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Mysteries of Ancient Malta

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Anyone fascinated with European prehistory is likely familiar with the ancient temples of Malta. I‘ve know about them since childhood. Considering their significance, I had to see them during my last trip to Europe, and they didn't disappoint. The more I learned, the greater the mystery widened. Upon arrival, I found scattered across Malta and Gozo numerous megalithic temples constructed by the so-called “Beaker People.” How these early people learned to move 50 ton slabs of stone and build enormous oval-shaped temples remains unknown. Among the most important sites are the Hypogeum, Mnajdra, Tarxien, Hagar Qim, Mgarr, and Skorba temples on Malta, and the Ggantija complex on Gozo. My first impression inside the interior chambers of Tarxien was of total awe. I gazed upon numerous spiral decorative carvings underneath megalithic altars used for ritual sacrifice. An unknown, yet highly organized religion was clearly at hand whose practice included worship of fat-bodied, yet naturalistically rendered goddess statues.

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An Atlantis Connection?

Long before humans inhabited Malta, the “islands” were connected by a land bridge to Sicily and mainland Europe. Large mammals made their way over during the last Ice Age. Bones of elephants, rhinoceros, deer and foxes have been found on Malta from an era when the climate was much cooler. At the end of the Pleistocene Era the Mediterranean basin filled with water and the islands were formed. At one point a massive tidal wave swept over the islands and deposited the remains of many animals under deep levels of sediment. While this cataclysmic event doesn’t necessarily pose historical problems, it certainly does in relation to the destruction of the ancient temples.

There is evidence of a cataclysm regarding the temples too, perhaps linked to the Atlantis narrative, from the layers of sediment found during excavation, which could only have been deposited by a great flood. Another connection was the discovery in 1999 of some underwater “temples.” Judging from unusual shapes along the shallow shelf visible from aerial photos, divers discovered several human-made features underneath Malta’s northeastern shore. These features include trough-like structures, cart rut tracks, straight lines, and circular holes cut into the bedrock. To add further mystery, the only other place where buildings of this design were constructed is Ireland’s Boyne Valley. The mound temples of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth near Dublin are remarkably similar to those found on Malta and Gozo. Another commonality between the two locations is the abundant carved spiral motifs and winter solstice sunrise orientations.

Lost to History

The well-preserved Tarxien sanctuary was completely buried under field soil until 1914, when a farmer mentioned to the curator of a museum that his plow continued to hit rock at a certain depth. While nothing on the surface pointed to its existence, the site was excavated completely in six years. What emerged was an age-old temple complex that may well in fact be the oldest freestanding stone structure in the world. The Tarxien monument is composed of three interconnecting main temples, and the remains of an older temple. The older temple represents the first purpose-made religious building in Europe, and the whole complex is one of the largest ancient monument sites in Europe. The high altar of the south temple at Tarxien is decorated with a motif of spiral designs. These designs may represent the eyes of the Earth Mother goddess or the cosmos. Whoever she was, the Earth Mother was highly venerated for about 800 years before the Maltese temples were abandoned and their users vanished. Drought, plague, famine, relocation or invasion is among suggestions as to the cause of their disappearance. Others say it was the planetary cataclysm associated with the sinking of Atlantis that destroyed the culture. Nevertheless, successive settlers used the ruins of Tarxien as a cemetery for cremated remains, and the Romans used part of the temple as a wine cellar. Shortly after the Roman era it was covered with topsoil and forgotten.

Getting to the Maltese Islands

The island of Malta is rather small, only 16 miles (25 km) across at its widest point. The nearby island of Gozo is even smaller, and is accessed by a regular ferry. The dozen or so ruins on Malta and Gozo are easy to locate and accessible by road. There are regular flights to Malta from Italy and most European cities. The most popular way for backpackers to come to Malta is the Virtu Ferry route from Catania or Pozzalo, Sicily to Valetta. Check for ferry schedules, and see for general information about the islands.

© Brad Olsen, 2011. Excerpted from Brad Olsen’s seventh book: Sacred Places Europe: 108 Destinations. This is the fourth book in the “Sacred Places: 108 Destinations” series. Order it today on CCC Publishing or call (800) 888-4741 during regular working hours.