The Ġgantija Temples of Gozo: A Mysterious Megalithic Complex of Maltese Giants and Dwarfs
The Ġgantija temples of the megalithic complex in Xaghra, Gozo, are one of the most important and mysterious archaeological sites in the world.
Gozo is one of three Maltese islands; Malta, Gozo, and Comino, situated just 90 kilometers (55.92 miles) south of Sicily, smack in the middle of the Mediterranean. The two main islands of Malta and Gozo are served by an hourly ferry service. Comino is the smallest of the three and is primarily a tourist destination famous for its Blue Grotto.
Ġgantija is situated on a plateau, located on the outskirts of the town of Xaghra. Many tourists flock to the town for their weekly open market and beautiful church, totally unaware of the magnificent historic site that lies just around the corner.
Investigating the Ġgantija Temples
Scientific investigations carried out comparatively recently have proven that these temples have been standing here for over 6000 years. Evidence remaining shows that originally the temples had roofs that were plastered and painted. The exact purpose for which they were built is still a mystery - although there is little doubt that they were places of worship.
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Ġgantija consists of two separate temples: The South Temple (3600 BC) and the North Temple (3000 BC). The temples were excavated in 1826, though scientific excavation did not commence until around the late 1920’s.
View of the Ġgantija temple complex.
The huge dimensions of the megaliths have sparked the imagination of all who behold them. It is suggested that the gigantic structures were erected during the Neolithic Age, (c. 3600-2500 BC). This would make them more than 6000 years old, some of the world's oldest free-standing structures, and of course some of the world's oldest religious structures, pre-dating the Pyramids of Egypt. (The Old Kingdom is most commonly regarded as spanning the period when Egypt was ruled by the Third Dynasty through to the Sixth Dynasty (2575 BC–2134 BC).)
This timeline also places the Ġgantija temples to about the same time as Stonehenge. Stonehenge is a Neolithic and Bronze Age monument located near Amesbury in Wiltshire, England, about 8 miles (13 km) northwest of Salisbury. I have visited Stonehenge several times since I was stationed nearby during my British Air force service in the early 50’s. It is composed of earthworks surrounding a circular setting of large standing stones, also known as megaliths. There is some debate about the age of the stone circle, but most archaeologists think that it was mainly constructed between 2500 BC and 2000 BC. The older circular earth bank and ditch which constitute the earliest phase of the monument have been dated to about 3100 BC.
To this day, locals believe that the Islands’ temples, in particular those of Ġgantija, were the work of giants! Its name, Ġgantija, is Maltese for “belonging to the giant”, bearing witness to this ancient legend.
‘Gozo (Giants’ tower)’. (Public Domain) An 1848 view of the Ġgantija megalithic temple in Gozo, Malta, from the series ‘L'Univers pittoresque.’
Signs of an Earth Mother Goddess Cult
It is believed the temples were possibly the site of an Earth Mother Goddess Fertility Cult. Numerous figurines and statues have been found on-site which are believed to be connected with that cult.
A mother goddess is a goddess, often portrayed as the Earth Mother, who serves as a general fertility deity, the bountiful embodiment of the earth. As such, not all goddesses should be viewed as manifestations of the mother goddess. She ranges in Western traditions from the elegant snake-offering goddess figures of Knossos to the rock-cut images of Cybele, to Dione ("the Goddess") who was invoked at Dodona along with Zeus until late Classical times.
Early “Mother Goddess” figure at the Tarxien Temples (Malta).
Life in the Neolithic Age
Neolithic peoples were farmers and manufacturers of tools necessary for harvesting crops and food production. They were skilled producers of a wide range of stone tools and ornaments. Neolithic peoples in Central Asia were also skillful builders, utilizing mud-brick to construct houses and villages. In Europe, houses from wattle and daub were constructed.
Unique tombs were a major part of their culture. These tombs are particularly numerous in Malta, where there are many hundreds still in existence. Neolithic people in Britain built long barrows and chamber tombs for their dearly departed.
They were skilled at finding ways of keeping food for future months and using substances like salt as preservatives. With few exceptions, the Neolithic Americans and their Pacific cousins remained at the same level of technology up until they made European contact.
Early Neolithic farming was limited to a few crops and the raising of sheep and goats. Around 7000 BC, cows and pigs were added, and the establishment of permanent or semi-permanent settlements and the use of pottery are also indicated.
Example of a Neolithic grindstone or quern for processing grain. (José-Manuel Benito/CC BY SA 2.5)
The earliest farming societies in the Near East did not use pottery, and in Great Britain it remains uncertain to what extent plants were domesticated in the earliest Neolithic, or even whether permanently settled societies existed. In other parts of the world, such as Malta, North Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, Neolithic cultures appear to have arisen completely independent of those developing in Europe and Southwest Asia.
Not all of their cultural elements - like permanent villages, the farming of domestic crops, animal husbandry, and pottery appear in the same order.
Architecture of the Megalithic Complex
The temples were cloverleaf-shaped and built up with stones and filled in with rubble. Most were constructed in the form of semi-circular apses. These were connected with a hall in the center. Archaeological research has deduced that the apses were originally covered by masonry domes.
It is worth noting that no metal tools were available to the natives of the Maltese islands at the time and the wheel had not yet been introduced. Small round stones in a wide range of sizes have been found at the megalithic complex and many believe that these were used as rollers to transport the giant stone blocks used for the temples' construction, however this is a point where I differ greatly from my colleagues.
Stone spheres found at Ġgantija. (Kritzolina/CC BY SA 4.0)
The Ġgantija megalithic complex is surrounded by a massive common boundary wall, one of the most striking features of the entire complex. It was built using the alternating header and stretcher technique, with some of the giant megaliths exceeding five meters (16.40 ft.) in length and weighing over fifty tons.
Two views of the massive walls at the Ġgantija megalithic complex.
The southern temple is much older and more extensive than its sister site. It is believed that the structure dates back to approximately 3600 BC. This temple, like many other megalithic sites in Malta, faces southeast. At the entrance there is a large stone block with a recess. Archaeologists have surmised that this was used as a station for purification before entering the complex.
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Each temple contains five apses connected by a central corridor leading to the innermost trefoil section. The apses contain several altars and evidence of animal bones, which suggests the site was used for animal sacrifice. Images carved into the stone of goats, sheep, and pigs of both sexes give us a hint as to which animals were used by the sacrificial cult.
Several altars have been found.
The temples are built with rough, coralline limestone blocks. The older temple is larger and contains a variety of features such as altars, relief carvings, and libation holes. The second temple was built much later and is devoid of such features. Another fascinating element is the corbelling technique used on the inwardly inclined walls, proof that at one time that the temple was roofed.
Malta is, in this traveler’s experience, one of the most fascinating countries in the world, and along with Egypt and China it is a ‘must see’ destination for anyone’s bucket list! Whilst a one-day cruise stops to allow a sneak peek into the amazing architecture, the home to so many cultures over the world’s evolving history make exploring the sites and buildings an overwhelming experience deserving a much longer visit.
North Temple entrance at the Ġgantija megalithic complex, Gozo.
Top Image: Ġgantija temple. Source: Jose M. Rus/CC BY NC ND 2.0
By Dr. Peter J. Shield PhD.
Unless otherwise stated, all images are credited to the author, Dr. Peter J. Shield PhD.