Few people know that during the Stone Age, dozens of temples were erected in the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo, all in the same style and largely according to the same unique ground plan.
I first set foot on the Maltese islands in January 1990. What was planned to be just a winter break of a few weeks would turn out to be an encounter with the passion of a lifetime.
Like almost everyone else who first lands in Malta, I was ignorant of its prehistoric temples. I visited Valletta, walked down Republic Street and passed the Museum of Archaeology. In those days there were show windows near the entrance. In them the goddess statues from the temples were on display and they could be seen from the street, as if they were placed there to invite the public to visit the museum. It certainly did the trick for me. They lured me inside… and I haven’t been the same since.
That year, the Maltese winter was sunny and very pleasant. I bought David Trump’s booklet, Malta, an Archaeological Guide, which was just about the only book about the temple period on the market at the time. I made it my guide as I walked the countryside and visited all the sites, the main temples and the lesser remains of which only a few stones had survived. Many of the sites mentioned in Trump’s Guide could still be located, whether in the form of sizeable ruins, scattered blocks or just a single upright stone. The number of megalithic sites was staggering. I would later find out that a total of 66 of them have been recorded.i
Most of the ruins were still freely accessible. The famous larger temples of Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Tarxien, Borġ in-Nadur, Ta Ħaġrat, Skorba and Ġgantija lay in the open. Today these sites are managed by Heritage Malta and stand behind fences or under protective tents, while, with the exception of Kordin, the dozens of minor sites presumably deemed unexploitable for tourism have been left lying derelict and unprotected at the mercy of the vagaries of weather and human caprice. However, as we will see, this large number of megalithic sites will turn out to be of far greater importance than their neglected and scorned state would suggest. In fact, they will prove to be key to solving the mystery the Maltese temples have posed ever since their discovery.
Even today, most of the megalithic remains can still be found, as they often lie outside the perimeters of the urban sprawl which has devoured much of Malta’s once rural landscape. With the exception of the Tarxien temples, the Buġibba ruin and the Qala stone, a visit to the temple sites will include a country walk, and the reward is a panoramic view from their portals towards the horizon, wherever it is unobstructed.
There is no predictable pattern in the distribution of the sites. They can be found exposed on hilltops or squatting in the recess of a slope; at the edge of a cliff or poised in the expanse of an open plain. Temples have been built all over the main islands of Malta and Gozo. Only the low-lying islet of Comino seems to be devoid of them.
Their state of preservation ranges from an imposing ensemble of megalithic architecture to a derelict scatter of slabs or just a single remaining stone. Yet what all of these mysterious places share in common is their visible antiquity, their unique design, the style of their decorative interior artwork and their ground plan, when this has been preserved.
But why were they built, and why so many? What was the purpose of this exuberant megalithic undertaking? In obvious reference to present-day Maltese religious passions, conventional archaeology—not devoid of a whiff of condescension—puts the Maltese megalithic phenomenon down to a religious craze.
But was it?
The Maltese temples present another question. Despite the fact that they were all built according to the same typical clover-lead ground plan, and that their natural decorations and figurative art appear to derive from a single, homogenous culture, why are no two of them oriented towards the same direction?
Can these mysteries be solved in a satisfactory way? Can they be solved so that all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and yield a coherent picture? Any attempt at answering these questions must necessarily start with the most obvious and fundamental of them all:
How Old Are the Temples?
Unbeknown to most of us,ii the question of the antiquity of the Maltese temples has been the subject of wilful manipulation ever since Arthur Evans set foot on Malta in 1897, a few years prior to the start of his excavations at the extensive site at Knossos in Crete, dubbed by him a ‘Palace’. From that ominous year onward, the Maltese megalithic phenomenon ceased to be valued in its own right but was bound up with a project induced by a Social Darwinist quest for finding the roots—the ‘cradle’—of European civilisation. This being a predominantly British preoccupation,iii the roots of Europe, its cradle, would need to show characteristics similar to those of their own society, but in a primitive stage. It would have to depict a hierarchically structured, seafaring, fledgling expansionist nation on the brink of evolving into the stage of classical Greece. Situated on Greece’s doorstep, Crete was chosen to be this primordial place. And as the excavations and reconstruction of the Knossos site progressed, the precious title of ‘Cradle of European Civilisation’ was attached to it. Because this title was denied to Maltaiv—the only obvious rival to this position—the Maltese temples were given a date which was deliberately fashioned to be not older than the Cretan Bronze Age.
The stakes were high, and to the inventors of the idea, this ‘cradle’ was of the greatest importance, and not just for the obvious financial reasons to do with the tourism it would generate. Much more was at stake, namely the validity of a unilinear evolutionary cultural philosophy, the purpose of which would ultimately be no less than the acceptance by the rest of the world of the supremacy of Western civilisation.v
From that time on, every investigator who ventured to come up with the suggestion that the heyday of Malta’s temple culture preceded that of the Bronze Age Knossos Palace would be assailed with criticism, and either physically banished from the scene or verbally defamed. The Italian archaeologist Luigi Maria Ugolini was to be the first of several researchers to fall victim to these policies.vi
Ugolini was active in Malta in the early nineteen thirties, working entirely independently of the British dominated archaeological scene in the islands. Having received no permit to conduct excavations himself, his work in Malta relied upon the guidance and goodwill shown to him by his Maltese colleague Temi Zammit, the excavator of the recently discovered megalithic site of Tarxien. Based on Zammit’s work and on his own expertise, Ugolini and his team produced a comprehensive survey of all the megalithic sites known at the time, detailing their cultural accomplishments and architectural grandeur. He did not hesitate to ascribe to them the word civilisation, fully aware of its provocative force, and he compiled the material to prove it. Five large volumes were planned to appear on Malta’s temples, only the first of which had been published before Ugolini’s untimely death in 1936. Its very title Malta: origini della civiltà Mediterranea (Malta: Origins of Mediterranean Civilisation)vii would have sounded like blasphemy to the propagators of the Cretan cause. The date proposed – 8,000 BC for the oldest layer of Tarxien – turned their dismay into contentiousness. It obviously and totally contradicted the version of European cultural history propagated by the British.
The opposition to Ugolini came in two waves. The immediate reaction was strong criticism of his book in the British press. Then, after World War II, far more drastic action was taken. Comprehensive amendments to Malta’s prehistoric timeline were asserted, which, to an innocent public, apparently bore no relation to Ugolini’s work, which was either ignored or dismissed as fascist propaganda unworthy of consideration. This is evident from surviving correspondence among those who pulled the strings in archaeological circles in the post-war years.viii Ugolini was dead, and his findings were buried with him.
Drastic and aggressively defended interventions in the dating of Maltese human and cultural prehistory followed, all with the purpose of putting an end, once and for all, to any idea of a high antiquity of the Maltese temples. The implementation of this strategy rested upon two pillars. One: it was decreed that no humans had ever set foot on Malta before 4,000 BC, later revised to 5,200 BC. And two: the assertion originally introduced by Arthur Evans that no temples were built earlier than 2,500 BC was introduced again. This was later revised to 4,000 BC, made necessary by the introduction of radiocarbon dating. It seems that evidence of humans in Malta during the Palaeolithic was either covered up or never properly investigated.ix
These new dates made the temples older than Crete, but this inconvenience was got around by declaring that Malta was an isolated phenomenon. The word ‘insularity’ in relation to Malta’s early prehistory, with all its desired connotations, became very popular all of a sudden.x During the decades following World War II, when coffee table books appeared illustrating Europe’s cultural history for the benefit of a public on the threshold of becoming integrated into a union, Malta invariably received a secondary place, after Crete—if it was mentioned at all. In accordance with this policy, to this day there is not a single exhibit from the Maltese temples on display in the British Museum.
Malta’s great temple ruins had been effectively denied their rightful place and pushed out of the perceived mainstream of human cultural history.
This was the setting when, in the wake of the groundbreaking work by Alexander Thom on the astronomy of the megalithic sites in Britain, similar investigations started in Malta too. George Agius and Frank Ventura, lecturers at the University of Malta, were the very first to securely measure the orientations of all the megalithic temples whose regular ground plans were either known or still extant. Altogether nineteen temples could be included.
Their first article, ‘Investigations into the Possible Astronomical Alignments of the Copper Age Temples in Malta,’xi published in 1980, is interesting in several respects. They accurately established the azimuths, which means the compass directions, of all the temple axes of which the regular ground plan was known, and they came to the interesting conclusion that the distribution of their orientations was not random and that it had not happened by chance. Some mechanism must have been the driving force behind the peculiar pattern of temple orientations.
How could these two clear patterns on either side of due south be explained?
Confining themselves to the conventional dates for Malta’s temple period (4,000 – 2,500 BC) Agius and Ventura identified several stars the buildings could have been orientated to. But in view of the obvious unity of the Maltese temple culture, the outcome of more than one star as their target does not appear to be satisfactory. The problem here consisted clearly in the dating restrictions imposed after World War II by the British archaeologists, as opposed to the earlier insights of Italian Ugolini. In view of this, it seemed more than legitimate for me to abandon these restrictions and let the search be guided purely from an astronomical point of view. The pertinent question then to ask is:
“In view of the unity of the Maltese temple culture, could there have been one star that came into the focus, at some point in time, for all the temples?”
The answer is yes, there was one, and it was one that could not have been more befitting of the majesty of the Maltese temples in their Mediterranean setting.
Before we get into the details and implications of this result, we must get acquainted with a mechanism, a movement in the sky, which is well known to astronomers and appears to be crucial in explaining not only the shift in the temple orientations, but also the large number of temples in Malta. It is ‘precession’ or ‘precession of the equinoxes,’ which I will briefly explain with the aid of pictures.
The axis of the Earth is tilted in relation to the plane of the ecliptic. Moreover, the axis is not stable. It moves around in a circular motion which can be compared to the wobble of a spinning top. This movement is so slow that it takes about 26,000 years to complete one round, and it can hardly be noticed in a lifetime, making a shift of only one degree in 70 years.
The effect of precession can be noticed in three ways. One: the pole shifts through the circle of circumpolar stars. Two: the constellations beyond the sun at its rising position at the vernal and autumnal equinoctial points change over this long period. Three: the rising and setting points of the stars themselves slowly shift along the horizon. Stars that had once been outside the field of view as seen from a specific point on Earth would eventually move into sight again after some time.
Owing to the slow northward motion of the vault of the sky caused by precession, in around 9,400 BC, a viewer who stood on the south coast of Malta and looked in a southerly direction would behold an unusual sight. A star appeared in the sky of a brilliance never seen before. It was Sirius.
For viewers at Malta’s latitude, Sirius had been invisible for five thousand years before that date. Now it came into view again in all its splendour, and over the years the time of its visibility in the night sky grew gradually longer.
The ideal location from which to watch this delightful phenomenon was the site now called Ħaġar Qim. And it was precisely here that the very first temple, an observatory to the star Sirius, was built. This is the ruin now referred to as Ħaġar Qim North, which is one of the smallest temples lying neglected behind the main temple, inaccessible to visitors. We can still see today that it once overlooked the sea in a direction slightly west of south, with an azimuth of 186 degrees. According to the date deduced from the precession of Sirius,xii it was built in around 9,150 BC.
Now the denouement is easy. If we look once again at the diagram (see above), we will immediately see that the shift in temple azimuths follows from the precessional movement of Sirius. We also see that its rising points on the horizon in the east and its setting points in the west equally received the interest of the Stone Age observers. And the clusters of the eighteen temple axes represented in the diagram show a fairly equal distribution in time, ranging from the first, which was built in around 9,150 BC to the very last, built in 4,250 BC.xiii
Thus we have established that the Maltese temple period lasted nearly five thousand years. Within this timeframe, they could have built a temple every two centuries according to both the rising and setting of the star. This is precisely the time at which Sirius would have moved out of the line of sight of an existing temple, and another temple would be needed, explaining the shift in temple orientations most satisfactorily.
Is this too long a time period? If we consider that the civilisation of ancient Egypt lasted for at least four thousand years, and that Christianity is already two thousand years old, a life span of several millennia is common for civilisations. The outcome given here also points to an organic and gradual increase in the size of the buildings themselves. Ħaġar Qim North, the oldest from the astronomical perspective, has a very small footprint, whereas Ġgantija South, the youngest and last to have been built, is also the most gigantic.
And what is the antiquity of Tarxien in our new timeline? Tarxien East receives a date of 8,550 BC and Tarxien South of 8,300 BC. Luigi Ugolini, the vilified Italian, had been right all along. In fact he was spot on.
This astonishing outcome of the astronomical purpose and meaning of the Maltese temples provides plenty of food for thought. This great megalithic culture in the middle of the Mediterranean appears to have started immediately after the last Ice Age and ended when the civilisation of ancient Egypt arose. Moreover, its beginning would have been contemporaneous with another great enterprise, the temple building at the famous site of Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey, as well as with the single megalithic stone, which was recently found at the bottom of the Mediterranean between Pantelleria and Sicily, at a depth that points to the same period when building started in Malta. It would seem that there has never been a cultural void during the Mesolithic. On the contrary, there must have been a very vibrant building culture over an extensive area in and around the Mediterranean, of people who were both interested in and knowledgeable about the movements of the stars.
Was civilisation started by astronomers and not by farmers? A fresh look at Malta’s megalithic temples seems to point strongly in that direction, with exciting consequences for our thoughts about the roots of human civilisation.
i See John D. Evans, The Prehistoric Antiquities of the Maltese Islands, London 1971.
ii It is little known that Arthur Evans visited Malta at all. His opinions even influenced German researcher Albert Mayr, who conducted the first survey of the megalithic sites, Die Vorgeschichtlichen Denkmäler Maltas, published in 1901.
iii See Lenie Reedijk, Sirius, the Star of the Maltese Temples, MaletBooks 2018 (hereafter: SSMT), Part One, Ch. 6: ‘The Legacy of the X Club’.
iv In the Maltese temples several artefacts (figurines, pottery pieces) showed artistic links to Africa, of which Arthur Evans had been well aware. This, too, will have played a role, because a European cradle so close to Africa would have been unwanted. Moreover, in these sites in Malta no weapons had ever been found. A peaceful culture showing no signs of warfare would not make an ideal ‘cradle’ for a Western society based on expansionism and military bravado.
v See footnote iii.
vi In the early 1990s, two Dutch researchers were harassed by the Maltese authorities while doing a splendid job trying to prevent a temple period settlement site from being destroyed by housing development. See SSMT, p. 57. Shortly thereafter, when Maltese medical doctor Anton Mifsud published his Dossier Malta (Malta 1997), a storm of criticism ensued. In it he revealed that Palaeolithic human teeth from Malta had been tampered with to ‘prove’ a Neolithic age for them (SSMT, p. 58).
vii There are plans to publish all of Ugolini’s works in the Italian original with English translations.
viii See SSMT, Ch. 5, ‘Ugolini – A Colloquy’ , p. 72.
ix Graham Hancock, in his classic Underworld: Flooded Kingdoms of the Ice Age (2002), devoted over a hundred pages to these problems in Malta. It makes compelling reading for those who are interested in and concerned about Malta’s important megalithic legacy.
x To quote only two example of many: ‘Megalithic architecture in Malta is an indigenous phenomenon, and its origins and function must be sought in a purely local context …’, and ‘There is here little to imply connections with megalithic sites elsewhere, whether funerary, astronomical or religious…’, from David Trump, ‘Megalithic Architecture in Malta’, in: Antiquity and Man, ed, by John D. Evans et al., London 1981, p. 128 and 135.
xi G. Agius and F. Ventura, Investigations into the Possible Astronomical Alignments of the Copper Age Temples in Malta, Monograph, Malta University Press, 1980.
xii The sky programmes used were CyberSky from Microsoft and Stellarium.
xiii For all the dates of the temples resulting from the precession of Sirius I would like refer to the graph at the back of my book. This not only shows a fairly regular distribution of the dates of construction of the 18 temples included, for it also leaves room for all the other temples of which no ground plan–and thus no measurable azimuth–has remained.
Thank you to David Gahan for his continuous support of this important project.
About the author
Born in the Netherlands, Lenie Reedijk is a juridical translator by profession. She studied English at the University of Utrecht and German language and literature in Amsterdam and Berlin. In Berlin she participated as a translator in a book project on Maltese literature, Literatur aus Malta (1989), which brought her to the islands the following year. She lived in Malta from 1990 to 1996, working as an interpreter. During this period her interest in Malta’s ancient temple ruins was awakened.
Lenie Reedijk is the author of Archaeological Walks on Gozo (MaletBooks 2009). She has given talks and seminars on Malta’s megalithic temple culture in the Netherlands, Germany and Gozo, and has conducted tours especially designed to see all the accessible ancient sites. She subsequently embarked on the project to try to solve the many questions surrounding this enigmatic civilisation. It resulted in the book Sirius, the Star of the Maltese Temples (MaletBooks 2018), which reveals that the discovery of the orientation of the temples to Sirius presents the answer to the most important questions. It also uncovers manoeuvrings that have taken place in Maltese archaeology in the past, which caused Malta’s temple culture to remain practically unknown to the public at large.