Ggantija Temples – Gozo’s Megalithic Marvels
In the last post I introduced Malta’s smaller sister island of Gozo by visiting the many wonders of the Dwejra area along with our Adventures Abroad group led by veteran guide Victor Romagnoli. In this post we’ll visit another of Gozo’s major attractions, the megalithic temples of Ggantija. We’ll also deviate from the planned itinerary and visit a place that Ulysses liked so much that he stayed there for seven years. Please join us on another great day of exploration in this small, but historically very important country.
As noted in previous posts, one of the things that most attracted Alison and me to come to Malta was to see the neolithic monuments that are collectively known as the Megalithic Temples of Malta and which since the inscription of the Ggantija temples in 1980 have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This brief description from the UNESCO web site states why they are of universal importance and worthy of recognition.
The Megalithic Temples of Malta (Ġgantija, Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Skorba, Ta’ Ħaġrat and Tarxien) are prehistoric monumental buildings constructed during the 4th millennium BC and the 3rd millennium BC. They rank amongst the earliest free-standing stone buildings in the world and are remarkable for their diversity of form and decoration. Each complex is a unique architectural masterpiece and a witness to an exceptional prehistoric culture renowned for its remarkable architectural, artistic and technological achievements.
We first encountered items from the megalithic sites at Malta’s National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta and then on a visit to the temple at Hagar Qim on the island of Malta. While there we also got a chance to see the temple at Mnajdra from a distance. Both of these sites are under a protective roof, but the one we will visit today, with the exception of a little scaffolding, is almost exactly as it might have appeared over 5,500 years ago.
Until the excavations at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey which did not begin in earnest until 1995, the Ggantija temples on Gozo were long considered to be the oldest religious structures on earth. They still hold down second place and are the oldest and best preserved of Malta’s known megalithic sites. The name means ‘giantess’ and like many of the earliest man made structures around the globe, later generations believed they could only have been built by a race of super humans. That belief was not so irrational considering that some of the limestone megaliths used to build Ggantija weigh over fifty tons, which is over twenty times the weight of the average block in the Great Pyramid of Giza. The builders of Ggantija were still in the Stone Age which means they did not have the wheel or metal tools. They also did not have oxen or horses to help them. It is almost inconceivable that structures this large and complex could have been built using only stone tools and human labour and yet they stand as proof that it could be done.
Which leads naturally to the next question – why? While we cannot contest the reality of the megalithic temples, everyone from trained archaeologists to pseudo scholars to outright nuts has an opinion of why they were built and what took place inside them. It is probably the greatest of all the Maltese mysteries and one I’m certainly not going to solve on this visit, but it never hurts to try.
Our visit begins at the relatively new and very informative Interpretation Centre in the small town of Xaghra from where it’s a short walk to the site, but first let’s have a look at some amazing items found at a site nearby.
Inside the centre there are numerous items on display from various megalithic sites on Gozo including many from what is known as the Xaghra Circle. This is a site not far from Ggantija that consists of a series of natural caves that were used as a hypogeum or funerary site by the same peoples who built the megalithic temples on Gozo. Literally thousands of burials apparently took place here over a period of almost two thousand years. The oldest date back as far as 4100 B.C. which is even before the first temple at Ggantija was built. It is a treasure trove of immense importance in providing clues to answer that most important question – why?
There were many statuettes like these found at the Xaghra Circle site, but no consensus on whether they are symbolic or actual representations of living beings. In either case, they represent a high degree of Neolithic craftsmanship and are quite stunning to see in person, especially when you consider they were created over 5,000 years ago.
This piece I also found fascinating. As a birder I immediately recognized the birds as lapwings on this piece of a bowl. Our local guide, Chantelle Shaw advised that it is now thought that these type of representations are actually pictograms and an early pre-cursor to the development of a written language such as developed in Egypt with hieroglyphs.
This is a depiction of two individuals (one without a head) very much akin to the grossly obese figures found at Hagar Qim and elsewhere on Malta. It is notable for still having traces of the red ochre paint that was widely used during the Neolithic period.
Here on the right is a very interesting and curious little item that has been described as a snail with a human head. I couldn’t help but think of the movie The Fly and the creature with a fly’s body and a human head trapped in a spider web screaming as the spider approached.
There are some items in the centre that were found at Ggantija including these limestone heads, but mostly it is a display of items from the Xaghra Circle, which incidentally, is not open to the public.
From the Interpretive Centre a paved walkway leads to the Ggantija temples. Before you reach them you pass this cave entrance that unlike the ones nearby at Xaghra Circle was simply used as a rubbish pit.
Here is a map of the complex which clearly shows two temples built approximately 900 years apart.
However, both temples are surrounded by one outside wall which gives it the appearance of being one large structure and not two separate ones. This is the first view of Ggantija which you approach from the rear. The size of those megaliths and the fact that they have been standing for over fifty five centuries is mind blowing.
And here is the front view with separate entrances to the two temples within the outer walls. I went ahead of our small group so that I could get unobstructed photos of Ggantija, because other than us, there was only one other couple on the site.
This is an early hearth in the oldest part of the complex.
These are the three trilithon niches or altars at the deepest part of the northern temple. You can see that they are made of a different type of limestone than the surrounding walls and that they have been carved while the walls are not. Will we ever know what was sacrificed at these altars and to what deity? Or are they even altars at all?
Here is a photo of one of the temple walls made from the very hard coralline limestone. Notice how many different sizes of rock have been successfully combined to create a solid structure without benefit of masonry.
This is the so-called oracular hole of Ggantija, which if true, would fit in with what we first saw at Hagar Qim which has a much more convincing archaeological argument that these temples were actually oracles. But again, maybe it’s just a hole in the wall.
Ggantija and Gozo were long popular stops on the fabled Grand Tour of Europe as is evidenced by this 19th century graffiti, proving that there were idiots long before spray paint was invented.
One of the things I try to do whenever I visit a place like Ggantija is to take in more than just the immediate site, but its surroundings as well. Ggantija has this marvellous view of Gozo which reminded me a bit of El Greco’s View of Toledo.
And it’s not just by looking outward that you can learn more about a place. The walls of Ggantija were adorned in places by this flower that Victor identified as Misopates Orontium or more commonly lesser snapdragon or weasel’s snout. It’s actually a weed in many places, but it seemed to belong on these ancient walls.
Ggantija was the only place in Malta that I came across the Malta rock wall lizard which was kind enough to sit still long enough for me to get this picture.
So that concludes our visit to the temples at Ggantija, but we have one more place to visit in this post.
If there is a more enduring tale of man’s quest for permanence amid a sea of woes and turmoil than Homer’s The Odyssey, I have yet to read it. The very title has come to mean a tortuous, but ultimately fulfilling journey through life. Odysseus, aka Ulysses, was not the strongest or wisest of the Greeks who besieged Troy for a decade, but he was the wiliest and it was those wiles and a little help from the Gods that got him back to his home in Ithaca. The story of his travails and the many places he visited before getting to Ithaca have fascinated me and millions of others for over 2,700 years. In my life’s odyssey I have sought out many of these places from Troy to the land of the cyclops to the rocks of the sirens and many more. Today I and the rest of our group are going to see where he spent seven of the ten years it took him to get home.
Yes, yes, I know the tales of brave Ulysses are myths or metaphors at best, but please humour me.
I knew that Gozo or Ogygia as the island is called in The Odyssey, was identified as the home of the sea nymph Calypso since at least 400 BC, although there are many other contenders. Since I am here and not there, Gozo it is. After all, surely the Maltese government would not deceive people by claiming to be the site of Ogygia if they were not convinced it was true? I also knew that Calypso’s Cave was no longer open to the public and was not on the Adventures Abroad itinerary.
However, as we returned to our mini bus after visiting Ggantija I also knew we were only minutes away from this legendary place. Chantelle apparently at first thought I wanted to go into the cave despite it being closed, but I convinced her I just wanted to see the entrance and after checking with her boss Kenneth we we given the OK to proceed. This is another reason I like to travel with Adventures Abroad – nothing is ever written in stone. If something interesting pops up and it almost always does, things can be adjusted.
This is the story of the sea nymph Calypso, who was a daughter of the titan Atlas and thus immortal. What this sign does not tell you is that she offered Odysseus immortality for himself if he married her, but his love of Penelope was too strong and even overcame the beguiling ways of a demi-god.
The cave was closed in 2019 due to ‘geological movement’ which sounds a bit like the earth having a you know what.
I have to admit the cave entrance did look treacherous and was difficult to photograph due to the poor light conditions so I borrowed this pic from the web.
Yet, despite the slight feeling of disappointment, I also felt a strange alluring aura beckoning me to go into the cave. If not for the fact that my wife was right beside me and not back home in Ithaca, I might have succumbed as Odysseus did.
If Calypso’s Cave was anticlimactic, the view of Ramia Beach from this spot was not. This was one of the most beautiful spots we saw in all of Malta and more than worth the short detour from Ggantija.
In the next and final post from Malta we’ll visit Gozo’s principal town Victoria and its famous Cittadella. I hope you’ll join us there.