The Monuments of Malta
The Birth of Architecture

Malta, smallest nation in the European Union with its three small islands adding up to 123 square miles of stony soil and 350,000 inhabitants, has a habit of thrusting itself to the center of the world’s vision every few hundred years. In the first century AD, St. Paul, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, was shipwrecked here, and if he had not been saved and well treated by the inhabitants, there might never have been a Christian Church. In the 16th century, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem here saved western Europe by beating off a Turkish armada on its way, the Turkish sultan said, to feed the sultan’s horses oats off the high altar of St Peters in Rome, in a six-month siege. Here in the 20th century a handful of British soldiers and sailors and airmen and Maltese civilians held out against everything the Italians and then the Germans could throw at them. At one time their air defense was reduced to three Gloucester Gladiators named Faith, Hope and Charity, at one time they were down to barely a day’s supply of food and gasoline when the battered remnants of a supply convoy made it in from Gibraltar. But they kept Hitler from getting the supplies across the Mediterranean to Rommel’s Afrika Korps that might have won the war for him.

Now the Maltese, much to their surprise and to that of the learned world, are beginning to become aware of the fact that they played a major role at another turning point in world history. This one took place long before there were historians in existence to record it. Only some battered physical traces remain to bear witness. The most imposing of them can be found on the island of Gozo, just northwest of the main island of Malta, in the huge stone remains of a building to which the local peasants long ago gave the name Ggantija, the Giants’ Tower.
Rising abruptly at the edge of a barren plateau, its scarred and jagged rock walls look immensely thick and immensely old. They are in fact immensely old; they are part of a cluster of buildings spread over a radius of ten miles or so which, according to the latest scientific calculations, are the oldest free-standing stone monuments on the surface of the earth. They are just short of six thousand years old, antedating anything we think of as a civilization.
More than thirty structures of a similar type have been found on Malta and Gozo, and there are surely more buried under villages and city streets. At least four of them - the Giants’ Tower on Gozo, Hagar Qim (pronounced Hadjar Im), Tarxien (Tarshen) and Mjandra (Nydra) on the main island of Malta -- are of a size that would be considered impressive anywhere on earth. Some of the stones of which they are built weigh more than twenty tons.
More amazing than their bulk is their location. What are they doing in Malta, a little clump of land with no natural resources to speak of which six thousand years ago was even more out of the way than it is today?

It is a wonder that they have survived at all. They are all in ruins, some almost completely obliterated by the buffeting of wind and rain, and the ceaseless pillaging of local peasants who have quarried them for the stone walls that divide and terrace their fields. The present height of the Ggantija walls, some twenty feet, may be only half of what it once was. The ruins are awesome enough. We cannot imagine the awe they must have created in those who saw them rising stone by stone out of the ground. For nothing like them had ever been seen before by human eyes.
Men and women had been scratching at the earth’s surface for hundreds of thousands of years before this, leaving little trace of their presence but millions of scattered axes and beads and fossilized bones and oyster shells. Now for the first time they were leaving a permanent mark, a monument (which in Latin means something to remember), something that would rival the changeless mountains and forests through which they and their ancestors for thousands of generations had been slowly making their way..
We are so used to public buildings in our lives, from post offices and county court-houses to St Peters in Rome and Disney World in Orlando, that it is hard to imagine mankind existing without them. But for a million or more years mankind did just that. During that time, people developed considerable skills in construction work and built themselves sturdy homes of timber or mud or clay, soon to be burned or blown away by the winds of time. They learned how to combine such homes into villages, villages into towns. As the towns grew it was no doubt inevitable that they would some day feel the need for more permanent and imposing and elaborate structures to serve their political or spiritual ends, monumental structures that would overawe their neighbors and give dramatic expression to their own identity as tribe or people.

Scholars long took it for granted that the first such monuments were raised by the first civilized societies, in the valleys of the Nile or Euphrates or Indus rivers. The mighty megalithic (Greek megas, great, and lithos, stone) structures which extend in a great arc around the coasts of Europe from Malta to Denmark - -Stonehenge in England has always been the best known - were regarded as rude attempts by barbarians at the edge of the world to imitate the awesome and harmonious structures built by the pharaohs and priest-kings of the East. This belief began to be shaky when modern methods of carbon-14 and dendrochronological (tree-ring) dating kept pushing the date of Stonehenge and other creations of the distant north further and further back in time. Then in 1972 Colin Renfrew, an English professor of archeology, threw all previous theories into a cocked hat by calibrating (a technical word meaning “correcting”) older interpretations of the various tests and demonstrating that the earliest monuments on Malta, including the Giants’ Tower, went unbelievably far back, to the beginning of the fourth millennium BC, many centuries before Stonehenge or the Pyramids of Egypt or the palaces of Ur of the Chaldees or any other logical place.

Prehistory is full of insoluble riddles, and it is unlikely that there will ever be an adequate explanation of why it was rude uncultivated illiterate subsistence farmers and herdsmen of Malta and not sophisticated Egyptians or Sumerians who first had the idea of dragging twenty-ton stones over the countryside and putting them together in shapes that we now call architecture. There does not seem to have been anything in their past that would mark them out for unusual achievement. All that can be said in the present state of knowledge is that the first human immigrants came to Malta some time around 5200 BC, and that they must have come from Sicily because they brought Sicilian pots with them.
On a clear day you can see Malta from mountain-tops in Sicily, but that could have been little reassurance for the first voyagers embarking on a fearsome adventure. They were setting off, packing provisions and seed-grain and squalling children and nervous cattle into flat-bottomed boats -- skins stretched over light wooden framework, most likely -- without keels or sails for a voyage to an unknown land over sixty miles of treacherous water which the more experienced sailors of Homer’s day four thousand years later were sure were swarming with sea monsters like Scylla and Charybdis.

Little remains of their home life in their new country but a very few stone foundations for the clay or mud-and-twig huts in which they lived, and some handfuls of stone tools and buttons and beads and broken pots, most of them hand-made on the spot but a few apparently imported from Sicily and other islands in the central Mediterranean.. It is enough to show that for generation after generation they went on living the conventional neolithic life of the cousins they had left behind in Sicily. In small isolated communities, without metal, without money, without any organized government, they kept themselves alive by growing emmer wheat and lentils, hunting bear and red deer, making Sicilian-style pots, probably -- since a couple of clay spindles have been found -- weaving garments out of sheep and goat hair. There was nothing to distinguish them from any of the other of the thousands of communities that were then forming over Europe as the neolithic farmers and herdsmen worked their way, at the rate of a few miles a year, from clearing to clearing, slowly destroying the primeval forests of oak and ash which then covered the continent.
Then, after little more than a thousand years, a mere hiccup of prehistoric time, the Maltese (we call them Maltese because we have no idea what they called themselves; the name Malta comes from a Phoenician word meaning “shelter,” because of its great sheltering harbors, but the Phoenicians would not come along for some two thousand more years) experienced one of those sudden bursts of creative energy which punctuate human history and for which historians can never find any convincing explanations. They began to build megalithic monuments. They would go on building them for over a thousand years. eventually covering the islands with a dense network of rock structures towering over their fields and pastures.
The major monuments are not single buildings but elaborate complexes surrounded by a very thick (up to twelve feet thick) external rock wall in the shape of a huge letter D. The flat base of the D is not a straight line, it is slightly concave, perhaps designed to be a backdrop for processions or ritual drama. In the center is an entrance gateway composed of two big upright stones about twelve feet apart with another huge flat stone laid as a lintel across their tops. This is the trilithon, the characteristic feature of all megalithic construction in western Europe. The entrance-way leads into a rectangular courtyard, opening generally on three sides into semi-circular apses or chapels, forming a clover-leaf pattern -- there is not a single straight line in the ground plan of these structures.

There were striking improvements in architectural skill as one building period followed another. At the Ggantija the outer walls are made of huge rough chunks of copaline limestone, outcroppings of which are found all over Gozo. The boulders are all shapes and sizes, their weights going up to twenty tons. Their odd shapes are all fitted together painstakingly to form solid walls. For the entrance and some of the interior walls the builders quarried and smoothed down slabs of the softer globigerina limestone which underlies the soil throughout most of the islands’ territory. As they got used to working with it the builders discovered that it was the ideal material for their purposes. Soft and damp as it comes out of the earth, easily worked with simple tools, it turns white and hard after exposure to the sun, and then over long years rain and the south wind carrying fine sand particles from the Sahara give it a warm honey-colored glaze. This has remained to this day the characteristic color of the farmhouses and city buildings of Malta as well as of the mighty 16th-century harbor fortifications of Valletta which easily survived the daily German bombings of World War II. Rapidly learning the potentials of this material, the builders were able in a few generations to pass from the rough-hewn jigsaw puzzle of the Ggantija walls to the smooth, symmetrical, almost classical facade of the Hagar Qim temple complex. In later structures like those at Tarxien they were so skilled at fitting giant upright stones with beveled edges together that no ray of sunlight could come through the walls.

The sheer physical effort in such undertakings is of course impressive, but it is not superhuman, it is not even unusual. Primitive peoples all over the world have at various times felt the urge to raise up huge stones Forty strong men can pull a twenty-ton stone over rough country with ropes made of animal hides, and it has been calculated that fifty to a hundred men working full time would have sufficed to quarry the stones, haul them with leather ropes over wooden or stone rollers and erect them at any of the Maltese sites.. The population of the islands in neolithic times could never have exceeded a few thousand (estimates vary between four and ten thousand) because that was all that the limited amount of farm and pasture land could feed, but over all those centuries that would have provided more than enough manpower to build all the temples on the islands. And in the equable climate, which makes Malta a year-round vacation spot, they would have had plenty of leisure time on their hands.

What is really impressive is the intellectual effort and moral authority that were required to conceive and design and then build these gigantic works. All the able-bodied men of the tribe or village would have to take part, and they all had to be strongly motivated to work together for long periods. Since they could not write and left no records, no one can be sure what precisely the buildings were for, but virtually all the archeologists who have studied them agree that they must have been temples. Their lay-out suggests that of Christian churches, with a central nave surrounded by chapels. Some of these chapels have trilithons at their entrance, some have their entrance blocked by huge stones with square windows cut through them, suggesting that what was beyond was a sacred precinct into which ordinary mortals might peep but not pass. Some seem to have been blocked by stone screens -- one of them has engraved in it a pair of threatening eyes-- or by wooden beams fitted into holes on the upright stones to keep all but the proper attendants out of the sacred precincts. Many of them have solid blocks that look like sacrificial altars, with niches cut into the wall behind them, perhaps for the exposure of sacred relics. Under one of the altars there is a kind of cupboard reached by a hole which is closed with a spherical stone, and inside it were found charred bones and antlers. apparently of sacrificial victims.

There is a hole leading from a central space to a chapel at Hagar Qim through which a low-toned human voice can set off impressive echoing reverberations. It has been called the Oracle, and perhaps it was used by priests to send messages from the Other World to their parishioners. Everywhere there are traces of red ochre paint in complex spiral patterns on the walls. There is a carving of a snake in the entrance passage at the Ggantija - snakes who lived underground with the dead were important figures in the rituals and beliefs of primitive peoples, as the story of the serpent in the garden of Eden shows. There are carvings of a ship shaped like a flat-bottomed gondola, there are carvings of bulls and rams in procession, carvings of birds and fishes, there is a carving of a sow with thirteen piglets. Many pieces of sculpture have been found scattered around the temples, ranging from tiny clay. alabaster and limestone figurines -- some of them rough, some of them delicately naturalistic like the “Sleeping Lady” -- to a huge limestone statue at the entrance to one of the Tarxien temples of a skirted figure, probably female, presumably a goddess, which must have stood eight feet high when it was carved. Unfortunately it only survives from the waist down -- the rest was chipped down long ago to make houses or fences or roads.. Like many of the figurines, it represents a figure of more than generous proportions - it would be ungentlemanly, says the guide book, to give her hip measurements. Like many other prehistoric peoples, the Maltese evidently associated gross obesity with fertility, and these figures, disrespectfully referred to as “fat ladies,” are generally taken as representations of as a Great Mother goddess or fertility symbol, guarantor of the continuation of crops and animal and human life. But details of how this Mother Goddess was worshiped are almost wholly lacking, and though it is easy to extrapolate details of ritual from religious practices of thousands of years later, nothing in this field is sure. It has been suggested by some scholars that some figures hurriedly identified as fat ladies were really fat gentlemen.
Only educated guesses can be made about the fascinating objects that turn up at the sites, like the flat stones found at Tarxien with an irregular pattern of round cavities dug into them, and the heaps of round stones nearby that would fit exactly into the cavities. Were they rollers over which giant slabs could be moved easily on their way to the building site? Or were they a kind of ecclesiastical pool table on which the priests could roll the balls and divine the intentions of the gods by seeing what holes they fell into?

Or the large flat stones with a number of cylindrical depressions gouged into them. Are they prehistoric communal querns, in which the women of the villages could grind their grain?. Or are they 19th century devices for grinding the mixture of clay and broken pottery which, from ancient times until the introduction of cement, provided the traditional Maltese roofing material?
For until very recently articles could be moved around at ancient sites with random carelessness. Prehistoric bones were routinely ground up to fertilize the fields. My friend the painter Goxwa Borg tells me that when she was a little girl she and her playmates used to trip down to a prehistoric temple and scoop up stones to build toy houses or sometimes to throw at one other.
An awareness of the importance of the prehistoric sites, as a source both of national pride and of tourist income, has only developed slowly in the 20th century. But this has also been the century in which more than half the farm land of Malta has been gobbled up by urban development, pulverizing many traces of ancient life in the process.
In 1902, when this urban sprawl was just beginning, a contractor was digging a cistern for some new buildings at Hal Saflieni, not far from the temple complex of Tarxien when he stumbled across some ancient stone walls and ancient bones. He did not want his work interrupted by nosy inspectors of professors, so he kept quiet about his discovery till the buildings were finished. It was only after his picks and shovels had done immeasurable damage by wrecking or displacing the objects he found there that it was learned he had uncovered the most stupendous architectural feat of the Maltese past.

The old builders had dug five and a half meters down into the limestone to create a three-story maze of thirty -three interlocking chambers and chapels, many of them reproducing in precise detail features of the temples which had been built aboveground in the previous centuries, trilithons, niches, semi-circular chapels, altars and all. Archeologists christened it the Hypogeum, or Cellar, and found that most of its chambers were used for burials. Some seven thousand complete skeletons were found there.
There was nothing unusual about the actions of the contractor. The fact is that no one anywhere until quite recent times took any serious interest in prehistoric monuments, except to use them as quarries.. They were casually ascribed to giants, fairies, Romans, or any other ancient category that could be thought of. No one for more than three thousand years had thought the giant stone rings of Avebury in Wiltshire worth a second look until the curious antiquarian John Aubrey rode by them while out hunting one day in the middle of the 17th century and started the modern interest in megalithic monuments. It was an interest that was slow to grow. Barely more than a century ago, tourists visiting Stonehenge would find a rope around one of the giant uprights holding a mallet with which they were expected to knock out chips they could take home as souvenirs.. Now every one wants to preserve what is left of by these monuments intact, and UNESCO has put the Malta temple complexes on its list of irreplaceable world treasures, to be preserved at all costs.

Whatever religious or magical rites the ancient Maltese performed at these temples, they were clearly devoted to them. They kept building more or less identical temples, with the same altars, the same curved lines, red-ochre stains on the walls, century after century, sometimes using elements from older structures but never changing the basic plan.. They apparently built nothing else of any substance, at least that is what the archeological record says. The trouble with the archeological record is that it contains only imperishable materials like stone. Six thousand years from now learned archeologists may be digging up Los Angeles and, finding little left but Forest Lawn Cemetery, may be tempted to conclude that here was a people with so little regard for material possessions that they lived in flimsy huts which have long since turned to dust while expending the major part of their wealth on abodes for ancestors who were venerated as gods. And there will be nobody to tell them that they are wrong.

At all events, the Maltese, whatever else they may have been doing, went on building temples, and making their offerings to the fat ladies, and piling the bones of their dead neatly in chapels, and listening to the oracles, until suddenly about 2500 BC they stopped. The archeological record is broken off sharply, and when it resumes a couple of centuries later, everything is different. There are no more temples, no more fat ladies. The Bronze Age has begun. There are new people in the land, less cultivated than the original Maltese, wholly incapable of great communal efforts like temple-building, but technically more advanced, especially in the arts of combat. The peaceful villages of the early inhabitants are replaced by armed camps built on headlands where they can be easily defended from new seaborne invaders. The new inhabitants burn their dead, and bury their ashes along with their swords and shields, sometimes in the courtyards of abandoned temples. A way of life that had lasted almost two thousand years has simply disappeared.
Not the least amazing thing about the work of the ancient Maltese is that it seems to have been done in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. Various scholars have tried to explain the flowering of culture represented by the temples by proposing that Malta became a great religious center, as the island of Delos would later become in Greece, attracting pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean; or alternatively, that it became a great commercial center, a prehistoric Singapore or Hong Kong. Unfortunately there is no physical evidence that Malta was ever either of these things, in fact there is no evidence of outsiders visiting Malta during all those two thousand years. Some objects have been found, like ax-heads made of obsidian from Pantelleria and other Mediterranean islands, but they are very few of them. And the Maltese seem to have preferred to do without them. The more sophisticated their building techniques became, the more they seem to have relied on axes made of chert, a softer stone which they could pick up in their own countryside.
With the arrival of the Bronze Age people, Malta’s isolation would cease forever. By now, ships had keels and sails, long sea voyages were commonplace, and the merchants and pirates (generally a combination of the two) had become aware of the strategic importance of Malta.. From now on, the history of Malta is largely the story of struggles to control and occupy this watch-tower at the narrowest point in the Mediterranean Sea Romans fought Carthaginians for it;
Normans fought Arabs. Byzantine emperors fought Muslim caliphs, Holy Roman emperors and Barbary pirates, French counts and kings of Aragon, laid claim to it. The heroic defense against the Turks in 1566 made the Knights of St John heroes of Christendom, they were renamed Knights of Malta and given sovereignty over the island, and rich gifts from all over a grateful Europe enabled them to build the richly decorated churches and palaces which dot the land to this day.. At the end of the 18th century Napoleon, on his way to Egypt to throttle the British empire, landed there for supplies and established newspapers and a revolutionary government which only lasted a few months till Horatio Nelson landed in his turn. It would remain part of the British Empire for more than a century and a half, a vital coaling station and repair yard on the sea road to India.

Not till 1964 did the Maltese people acquire sovereignty over their own land. At the time it was estimated that more than half the working population was working directly or indirectly for the dockyards of the British Navy, and when the British Navy left there were many who predicted economic ruin and famine. Instead, the Maltese in thirty years have constructed a busy, prosperous, peaceful little republic, the envy of all its Mediterranean neighbors if only because the unemployment rate is near zero. Francis Vassallo, governor of the central bank, spent eighteen years in America and when he came home prepared himself for the culture-shock of entry into a third-world economy. Instead he found a people that had mastered the most sophisticated techniques of offshore banking, that has diversified its agriculture into high-priced crops like February potatoes, switched its industrial emphasis from textiles to computer chips. All the proud parents you meet want to make sure their children all have their own laptops before leaving school.

Tourism is booming, and so is archeology, which is now recognized as a national resource of the first importance. A joint Anglo-Maltese team from the universities of Malta, Cambridge and Bristol, has been conducting a major dig for some years on Gozo. This site had already been stumbled on once before, in 1825, when the British governor of Malta, intrigued by a circle of megalithic stones not far from the Ggantija, ordered a dig in the middle of the circle .It revealed an interesting pattern of caves which had been dug out of the solid rock. But interest lagged, the hole gradually filled up, and the megalithic stones were carted off for various practical uses. Charles von Brochtorff, a German baron who was serving in the Royal Navy made some watercolor sketches on the spot, enough to arouse the curiosity of archeologists a century and a half later. The site of what is now called the Brochtorff Circle was only found when some one noticed a circular field in the middle of the usual rectangular ones. In the last seven years, thousands of bones and ritual objects have been found in the caves. Among the most intriguing finds was a limestone statue of two fat figures seated on some kind of couch, one of them holding a doll-like figure, or a child, in its lap. This apparently fell off a nearby altar, where it had been exposed to public view, when the roof of the cave collapse around 2000 BC. Other, smaller, terra cotta figurines were apparently placed among the bones in private burial plots. An amazing group of stone stick-sculptures, one apparently with a pig’s head, the others showing crudely geometrical human bodies with naturalist heads, were found all in a bunch, as if they had once been tied together or bagged. They may have been part of the kit of a priest or shaman who used them during funeral rites.
It will take years of study to do justice to all these remains. Hopefully, they will be able to shed some light on some of the hitherto impenetrable mysteries which cloak this like all other prehistoric sites. One mystery has a particular fascination for archeologists and Maltese people alike: Were the ancient Maltese, the temple-builders, wiped out by repeated invasions over the centuries, or does some of their blood still flow in the veins of the people walking down the streets of Valletta? Some prehistorians think they were simply put to the sword or carried off by Bronze Age invaders from overseas, the way in 1551 AD most, if not all, of the inhabitants of Gozo were rounded up by a Turkish invasion force and sold into slavery. Another theory is that the Maltese engineered their own demise by impoverishing and despoiling the Mother Earth they worshiped. Plows and goats, the twin engines of ecological disaster, may have deforested the land and stripped away so much of the topsoil, that it could not survive a few years of continued drought, and the people would have to flee abroad or face starvation.
Other scholars point out, however, that the total physical extermination of a people is a very rare event in history.

Perhaps DNA testing of the bones in the Brochtorff Circle will one day produce an answer. The unscientific observer looking at Malta today can only hope that there was no extermination. The Maltese of 1995 seem to have just those characteristics which would have enabled the Maltese of 3800 BC to do what they did over all those centuries of achievement. The fundamental Maltese character does not seem to have changed. They are still independent, resourceful, loquacious, entrepreneurial, as we may imagine the first Sicilian immigrants to have been. Their deep and colorful and ostentatious piety has not changed: where once their land was covered with rock temples looming over the country-side, it is now covered with churches, 365 of them by last count and ever growing, with their great baroque domes and bell-towers soaring above every little village and every cluster of city blocks. A country town which is now swallowed in the urban mass of Valletta put up in 1906 a church with a dome which among church domes ranks third behind St Peter's in Rome and St Paul's in London. A German bomb hit it one day in 1943 when the whole town was inside praying. The bomb made a large hole in the dome, crashed on the floor, and then rolled down the center of the nave to the altar where it came to a quiet rest.

The Maltese have picked up something from each successive invader -- their language from the Arabs (their word for God is Alla, which may or may not confuse God when it comes floating up from the churches with the incense), their architecture from the Knights, their parliamentary democracy and high-quality school system from the British -- without losing their sense of national identity or changing their character. In the 10th century they adjusted their agriculture to take in the lemons and other crops of the Middle East. In the 19th century they adjusted as successfully to British commercial-industrial culture as they are adjusting to the post-modern world of today. They still build in stone though the stone work is apt to be something like the grand marble staircase leading to the new Burger King in Valletta. The tourist who is tired of temples can find only a few stones throw away the sound stages where state-of-the-art animation and trick photography provide the background for such movies as Popeye and Titanic As you see them bustling, relaxed but purposeful, through a land where there is one automobile for every 1.7, and one traffic light for every 37,500 inhabitants, you cannot help feeling that they must be, at least to some small extent, in the direct line of descent from those untutored but ambitious and adventurous immigrants who paddled their way over from Sicily seventy-two hundred years ago and changed the face of the world.

©1996 Robert Wernick
Smithsonian Magazine, September 1996