used for, although some kind of worship is a pretty good guess. All we know is that they're there, they were built around the 3600BC mark, and they take roughly the same format.

That's Mnajdra, and it's one of the better surviving ones. Basically, a surrounding wall, and several internal blobby-looking chambers. Obviously, nobody was taking notes back then, so all we have to go on is archaeology and guesswork. No human bones have been found on the sites but plenty of animal bones have been, and it is thought animal sacrifices were performed. Small statuettes have been uncovered, suggestive of a mother goddess figure, which is in line with a large number of ancient civilisations and their worship. Or perhaps the ancient Maltese just liked to carve rocks into the shape of curvy women with big boobs. There wasn't exactly much else to do back then. It's your call.

Of the six UNESCO-listed temples, which appear to be the pick of the bunch? For me, Hagar Qim (I'm not going to cater to the Maltese alphabet by repeatedly using that bizarre Ħ and ġ) and Mnajdra look the best preserved. Hagar Qim has the largest single stone of all the Maltese temples, weighing in at 57 tons and at 5.2 metres high. That's heavier than Stonehenge's largest block by around 7 tons, although a few metres shorter. Hagar Qim was first excavated in 1839, but has never been heavily restored, with just a handful of blocks reinforced in the 1950s. It's a pretty similar story with Mnajdra, which might be in slightly better condition, though may have seen a little more restoration.

Ridiculously, however, since 2009 both these temples have tents over them, protective canopies to prevent further erosion. Further erosion? After 5500 years? I think they're coping. Look at the tents, they kind of spoil the effect.

What they can't cope with is deliberate vandalism. In 2001, vandals attacked Mnajdra, knocking down about sixty megaliths and covering it in graffiti. There's no excuse for that in modern Malta, which now has electricity and Gameboys and whatever. What's wrong with youth these days? Back in the day, they were content to just carve boobs out of rocks.

Sometimes ancient, unknown civilisations can seem a little remote from today's hectic lifestyles. It's difficult to imagine the people that inhabited these buildings and worshipped at these temples. But sometimes you get glimpses. And to my joy, in Ta Hagrat, this was found:

An ancient miniature model of the temple! A fellow collector, but one restricted to an era when there was nothing else to collect. Poor sod.

The Megalithic Temples of Malta are more of an archaeological Wonder rather than a grand spectacle. Really, they're mostly rubble and a pile of blocks put together. But the sheer age makes them incredible. In this sense, they are very like another even more ancient monument that has made my Shortlist, Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, which is a mind-blowing 12,000 years old. And Gobekli Tepe doesn't have a stupid tent over it. Yet. Let's hope they don't get any ideas. Better a - wait for it! - Turkish delight than a Malteser.


  1. You do realise that these tents are in fact removable. Their sole point is to preserve the temples from natural erosion, which would lead to a better sustainable way of thinking things. Although they are indeed quite huge I do believe that they are in fact necessary, and seeing them may bother you a bit but it's not worth enjoying them a bit more if it means losing them altogether.

  2. Replies
    1. referring to the previous comment.