Eight of the Oldest Temples in the Ancient World
Since the earliest days of human civilization, humans have worshipped gods and built temples in their honor. Today, many of these impressive structures are still standing, a testament to the ingenuity of our most ancient forebears. Studying or visiting one of these temples gives us fascinating insight into what our ancestors believed and how they lived their lives. Here are eight of the oldest temples in the world and who built them.
1. Göbekli Tepe, Turkey: 11,600 Years Old
Turkey seems to have been the nexus of the ancient world. It doesn’t matter which ancient civilization you're talking about, at some point or another they seem to have had a foothold in what is modern Turkey. Walk through a farmer's field in Turkey today, and you’re likely to trip over some ancient artifact or ruin.
It is no surprise then that Turkey is home to the oldest known temple in existence, Göbekli Tepe . It is believed that Göbekli Tepe was first erected at some point between 10,000 and 9,000 BC in southern Turkey. To put this into perspective, this makes the temple older than the invention of the wheel or the beginning of human agriculture or animal husbandry!
Historians believe that the temple was built by early hunter-gatherers. The site consists of a number of stone circles decorated with pillars adorned with engravings of animals and priests. It gives us a rare insight into the beliefs of the people of Upper Mesopotamia during this period.
The site itself wasn’t discovered until the late 20th century. As work has gone on, the site has proven to be surprisingly massive. Various groups of archaeologists from all over the world are currently working at the site. Some experts claim that it could take upwards of another 50 years to uncover the whole site and many more years after that to fully understand everything that has been found.
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Göbekli Tepe in modern Turkey is the oldest temple in the world at over 11,000 years old. Archaeologists from around the world are working at the site. ( Mehmet / Adobe Stock)
2. Temple of Amada, Egypt: Over 3,500 Years Old
Much like Turkey, Egypt is a land positively dripping in archaeological sites. One of the oldest is the Temple of Amada , the oldest Egyptian temple to have ever been found in Nubia. The temple dates back to around 1500 BC, during Egypt’s 18th dynasty.
Its construction is believed to have been ordered by Pharaoh Thutmose III. He dedicated the temple to the head Egyptian god, Amun, and Re-Horakhty, the sun god. Thutmose III may have ordered its construction, but he never saw its completion. His son, Amenhotep II, continued Amada’s construction after his father’s death, focusing on improving the temple’s decoration.
These decorations turned out to be a gold mine for archaeologists and Egyptologists. Inside the temple, archaeologists have found well-preserved and masterfully-cut colorful reliefs. These reliefs depict both Thutmose and his son, Amenhotep, being embraced by various Egyptian gods. Along with the reliefs, two inscriptions were found which describe the various military accomplishments of the two pharaohs.
The temple, along with several other impressive ancient monuments, was rediscovered in the 1960s. The temple was located when the Egyptian government was constructing the Aswan High Dam. The temple had to be moved from its original location to higher ground to avoid the risk of flooding.
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The Temple of Amada is the oldest temple in Nubia, built during the 18th Egyptian dynasty. The temple, left, includes well-preserved wall murals in a small side chamber that shows the king making offerings to Amun-Ra, right. (Left: Carole Raddato / CC BY SA 2.0 ; Right: Dennis Jarvis / CC BY SA 2.0 )
3. Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni, Malta: Over 4,700 Years Old
In truth, we could just about fill this list just with temples in ancient Egypt. So for our next temple, we leave Egypt behind and head for Malta. We may not always associate Malta with ancient history, but in fact, the small islands host some impressive sights. The island’s crown jewel is probably the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni , which was built around 2500 BC. The most impressive thing about this hypogeum? It was built entirely underground!
To visit this massive Neolithic temple, one must follow huge limestone steps down through various narrow passages. The site includes a necropolis that historians believed once held the remains of at least 7,000 people. Along with the impressive necropolis, the site includes a temple and a sanctuary. While most of the site is dated to around 2500 BC, some parts are perhaps as early as 4000 BC.
The temple was accidentally uncovered in 1902 by builders. Unaware of the importance of what they had unearthed, they initially tried to cover up their discovery so as not to fall behind. Thankfully, they did not do too much damage. Due to its underground nature, and the fact it was hidden for so long, the Hypogeum is one of the best preserved of all the ancient temples. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site .
The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is not only one of the oldest temples in the world, it was also built underground! Pictured: Middle Level – The Holy of Holies (Xiquinhosilva / CC BY SA 2.0 )
4. Hagar Qim & Mnajdra, Malta: Over 5,000 Years Old
The Hypogeum might be Malta’s most famous ancient temple, but it's not the island’s oldest. That honor goes to the two sister temples, the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra . These two temples, located only 1,640 feet (500 meters) apart, are believed to date back to between 3700 and 3200 BC. Before the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, they held the record for the oldest known temples in the world.
These two prehistoric stone temples are located on top of a cliff and overlook the Mediterranean Sea. Much like the hypogeum, the two temples are in remarkably good condition, particularly the large stone slabs that form the doorways, niches, and apses, or large semicircular recesses, of the temples. Hagar Qim also boasts an impressive monolith that weighs at least twenty tons!
It is believed the temples were built to worship the sun and celebrate the changing of the seasons. During the equinox, light floods into the Hagar Qim through an elliptical hole that the ancients somehow drilled through the stone.
The Mnajdra temple is made up of three temple structures. All date back to slightly different periods. The oldest dates back to around 3600-3200 BC, the southern temple is from around 3150-2500 BC, and the latest addition, the central temple, was built last and placed between the other two.
When first discovered in 1840, the site was remarkably well preserved. Sadly, however, in 2001 Mnajdra temple was attacked by vandals. They toppled and broke more than 60 megaliths and scrawled graffiti over them. Thankfully the damage has been repaired and is largely unnoticeable. The site was reopened to a respectful public in 2002.
The ancient temple of Hagar Qim, Malta. Source: GeniusMinus / Adobe Stock
5. Stonehenge, England: Over 5,000 Years Old
Perhaps the most famous temple on the list, at least for western readers, is Stonehenge in England. It is believed the construction of the stone circles that make up Stonehenge began around 5,000 years ago.
The site as we know it today is a little later, built around 2500 BC. It consists of a symmetrical arrangement of massive bluestones weighing up to four tons each. Apart from the sheer size of the stones, the site may not look as impressive as some other entries on this list; however, it is widely regarded as an impressive feat of engineering.
Historians have struggled to find out much about Stonehenge, and it is still surrounded by mystery. We still don’t know why it was built, but historians have hypothesized it may have been originally built as a temple to worship old earth deities. Others have claimed it was either used to worship people’s ancestors, a Druid temple, or used to worship the sun and stars.
Stonehenge has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. Today, it is a popular tourist attraction and a site of pilgrimage during the summer and winter solstice for modern pagan visitors.
Stonehenge is one of the oldest temples in the world, yet thee is still much we don’t know about its origin and use. ( Vancav / Adobe Stock)
6. Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq: Over 4,000 Years Old
The ziggurat of Ur can be found in Tell el-Muqayyar in the Dhi Qar province of modern-day Iraq. It is one of the oldest and best preserved of the ancient ziggurats, or stepped pyramids. It dates back to ancient Mesopotamia and is believed to have been built around 2100 BC.
The temple was built in the ancient city of Ur, which was a major Sumerian city-state and the earliest known civilization in southern Mesopotamia. It was built by King Ur-Nammu to worship the ancient Sumerian god deity , Nanna, also known as Sin.
The temple today is impressive, measuring around 210 feet (64 meters) long, 151 feet (46 meters) wide, and nearly 100 feet (30 meters) high. Amazingly, archaeologists believe the temple was once much larger in the past, as today only the foundations survive.
The Sumerian people believed that Nanna was so happy with the temple that he made it his earthly home, and so a small shrine was placed at the temple’s summit. Since only the foundations remain, this was learned from the ancient Greek writer and geographer Herodotus.
The Ziggurat of Ur has seen two large-scale restorations. The first was by the Neo-Babylonian King Nabonidus in 600 BC. The second restoration was during the 1980s by then-Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein. Hussein had parts of the ziggurat, including the staircase and lower facade, rebuilt. Sadly, the site has been closed to the public since 2003, and it has only been accessible to military personnel.
The restored ziggurat in ancient Ur, a Sumerian temple in modern day Iraq and one of the oldest temples in the world. ( Homocosmicos / Adobe Stock)
7. Luxor Temple, Egypt: Over 3,500 Years Old
The Luxor Temple can be found in Egypt on the east bank of the Nile. Construction is believed to have begun between 1100 and 1600 BC. It is most famous for its avenue of sphinxes and the huge pylon of Ramses II.
The massive structure took a long time to finish, and construction continued throughout the reigns of several pharaohs, including Amenhotep III, Ramses II and Tutankhamen. Rather than being dedicated to just one god or king in particular, it is believed the temple was built to honor the concept of kingship.
Because various pharaohs kept adding to the site, it is a mixture of different styles and ancient structures. Today, it is seen as the largest and most important site in ancient Egypt.
8. Ggantija Gozo, Malta: Over 5,000 Years Old
For our final temple, we go back to Malta. The Ggantija temple complex is believed to be the second oldest known temple in the world, and it is one of the oldest structures still standing. They are the oldest temples in Malta, believed to have been built between 3600 and 700 BC.
The temples take their name from the Maltese word for giant, ggant. They live up to their name. The temples are made up of gigantic blocks of coralline stone, many of which weigh up to 55 tons and stand over 16 feet (5 meters) tall. The site is so impressive that for a long time the locals believed that the temples were home to a race of giants and had been built by a giant named Sunsuna.
Archaeologists believe the Ggantija temples were probably built to worship the Great Earth Mother, a megalithic fertility goddess. Evidence suggests she was worshiped with fertility rituals, which included animal sacrifices as the area is littered with bones.
Built between 3600-700 BC, Ggantija may be the second oldest temple still standing. An aerial view of Ggantija and ongoing excavations ( Sandro / Adobe Stock)
It is no surprise that the Maltese people believed Ggantija to have been built by giants. Even with all our modern technology and equipment, we would struggle to replicate most of the temples today. They are a testament to the hard work and ingenuity of our ancestors.
The fact that these temples are still standing thousands of years after they were first built is amazing. Between them, they have weathered dozens of armed conflicts and power struggles over the centuries.
Nearly all the temples on this list are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so hopefully, they survive for several more millennia. We have inherited them from our ancestors, and it is our job to look after them so that the generations that follow us can continue to learn from them.
Top Image: Winter Solstice at Mnajdra Temple in Malta. Source: Declan Hillman / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
Atkinson, R.J.C. 1956. Stonehenge. Penguin Books.
German, S. 2015. Ziggurat of Ur . Smart History. Available at: https://smarthistory.org/ziggurat-of-ur/
Oakes, L. 2003. Pyramids, Temples and Tombs of Ancient Egypt: An Illustrated Atlas of the Land of the Pharaohs. Annes Publishing.