Megalithic Malta

Londly Planet Malta & Gozo, 7th edition

HALF A MILLENNIUM before the Egyptians erected their first pyramid, “the people of Malta were manipulating megaliths that weighed up to 50 tonnnes,” says the 7th edition of Lonely Planet Malta & Gozo. “The Maltese megaliths, built between 3600 and 2500 BC, are the oldest free-standing structures in the world.”

The temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, a 35-minute bus ride (#47) from Malta’s capital, Valletta, “are the best preserved and the most evocative of Malta’s prehistoric sites, and have an unparalled location atop sea cliffs.” Mnajdra, 700 metres downhill from Hagar Qim, is the more elaborate: three side-by-side temples, each with a trefoil plan and a different orientation. They may have been built to align with the solstices and equinoxes; Heritage Malta organizes special guided tours to Mnajdra at those times of the year.

On the neighbouring island of Gozo, the Ggantija temples perch on the crest of the hill south of the village of Xaghra, a 14-minute bus ride east of Victoria, Gozo’s chief town. “These are the largest of the megalithic temples to be found on the Maltese Islands,” says the guidebook, “the walls stand over 6m high, and the temples together span over 40m…The site has a wonderful visitor’s centre, with displays putting the temples into context.”

In Paola, a 15-20-minute bus ride (#1, 2 or 3) south of Valletta, the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a subterranean necropolis thought to date to 3600-3000 B.C., and to have contained 7,000 bodies. You must book ahead through Heritage Malta: only eight groups of 10 each are allowed in per day.