A Giant Anniversary for UNESCO listed Temples

In Gozitan folklore, the Neolithic temples of Ġgantija were actually believed -on account of the size of their enormous megaliths- to have been constructed by a giantess fed on a diet of broad beans and honey. Now, circa 5600 years later, the temples are celebrating another giant milestone.
This year commemorates the 40th anniversary since the Ġgantija Temples were officially inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Way back in 1980, only a limited amount of sites worldwide had made it onto the hallowed roll call. That same year the City of Valletta and the Ħal Saflieni Hypoguem were also accorded UNESCO status. “Considering that we are a small country in the Mediterranean, that speaks volumes about the richness of our cultural identity, doesn’t it?” asserts Daphne Sant Caruana, Principal Curator for the Ġgantija Temples at Heritage Malta
UNESCO’s criteria for selection is naturally quite stringent. Besides ensuring that a natural or cultural site’s authenticity is well preserved, it must specifically be of ‘Outstanding Universal Value.’ Furthermore, the UNESCO operational guidelines stress that for a site to be eligible, it should also ‘transcend national boundaries and be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.’
“Ġgantija represents a unique achievement in the history of humanity. The temple builders accomplished a level of engineering and sophistication in the construction of these monuments that appears unparalleled elsewhere. Humanity at the time had reached a significant touchstone, which is evident in the innovative architecture of these temples,” Sant Caruana explains.
 Later in 1992, the UNESCO listing for Ġgantija was renamed the ‘Megalithic Temples of Malta’ and extended to incorporate the Temples of Ħaġar Qim , Mnajdra, Ħal Tarxien, Skorba and Ta’ Ħaġrat. Collectively, they are one of the earliest groups of free-standing monumental structures in the world and represent a “very distinct architectural tradition that does not appear to have been influenced by anything beyond our shores and that were built using the very limited resources available on the islands.”
The Ġgantija temple complex evolved over three main phases of development. The South Temple, which was the first to be constructed around 3600 BC, consists of a five-chambered unit. “It is important to consider that these temples were once roofed, and the atmosphere inside would have been very different from the open-air sensation visitors experience today,” Sant Caruana reveals. 400 years later, the temple builders felt the need to extend the site, so they built a second smaller temple, cited as the North Temple featuring four apses and a terminal niche. Finally, another generation of stonemasons embarked on a massive endeavor to construct a large open semi-circular space in front of the site referred to as a forecourt or plaza.
The word ‘temple’ itself might be a bit of a misnomer. There are strong indications that the structure was not built for domestic use, due to its monumentality and the effort it required to be constructed. Furthermore, one finds the repetition and adaptation of the same architectural design formula applied to the rest of the megalithic temple sites in Malta, which strongly points to a ritual function. “Ritual is an act that is done purposely and repetitively. We are still trying to understand what motivated these rituals. It would not necessarily have been religion in the way we understand it today, but it is likely that they were places designed to host some form of ceremonial rites.” The striking animal depictions carved in relief found at Tarxien temples, for instance, appears to point towards the importance of agricultural activity. “Since the temple builders were farmers and depended entirely on the land and their livestock for survival, one cannot exclude the possibility that these monuments hosted some form of communal rites associated with agricultural produce and seasonality.” We are still learning about these singular sites and the Maltese Temple Culture phenomenon. “That is perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects I find about archaeology. Nothing is taken at face value. One quite literally has to dig for information. Our understanding of these sites is in fact, constantly evolving.” Daphne remarks animatedly.
In 2013, with the help of EU funding, the site underwent a complete transformation in the way it is experienced from a visitor’s point of view, with the construction of an Interpretation Centre, the acquisition of several pockets of land surrounding the site, and the inclusion of new ancillary facilities. Unlike the archaic object-focused concept of a museum, visitors are now provided with a much more holistic experience that encourages participation and engagement. The layout, design, and the collection of unique artifacts from Gozo’s prehistoric sites are presented in a way that nurtures curiosity and instigates reflection in the visitor even after leaving the premises. “If you really want to discover Gozo’s unique Neolithic heritage, this is the place to come to.”
By Warren J Bugeja, Executive Communications, Heritage Malta