the small island of the giants
A small island
in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea contains some of the biggest
megalithic monuments. Built before the pyramids by apparently
a peace-loving people, the question is who they were and why they
disappeared so suddenly.
three small islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino float in the middle
of the Mediterranean Sea, south of Sicily and east of the North
African coastline. Though small, their history dates back thousands
of years – and continues to throw a magical spell on many
visitors. The question is whether the modern tourists are the
last in a series of sun worshippers that came to these islands.
Around twenty Neolithic stone temples, dating from 4000 to 2500
BC, were built without the apparent use of any metal tools, yet
they were working with blocks of stone weighing as much as fifty
tonnes. Malta’s “Temple Culture” ended before
the Egyptian pyramid building really got going. What is of interest,
is that the Maltese temples are unique in style and that their
builders – as is so often the case – are unknown to
have been locals, or immigrants; however, as is the current trend
in archaeology, that the natives did it all without any outside
help, is the preferred theory.
is by far the biggest of the three islands: it measures 40 km
in length and is 20 km wide. The eastern part of the island is
where the main megalithic monuments can be found, those of Tarxien,
Hagar Qim and Mnajdra being the most famous. But it seems that
the oldest are in the west, starting on Gozo.
When the exploration of these sites began many centuries ago,
the excavators lived under the impression that they were erected
by an extinct race of giants, in antediluvian times, as is in
evidence in a printed account of the Maltese islands published
in Lyon in 1536, written by Jean Quintin d’Autun, who was
auditor to Grandmaster Philippe Vilier de L’Isle Adam. Most
of the excavation work, nevertheless, was carried out from the
19th century onwards, the first occurring in 1816-1826 at the
temple complex at Gozo’s Ggantija – a site meaning
“Giant’s Place”, reflecting the popular connotations
these sites possessed.
First to be excavated, the Ggantija is also the oldest of the
temples, dated to 3600-3000 BC. With its semicircular forecourt
and kidney-shaped apses, leading to an altar niche, it became
the template for all subsequent Maltese temples. Indeed, curves,
not straight lines, dominate the Maltese temples and hence, they
have been seen as symbols of the uterus, the vagina, the egg –
references to the female body, for it was Marija Gimbutas who
saw in the Maltese temples another expression of a cult that worshipped
the Mother Goddess.
Ggantija also has another characteristic of Malta’s Temple
Culture: the pairing of temples, in this case with the Xaghra
Stone Circle. Such pairing is most prominent at the Hagar Qim
and Mnjadra, where the two temples are but a few hundred metres
apart, suggesting that both temples were part of one complex.
This “pairing” of temples is nevertheless not a fundamental
rule. David Trump noted that of 23 know structures, six were alone,
ten in pairs, and there was one group of three and one of four.
Pairing is therefore not a rule, but definitely has a majority.
Other “paired sites” in Malta are those of Skorba
and Mgarr, and Tarxien and the Hypogeum. Amongst the paired sites,
a rule has been noticed: one structure is located on high ground,
almost on top of a hill, while the other on lower ground.
is clear, is that all temples in Malta adhere to a template, which
is of great help, as portraying what a typical temple must have
looked like in its heydays is quite hard, partly because of the
great antiquity of the temples, resulting in piece-meal archaeological
discoveries at individual sites.
The façade of the Tarxien has disappeared, but to witness
the wall of stone that would meet visitors, one can look at that
of the Hagar Qim or of the Ggantija. The latter’s original
façade might have been as high as 16 metres. At present,
some stones are still five metres high and weigh 15 tonnes. Colin
Renfrew called this façade “perhaps the earliest
architecturally conceived exterior in the world” –
and it continues to impress the tourists. The temple of Ggantija
contains – according to UNESCO – the largest free
standing stone in the world. In itself, this is not that impressive,
as there are larger stones elsewhere – they are just not
free standing. Despite its gigantic size, there is only one, rather
small, entrance, in the middle of the structure.
Inside this megalithic “church” is a series of oval-shaped
“chapels” – typical for the Maltese temple structure.
At the end of each, there is normally a niche, in which –
one assumes – a cult object was placed. What makes the temple
of Tarxien unique amongst its peers is that the site has its own
spring. Archaeological finds in the form of vessels suggest that
water must have played an important role on this site –
and it is more likely that the role of the spring and its water
was spiritual, rather than economical.
The megalithic monuments no longer have a roof, but drawings that
date from previous centuries and small models that were left by
the megalithic builders themselves (especially one at Ta’Hagrat,
now on display in the National Museum in Valletta) reveal that
the temples were once roofed. It appears that the roof was made
from stone and how they may have looked from the inside, is perhaps
best visible in the Hypogeum, where the Holy of Holies reveals
a circle of stone that continue upwards, giving the room a bell-shaped,
conical appearance. Seeing that this is yet another curve, it
clearly fit in with the designs of the builders. More curves are
in evidence in that many temples are decorated with spirals, especially
on slabs that served as altars. The spirals vary in form, some
providing a more plant-like display, while others are spirals
that somewhat resemble those enigmatic spirals of the Irish site
Tarxien also has a chapel with drawings of goats, sheep and pigs.
Below the main altar, a flint knife and a mass of horns and bones
have been found, suggesting the animals might have been sacrificed
as part of the temple rituals. Many of the niches were crammed
with horns, skulls and half-burnt bones of oxen, sheep, goats
presence of a roof means the interior was dark-ish. Darkness must
have been enhanced through a system of doors; several doorways
still show signs of rope-holes, clearly in evidence at Tarxien.
Most temples also contained statues, though most have been partially
destroyed – either by the passing of time, or by a deliberate
act of destruction at some point in the past. Some of the statues
seem to be of giant women, with giant breasts, thighs and arms
and one statue, at Tarxien, has been labelled the “Maltese
Venus”. In origin, the statue would have measured no less
than three metres tall, but only the lower legs and part of the
the statue of a giant woman evidence that this structure was indeed
built by giants, or for a Mother Goddess? Or both? Or neither?
John D. Evans has pointed out that “many figures are genderless,
and yet others are male. Some figurines are clearly female with
well defined breasts and triangle motifs symbolizing aspects of
fertility. However, there are far more genderless figurines than
there are female ones, and this begs the question of whether indeed
a cult of a Mother Goddess really existed.”
But however God was conceived to be, it is clear that the temple
builders incorporated solar alignments – like their megalithic
colleagues elsewhere in Europe. One of the first people to push
the solar-lunar connection was Joseph Ellul. Ellul’s father
was the caretaker of the Hagar Qim complex – a privileged
position to learn much about the complex and be confronted with
a wide variety of visitors, each giving their own insights into
the structure, whether from professional archaeologists or interested
As a result, Ellul was able to identify that certain chapels of
the complex were carefully orientated towards the sunrise and
sunset of the equinoxes and solstices. Ellul was even able to
photograph how certain doors “framed” the full moon
at the start of the 19 year Metonic cycle. Others have noted that
at Mnjadra 3, pitted marks on two pillars that flank the entrance
to the inner chamber of the smallest and oldest temple are believed
to be linked to the counts of days between the heliacal rising
of stars, beginning with the Pleiades on April 6 and ending with
Beta Centaurus on October 2-3. Taken together, it is clear that
detailed planning went into these complexes – and great
powers of observation and precision.
astronomical orientation can, however, be taken further. Several
of the paired sites are located on a southeast facing slope, with
the first temple to be built the western one, which is also always
the most massive. The second temple was built to the east. More
importantly, the temples were built facing East-South-East, which
means that the first rays of light of the winter solstice sunrise
entered the doorway and reached a specifically designed area inside
the temple. For those familiar with Newgrange, a giant stone wall,
a small doorway which plays with the winter solstice sunrise will
not sound unfamiliar. And it appears that as in Newgrange, so
in Malta. How was this accomplished in Malta? It appears that
it was accomplished by using poles planted in holes in each temple
doorway. The shadow the pole cast was then used to identify the
location where a niche or altar upon which the sun was meant to
throw its light had to be erected.
In Ta’ Hagrat, Skorba and Ggantija South, the first light
of the winter solstice sunrise was directed towards the central
apse. At Tarxien – built later – sunlight from the
winter solstice sunrise was directed onto a carefully planned
altar situated on the western side of the central passage; the
same applies at the Ggantija North, Mnajdra Central and the Hagar
Observers have noted that this is not all: the façade of
each temple is claimed to have been planned in such a way that
its radius of curvature depended on the length of the sunbeam
at the winter solstice sunrise inside every particular temple.
The length of the beam was also used to calculate the width of
as in Newgrange, so in Malta indeed. At Mnajdra, it has been observed
that the unit of measurement used in the distances between the
foci, the main axis and the perimeters of the main temples was
the megalithic yard, as defined by Alexander Thom, and based upon
a common megalithic unit of measurement that he found in monuments
in Northern Europe.
Paul Micallef has shown that when the sun on the summer solstice
rises, it casts an image shaped like a flag for a few seconds
on a great stone slab to the left of the temple entrance of Mnajdra.
The opposite occurs on the winter solstice, when the sun illuminates
a slab on the right of the entrance.
Tarxien is surrounded by modern buildinsg, but wedge yourself
in a side street, and you will note that we are not only on a
hill, but that the sea is also visible. The same, of course, applies
for the Hagar Qim/Mnajdra complex. Coincidence, or design? Off
the coast of this complex lies the small island – some call
it a rock – of Filfla. The Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Filfla
are roughly aligned, but certain doors and windows from these
temples are clearly aligned to the island, suggesting it held
some importance. Hence, archaeologists have noted that the island
is cleft-shaped, and evokes a bull’s horns. Coincidence,
or evidence that the site was chosen because of the presence of
this island, and its bull-like connotation?
The Hagar Qim is deemed to be the most impressive of all Maltese
monuments. The finesse that was used to join the stones can be
compared with the precision employed in the Valley Temple, next
to the Sphinx, at Giza (Egypt), where the builders equally carved
out massive stones and placed them together as if it was the easiest
job in the world. But it is only the massive size of the stones
that allows for such a comparison. Other than that, both sites
have their own unique design and decoration. Still, as we know,
that the Maltese monuments predate the Valley Temple by many centuries…
could this Maltese knowledge of working with giant stones have
made it into Egypt? Though there is currently no evidence for
it, it might at least explain what happened to this civilisation
in ca. 2500 BC: officially, it is unknown what transpired and
John D. Evans wrote it up that the “temple builders vanish
as if by magic”.
was the end… but what about the beginning? Near the Ggantija,
the Xaghra stone circle has a subterranean complex of natural
caves, which seem to have been used as a cemetery – thus
apparently identifying this location as a Gozo counterpart of
the Hypogeum on Malta’s mainland, considered to be Tarxien’s
paired site. But – more importantly – we have here
a “normal” megalithic stone circle, which seems to
have become enhanced, upon which the temple nearby was constructed;
then, this design was exported to Malta – though to no other
island or country near Malta – like Sicily, which is only
90 miles north and on a very clear day, can even be seen from
So who were these people? The only early village so far discovered
is at Skorba, dating from 4400 to 4100 BC, showing that people
lived in small oval huts made from mud bricks and wattle-and-daub
built on low stone foundations. A shrine in one of the huts contained
fragments of small female terracotta figures with exaggerated
breasts and genitalia. By 5200 BC, the people of Gozo and Malta
were familiar with agriculture and it appears that this –
as elsewhere – allowed for “free time”, which
was devoted to building the temples.
It is believed that up to 10,000 people lived in Malta during
the Temple Culture and no hint of conflict between groups or any
cultural or religious divergence between them has been found in
the archaeological record. There are no signs of armed conflict;
or of weapons.
But though the Temple Culture is seen as typically Maltese, by
the Maltese, they were not socially isolated. At Hagar Qim, 26
flint instruments have been found, yet Malta does not have this
type of stone. It is known that Malta’s Temple Culture imported
certain materials, including certain stones not found on the island,
from mainland Italy, Sicily and some of the smaller islands off
Sicily. Stentinello pottery from around Syracuse in Sicily has
been found on the island of Malta. Malta is only a day’s
sail from Africa and Sicily. For an ancient mariner, the crossing
would have involved just a fair wind, but no sophisticated navigation.
is towards the sea and the legend of the giants that we need to
look to find a possible answer as to where the earliest settlers
came from. A local legend on Gozo recounts that the first settlers
were the children of a giantess. The giantess lived – somewhere
– very happily in a wood with her son and daughter. One
day, some strangers came in a boat, landed and snatched her children
away. She only found out after she took them some food at midday.
Looking out to sea in her distress, she saw the boat sailing away
and realised what had happened. She dived into the water after
her offspring and being a giantess, soon caught up with the boat,
even though it was by now far away from land. As she held the
sides of the boat to pull herself into it, one of the seafarers
cut off both her hands with an axe and she fell back into the
sea and drowned. The boat sailed on and eventually reached the
Maltese islands, where the daughter of the giantess married on
Gozo, and the son in Mosta (mainland Malta), begetting the first
dynasties. The story suggests that the Temple Culture was somehow
a foreign import, brought to the island by foreigners –
an opinion that is, of course, anathema to modern archaeological
Still, the idea of giants on the islands is supported by local
folklore – and archaeological evidence? Paediatrician Anton
Mifsud has stated that a local workman in Gozo told him that he
had found a giant some years ago while excavating the foundations
of a building complex. The labourer had hidden the bones so that
he would not be stopped by the authorities from continuing his
work. From the evidence that he showed Mifsud, it seems that between
4000 and 6000 years ago a man, 2.64 metres tall, was buried upright
in the soil. A true giant indeed.
on slabs at Tarxien also show a number of different Neolithic
boats. One has an upturned prow and stern like the Egyptian boats,
but also similar to the Maltese dghajsas. Hence, there is now
evidence of giants and boats. But what about a deluge, as the
earliest excavators believed? Of course, at a time when the world
was felt to have been created in ca. 4000 BC and the Deluge ca.
2500 BC, these writers were right to argue that these were “prediluvian”.
In fact, some argue that Malta is primary evidence that a deluge
did occur, and some believe the Temple Culture ended because of
a Deluge that swept across the island.
Some of Malta’s prehistoric temples are currently indeed
underwater. The most spectacular of such stories was launched
by Hubert Zeitlmair, who in 1999 claimed to have discovered an
underground temple one mile off the Maltese coastline. He organised
a diving expedition off the coast of Sliema, bringing back footage
of what some recognised as a megalithic temple, though left others
– including official archaeologists – apparently unconvinced.
Graham Hancock, for his book and television series Underworld,
investigated the story and was able to trace it back to a newspaper
clipping from the Malta Sunday Times, dated February 13, 1994,
in which Commander S.A. Scicluna was quoted as having found the
site “last summer”, 2.5 km from land, at a depth of
no more than 25 feet. Alas, Scicluna died just before Hancock
wanted to interview him and details of this site remain controversial
and unconfirmed – including its precise position.
It is nevertheless known that a megalithic structure once existed
inside Valletta’s Grand Harbour, at the foot of Fort Saint
Angelo. According to Jean Quintinus, this temple extended over
“a large part of the harbour, even far out into the sea”
as late as 1536 and in 1606, Megeiser could still see that it
was constructed of “rectangular blocks of unbelievable sizes”.
Today, we know that the sea level in 5000 BC was no less than
15 metres lower than it is today; by 2500 BC, the water level
had already risen by almost ten metres! Hence, rather than a sudden
deluge that might have killed all, there is instead a slow sinking
of the islands.
what happened in 2500-2200 BC, when the Temple Culture ceased
to exist? It is clear that magic was not involved in the disappearance
of these people, but the loss of magic might have resulted in
a migration. First of all, 2500-2200 BC roughly coincides with
a shift in the zodiac, from Taurus to Aries; and the civilisation
of Malta lasted ca. 2500 years – meaning that this civilisation
coincided when the sun was in the sign Taurus (the Bull). When
the sun moved out of this house, were the temples of Malta simply
no longer aligned to the sun, and had they therefore become useless?
It might have resulted in a search for new lands, if not a new
style – away from the power of the stone – which nicely
describes the bull as animal, towards a design that was more in
keeping with the ram. Wherever they found it, it was not in Malta,
where the temples became forgotten, but the legend of the giants
article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine 5.4 (July-August
1999) and has been largely rewritten.