Saturday, 15 August 2015

Day 6 Malta

Today Maree and I travelled to see the Haqar Qim and Mnajdra Temples. On the south coast of Malta the temple of Ħaġar Qim, stands on a hilltop overlooking the sea and the islet of Fifla, not more than 2km south-west of the village of Qrendi. At the bottom of the hill, only 500m away, lies another remarkable temple site, Mnajdra found above the Southern cliffs. The surrounding landscape is typical Mediterranean garigue and spectacular in its starkness and isolation.

First excavated in 1839, the remains suggest a date between 3600 – 3200 BC, a period known as the Ġgantija phase in Maltese prehistory. Ħaġar Qim was in fact never completely buried as the tallest stones, remained exposed and featured in 18th and 19th century paintings. The site consists of a central building and the remains of at least two more structures. The large forecourt and the monumental facade of the central structure follow the pattern typical of Maltese Prehistoric Temples. Along the external wall one may find some of the largest megaliths used in the building of these structures, such as a 5.2m high stone and a huge megalith estimated to weigh close to 20 tonnes.

The building itself is made up of a series of C-shaped rooms, known as apses. Walking through the main entrance, one finds a central paved space with an apse on each side. These apses are more firmly screened off than is usual at other temple sites using walls and slabs with square shaped portholes cut through as doorways. During excavations a slab bearing a pair of opposing spirals in relief and a free-standing pillar decorated on all four sides were found in the area. These have been replaced with replicas on site and the originals can be found at the National Museum of Archaeology.

Through the inner passage one finds an apse on the right and a large space on the left. The apse on the right has a curious setting of low stone slabs forming an inner enclosure. At the rear of this apse is a small elliptical hole. The rays of the rising sun on the first day of summer, the Summer Solstice, pass through this hole and illuminate one of the low slabs.

The large space on the left holds three high so-called ‘table altars’ and a doorway to an additional chamber reached by three steps. Three more chambers form part of this building but these can only be reached through doorways along the outer wall. Much of interest has been unearthed at Ħaġar Qim, notably a decorated pillar altar, two table-altars and some of the stone and clay statuettes of Goddess figures, including the naturalistic 'Venus of Malta' which are also found at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.

Shrine inserted into the outer wall at the Hagar Qim temple

The Hagar Qim Temples are made from weaker stone and are older than the close by Mnajdra temple. The temples here consist of one main temple and three surrounding megalithic structures. It has a forecourt very similar to its neighbour, the Mnajdra Temples.

Ħagar Qim and Mnajdra, although in the same tradition as the Ġgantija temples, are in no way duplicates of them. Each of these complexes is the result of a separate individual development, differing greatly in plan and articulation, as well as in constructional techniques, from Ġgantija and from each other. Both illustrate full mastery of the use of globigerina limestone for orthostats and for the regular courses of corbelling above in the interiors, in contrast to the rough boulders used in Ġgantija South. Each complex has to be ranked as a unique architectural masterpiece which would be immensely impressive at any date, given the very limited resources of the builders, but is quite staggering when taken with the extraordinarily early dates now attributed to them.

These Megalithic Temples are said to be amongst the most ancient religious sites on Earth, and are described by the World Heritage Sites committee as "unique architectural masterpieces." In 1992 UNESCO recognized the Hagar Qim & Mnajdra complex as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Passageway flanked by two pedestalled altars

Squatting stylized Goddess, found in Hagar Qim

On the outer side of the north flank of Hagar Qim an open-air shrine has been inserted into the wall, whose façade combines the suggestive symbols of the male and female generative organs. There is also the unique four-sided altar. Various facades of the temple have been interpreted as symbolically depicting male and female reproductive organs. Construction employs ‘corbelling’ or oversailing of the walls in order to narrow the span of the roof.

We then walked down the pathway to the Crone temple of Mnajdra. This image is from the internet prior to the cover going over the temples for their protection.

Another image from the internet shows the effect of the solstices on the temples.

The Mnajdra Temples are three conjoined Neolithic temples on the southern coast of Malta. Dating from about 3000 BC, Mnajdra ("mna-ee-dra") is reminiscent of the even earlier complex at Ggantija on Gozo. Mnajdra is less than 1 km downhill from the Hagar Qim temple complex. The two complexes seem to have built at different times, and their relationship is not known.

Mnajdra occupies an isolated position on a rugged stretch of coast overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the isle of Fifla on the south west of the island. The Mnajdra complex consists of three temples that radiate from an oval forecourt. The three temples adjoin one another but are not connected; each has its own entrance.

The first and oldest temple (northern/eastern) is a simple three-apsed structure dating from c.3600-3200 BC, not long after Ggantija was built. The small walls have been reconstructed but the small uprights, with their pitted decoration, are original.

A close inspection of this photograph from the lower temple illustrates that the holes were 'drilled' and not just randomly punched as one might assume.

Plus this beautifully carved 'oracle hole' in the wall - (Note the presence of natural gaps between the stones of the wall. The hole is carved so that on the side which 'receives' the blocking stone the hole is smaller, less prominent and lower down to the floor.

The middle temple is the largest and was the last to be built, closer to 2000 BC. It was inserted between the other two and set at a higher level, and is unusual in having a great 3-meter high porthole slab (now broken) as its main entrance, with a second doorway beside it. To the left of the passage leading to the inner apses is an engraving of a temple façade.

The temple has some of the best examples of 'Stone-cut doors'.

The most impressive of the Mnajdra temples is the lower (southern/western) temple, with a largely intact façade and bench constructed sometime between 3150 and 2500 BC. Its corbelled walls indicated the temple was roofed (as at Ggantija), and the stone slabs are decorated with intriguing spiral carvings and dotted patterns. The porthole niche to the left is especially impressive, framed in a trilithon and two strangely tapered megaliths on either side.

In the right-hand apse of the lower temple is a porthole doorway at the top of a flight of steps giving access to a intramural chamber. Anoracle hole opens from that chamber and another oracle hole in a recess communicates with the back and outside of the temple. Within the first side chamber is an altar on a double-hourglass shaped pillar.

The lower temple is astronomically aligned. On the equinoxes (March 20 and Sept. 22), the rays of the sun pass directly through the temple’s main doorway and light up the main axis. At the summer solstice (June 21), the sun lights up the edge of a megalith to the left of the doorway, connecting the first pair of chambers to the inner chambers. At the winter solstice (Dec. 21), the same effect can be seen on the corresponding megalith on the right hand side.

Artifacts found at Mnajdra include stone and clay statuettes, shell and stone ornaments, flint tools and decorated earthenware. The lack of any metal objects is one of the indications of its Neolithic origin.

The site was vandalised in 1996 when it was sprayed with aerosol and again in 2001 when over 60 stones were knocked down with several being broken in the process.

The view of Filfla Island from the temples.

Hancock also makes reference to 'Father Emmanuel Magri, the first official excavator of the Hypogeum at Hal Safleni', who 'recorded the presence, up until the end of the nineteenth century of cart-ruts on the tiny uninhabited island of Filfla', a small island about 5 km south of Mnajdra and Hagar Qim temples. He then adds that in 1912, R. N. bradley commented on cart ruts near Hagar Qim - noting that they ran "over the precipitous edge of the cliff towards Filfla".

The conclusion of this information is that cart-ruts once ran all the way from Hagar Qim to Filfla across a land bridge, which has collapsed since humans first came to the island.

Whilst walking between the temples and looking towards the coastline you can see the Ħamrija Tower a small watchtower completed in 1659 as the twelfth of the De Redin towers, the site of a medieval watch post. The tower's structure has a square base with two floors. The entrance is on the upper floor, which can be reached by a retractable ladder.

Due to the problems with the buses on the island having recently changed systems we caught a taxi to the  Blue Grotto to allow us to see the grotto before the next bus back to the unit.

There is a massive arch (over 30m) and a system of six caves that were created by centuries of persistent action of the waves and the elements. The sky reflects the white sandy seabed, giving off a bright cobalt colour while the caves mirror the orange, purple and green off the minerals in the rocks. This particular spectacle of colours can be seen daily from sunrise until around one in the afternoon. Unfortunately we were not here at the best time to see the colours, however it is a very beautiful place.

We then headed back to the unit and brought salads for dinner and sat on our balcony and enjoyed the last night together here in Malta, we have both been deeply touched to have had the opportunity to see Malta and all the ancient sites she holds. The time here has been made so much richer and deeper having my Priestess Sister here to share it with me. 

Perhaps one day the island will call once more.

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