There are seven megalithic temples on the islands of Gozo and Malta, each individually discovered and developed. On Gozo are two very large Bronze Age structures, which are called the temples of Ggantija. The temples of Mnajdra, Hagar Qim and Tarxien can be found on Malta are unique because of the lack of resources that were available to the temple builders. Skorba and Ta’Hagrat are great examples of how temple building traditions were passed among generations on the island of Malta.
The temples on Malta are all prehistoric structures that date back to the 4th and 3rd millennium BC. They rank among the first free standing stone constructions anywhere in the world and have a quite diverse decoration and form that varies from structure to structure. Each temple is a great way to see unique architecture and get a glimpse of a prehistoric culture that is known for extraordinary feats of architecture, technology and art.
Each of the temples demonstrated a different construction method, building plans and articulation. Most of them can be approached via an elliptical forecourt that appears in front of a facade with a concave design. Both the interior and the facade of the temples are constructed from upright stone slabs (orthostats), which are likely topped with beams that run in a horizontal direction. Masonry that has survived the test of time indicate that these monolithic temples probably had cor belled roofs, which were also likely topped with horizontal beams. This building technique was advanced for the times and wasn’t seen too often in other parts of the world. The exterior of the megalithic temples is made up of large stone blocks, which alternately face out, creating a cohesive design on the structure. Between the exterior and interior walls exist stones and soil, which act to bind the entire structure together and make it more sound and solid.
The entrance of each temple is usually found in the centre of the building, which opens to a hallway that leads to an internal paved court. Inside the temples are a series of semi-circular rooms, called apses, that extend in a symmetrical fashion from the main axis. The number of chambers is different in each temple. Some contain three that open from the centre, while others have up to four, five or six apses.
Locally sourced stone was used as it builders had a good understanding of its properties as they relate to building long lasting structures. Coralline limestone was often used on the exterior of the megalithic temples, while a softer rock called globigerina was used for the inside walls and for decorative elements.
Visitors to the temples can easily see the level of craftsmanship by examining the decorative elements. These include panels with drilled holes, bas-relief workmanship that show spirals, plants, animals and trees. The layout and artefacts discovered within the temples indicate that they were used for rituals in a highly organised society.
The remarkable nature of these Maltese temples comes not just from their originality, but also because they are so large and complex. The masterful techniques required to build them also set them apart and make them extraordinary in terms of the time frame in which they were constructed.
In terms of the state of conservation of the megalithic temples, all six are in reasonably good shape, though the Tarxien temple is markedly less well preserved than the other structures. All the key attributes can be found within the boundaries of each complex. The surviving aspects of the temples indicate the high level of craftsmanship and the advanced knowledge of the builders. Regardless, both structural and material decline is present, and research continues to search for how to best preserve the temples.
There is a high level of authenticity on each of the structures. The well preserved Megalithic temples offer clear evidence of the different stages of construction in Antiquity. The structures are recorded in early modern travel accounts and photographic evidence is available as early as the 1900s. Since their discovery, restoration has occurred on several of the temples, including moving decorative components inside to preserve them and capping some blocks with cement for additional protection. Current international standards and guidelines are in place for conservation attempts as they move forward.
Protection and Management Requirements
All megalithic temples in Malta are protected under the 2002 Cultural Heritage Act. This Act regulates the protection and management by national bodies as they work to preserve cultural heritage sites.
The 2010 Environment and Development Planning Act regulates land use and building development (and any of its amendments) which in turn regulates the Malta Environment and Planning Authority. Because land use is a hotly debated topic on the Maltese islands, careful regulation and protection of the Megalithic temples and their surrounding areas is a top concern.
Around each temple is a buffer zone, each of which is scheduled by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority and are considered Grade A archaeological sites, which means they are subject to strict guidelines in terms of building development. The application of such regulations is different according to where the temple is located. One of the most important goals of the regulations is to control the visual impact of building development near each temple’s buffer zone.
There is a Management Plan in place for each structure, which covers both the temple and its buffer zone.
The 2006-2011 Conservation Plan specifically addresses the conservation of the Megalithic temples as it’s a top area of concern. All sites were excavated in the 19th or 20th century, which leaves them subject to erosion and human intervention. The most effective way to protect the temples is through the use of protective shelters, which help slow down erosion and deterioration of the structures. These covers are lightweight and removable and are a temporary means of prolonging the lifespan of the temples as research is conducted on effective long-term strategies for preserving the temples.