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Report 2011: Gozo, Calypso’s Isle

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 10 of 26: Xaghra - Ggantija Temples

photo by MAW

Altar in the Southern Temple

Xaghra is the earliest settled part of the island and there are the remains of inhabited caves scattered round the area, although most are difficult to find. The Xaghra Circle on the highest point of the village was originally a prominent circle of standing stones which were removed for building stone in the 18th and 19thC. Excavation in the 1990s revealed an underground cemetery a bit like Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Malta. The area has been refilled to protect the remains and guide books describe it as looking a bit like an abandoned quarry. It is on private ground so we didn’t attempt to find it.

The main reason to visit Xaghra is the Ggantija Temples, which date from 3600-3000BC and are described as the oldest free standing structure in the world. The complex was in use for about 1000 years when the Temple Culture disappeared.

These were the first prehistoric remains on Malta to be cleared of the accumulation of earth that had collected around them over the millennia. They had resembled a large mound enclosed by a colossal wall and the locals believed it was the remains of a defensive tower built by a race of giants in the past. The site was cleared in 1820 using convicts from Gozo Prison and then left open to the elements. This was disastrous for the stones as once cleared of earth they began to weather badly. Its significance was realized and restoration began in the 1930s and has been ongoing ever since. There is permanent scaffolding on the south temple to protect it and prevent it from collapsing. Pressure of visitor numbers means there are now fenced off walkways into both temples so the effect of the forecourt is lost.

It is thought it was a temple site dedicated to the Great Earth Mother, goddess of fertility. Archaeologists have suggested that the shrines look like the body of a woman with broad hips and full breasts... Priestesses entered symbolically into earth mother’s womb and returned reborn. The blunt truth is no-one really knows what they are for. We do tend to regard hypotheses like this with a great pinch of salt and I must admit they reminded us very much of the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae on Orkney. Whatever the function, they were a major undertaking to build and it is estimated it would have taken 15,000 man days.

The temples stand on the crest of the hill overlooking the plain, on one of the most fertile spots on the island with fresh water springs.

There is parking on the road outside the site. It is a short walk along a track beside an olive grove to the ticket office. There is a small shop next to it which is visited on way out. This sells a basic selection of post cards, has a good selection of books and a few souvenir gifts, including models of the two fat ladies with a baby from the Archaeology Museum in Victoria. A bit further along the track is a small stall next to the toilets selling knitted cardigans, honey, oils and other food type gifts - popular with the coach tours.

There is an information board and information point with a taped commentary in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. We found the bus tours don't stop very long and tend to stick together as a group. We managed to work round them to have both temples to ourselves.

The structures are surrounded by a massive boundary wall made up of huge undressed boulders and slabs, weighing several tons. There are narrower uprights with huge flat polygonal blocks between them. At the front is a raised forecourt with the two separate temple buildings. The suggestion is that this is where the people gathered to attend rituals while the inner rooms of the temples were reserved for the priestesses.

The northern complex is younger and part of the wall of the southern temple was removed when the northern complex was built.

Both temples are built to the same general plan with five apses connected by a central corridor paved with flagstones. The walls incline inwards and it has been suggested the temples may have been covered with a roof of wooden beams covered with clay and reeds.

It is better to visit the northern temple first as there is little left of it. Look for the threshold stone which has a hole through it; a tethering point.

The southern temple is larger, older and better preserved. There is a stone bench to the right of the entrance and a few stone spheres thought to have been used to roll the stones into position. The doorways are made of three massive stones of diminishing sizes which would originally have had a lintel across the top. This is known as a trilithon. A shallow bowl at the entrance may have held liquid for purification purposes. There are small holes in the floor called libation holes. It is thought these could allow liquid offerings to pass into the underworld.

The central corridor leads to an end apse which has what is described as an 'altar' at the end, with pitted decoration. Upright stones support flat stone ‘tables’ (reminiscent of the dressers at Skara Brae). There is a similar altar in the last left apse.

The front right apse has a stone with a very well weathered spiral caring on it. The back right apse has a fire reddened circular hearth stone and a bench altar.

There is an ‘oracle stone’ with a beautifully carved circle through it.

It is worth walking round the back of the site to admire the boundary wall. There are also some stones to the side of the north temple which look as if they could be the remains of another temple, but there is no information about this in the books or on the web.

This is an amazing site, definitely a ‘Must See’ and well worthy of its designation of a World Heritage Site. In middle of May the ruins were pink with convolvulus growing everywhere, a welcome splash of color.

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