The Prehistoric Ggantija Temples of Gozo
28th July 2019
Gozo’s prehistoric Ggantija Temples are one of the oldest free-standing monuments in the world. Yet I’d never even heard of the Ggantija Temples until I visited Gozo in Malta. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980, archaeologists believe this extraordinary prehistoric temple complex was built between 3600 and 3200 BC. That’s older than the standing stones at Stonehenge in the UK (built between 3000 and 2000 BC) and the Great Pyramids at Giza in Egypt (built between 2550 to 2490 BC)!
The temples fell into disuse around 2500 BC when the society that built them – referred to simply as the ‘temple builders’ – appears to have completely vanished from the Maltese islands. No one knows why they disappeared or where they went. Hardly anything is known about them, only that they likely came from what is modern-day Sicily and probably lived as hunter-gatherers.
The name originates from the Maltese word for giant, ‘ggant’; the ancient peoples of Gozo believed the temples were built by a race of giants. When you see the size of the megaliths – the massive stone slabs that form this ancient monument – you’ll understand why. The walls of the complex rise to 6 metres (almost 20 feet), and the largest stone measures 5m (16.4 ft) x 8m (26.25 ft) x 4m (13 ft), weighing over 50 tonnes (over 100,000 lbs).
Together, the two temples cover an area of 10,000 square feet (3,048 square meters). While not as immediately impressive as Stonehenge or the pyramids it’s definitely worth a visit. The Neolithic Age – sometimes called the New Stone Age – is a period of human prehistory mainly characterised by the move away from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to settlement into permanent villages and the development of agriculture. Chipped-stone tools gave way to polished-stone tools; neither the wheel nor metal tools had yet come to this part of the world. These limestone temples are simply an astonishing construction that provides a rare insight into Neolithic life.
A walk into human prehistory
I visited the Ggantija temples first thing in the morning on a very hot summer’s day. In fact, I was the first (and only) person at that time of day. You enter the site through a contemporary museum that illustrates aspects of Neolithic life and displays artefacts discovered at various sites around Gozo. There are large and small figurines, statues and small stone slabs depicting both humans and animals, all with related information. It’s a fascinating exhibition that provides a context for what you are about to see, though I hurried through it because I wanted to see the temples before anyone else arrived.
Leaving the museum, a raised path leads down to the temples through the middle of the plateau, with panoramic views over the countryside. There’s a fabulous view of the Church of St John the Baptist in Xewkija in the distance, which houses the 3rd largest free-standing dome in the world (also well worth a visit but that’s another story).
The habitat here is called ‘garrigue’, referring to the low-growing vegetation that covers these limestone hills. It looks semi-arid but this is one of the richest habitats on the Maltese islands, with hundreds of fragrant flowers and plants growing wild here all year round. (Note: I’m not 100% certain that I’ve identified these wildflowers below correctly, so please let me know if I’ve gotten it wrong!)
Your first sight of the temple complex is of the back and side perimeter. First excavated in 1827, the Ggantija temples stand at the end of a plateau, facing towards the south-east, with the island of Malta in the far distance.
Ggantija Temples back and side perimeter wall
These outer walls are one of the reasons the complex is so well preserved; they were constructed from coralline limestone, a hard rock that’s difficult to erode. The path winds around these outer walls to a large terrace at the edge of the plateau that would probably have been used for ceremonial gatherings. The entrances to both temples are from this forecourt – the left-hand one is the largest and oldest of the two temples.
The doorways to both temples are built in the shape of a ‘trilithon’ – a structure consisting of two upright stones and a third slab across the top as a lintel. None of the horizontal lintels survive, though you can clearly see the notches on the doorway which would have held these lintels in place.
Similarly, only the outer corners remain of the front facade. The central part was already in ruins by 1827 when excavations began. In the 1990s, metal scaffolding was installed along the front and inside the temples to protect them from further collapse.
The two temples share an internal boundary wall and are similarly constructed, both having a central corridor flanked by small semi-circular rooms or apses on either side of the corridor. Archaeologists believe these apses may have been covered by a roof or dome.
These rooms contain niches with altars, relief carvings and libation holes. The altars in this niche below are an iconic Gozo image and are on many of the postcards you can buy throughout Gozo.
A softer and smoother type of limestone was used for the inner doors, altars and slabs, at least some of which may have been decorative.
Two plaster fragments with red ochre decoration suggest that the internal walls were plastered and painted. Stone hearths, the remains of animal bones and holes in the floors suggest ritual offerings.
One of the most striking elements of the site were the large stone slabs with holes in them.
Archaeologists believe that these were used for ropes, possibly to secure doors.
No one knows what rituals were carried out in these temples. Though from the artefacts found here, as well as the cloverleaf shape of the overall complex, it’s believed to have been a place of worship to a fertility or earth mother goddess.
The complex is small; I spent just over an hour in the temples, with another half hour or so in the museum. I went first thing in the morning (it opens at 9am) and only saw a handful of other people while I was there. However, when I was leaving – about 11am – 3 huge tour buses turned up.
This is a site that’s definitely best appreciated without a crowd. There’s something mystical and mysterious about these ruins. It’s just incredible to visit a site that was built 5,500 years ago – before the wheel, before metal tools, during a time when the first form of writing was just being created in Mesopotamia.
This is a glimpse into early human civilisation as I’ve rarely had a chance to see it. I absolutely loved it.
Tickets are €9 for adults (18-59 years); €7 for seniors, students and youths aged 12-17; €5 for children aged 6-11 and under 5s go free. Entrance to the nearby Ta’ Kola Windmill is included.
Open every day except 24, 25 & 31 December, 1 January and Good Friday 09.00-18.00 (June to October) and 09.00-17.00 (November to May). Last admissions are ½ hour before closing.
Getting to Ggantija Temples
The Ggantija Temples are located in the small village of Xaghra (pronounced Zharra), just over 1.8 miles (3km) northeast of Victoria and only 2 miles (3.2km) southeast of Marsalforn.
I took the 322 bus from Marsalforn at 08.10 and got off at the Bayer stop in Xaghra, about a 15 minute ride. The entrance to the temples is right across the street from the bus stop. Since I was very early, I went for a wander in the village of Xaghra itself, which is quite pretty. There’s a lovely little market square dominated by a large basilica. Near the square is a restored 18th-century windmill, the Ta’ Kola Windmill, which is included in the price of the temple admission.
Walking from Xaghra to Marsalforn
The return bus stop is just down the street from the temples’ exit, but it only runs every 90 minutes. By the time I left the temple complex I’d just missed one, so I decided to walk back to Marsalforn.
The road is all downhill from the centre of Xaghra and on this very hot afternoon the streets were completely deserted.
The road meanders through the high limestone buildings, past alleyways with brightly coloured doors.
And outside of the villages there are some stunning views across the countryside.
The walk was an easy one and took me under an hour. But be sure you have water! It was very hot, even in the shade, and I didn’t see anything even remotely resembling a café or a shop!
Look out for my next post, coming soon: Victoria and the Citadella
And see more photos in my Ggantija Temples Photo Album