Visit the land of the giants
On a recent visit to Malta’s prehistoric temples, Garry Shaw endeavours to enter the minds of Malta’s temple builders, once thought to be a race of giants by the local inhabitants
View of the Temple of Hagar Qim (Image: ViewingMalta.com)
Once upon a time, Sansuna, a giantess on the island of Gozo, went to the town of Ta’ Cenc, placed huge stones upon one of her shoulders and carried them 4 km to their current resting place at Ġgantija, “the Place of Giants”. A multi-tasker, she did this while holding her half-giant, half-human baby over the other shoulder. Taking these heavy stones, she then built the temple complex of Ġgantija and afterwards allowed the local people to worship within. More unusually, and perhaps irrelevant to the story (but hey, it’s often the little details that make a tale believable), she lived exclusively on broad beans and honey (though some versions replace the honey with water). As old legends go, it’s an entertaining one but it’s not the only explanation for Ġgantija’s megalithic prehistoric temple complex. I had also read that it had served as a defensive tower, again built by a race of giants (naturally).
Entering the Ġgantija archaeological site in Gozo, Malta’s sister island, I could immediately see why such legends had evolved. Approaching the temple from the rear along a modern walkway, the path alive with brightly coloured flowers, an enormous wall of grey interlocking monoliths, some weighing at least 20 tonnes, rose into view. Its lower course was formed of imposing vertical standing stones, while above, its upper levels were laid out horizontally. Taken together, it looked like an ancient game of giant Jenga, 6m tall, or perhaps a rapidly failing game of Tetris. Many of the monoliths were mottled by weathering as if they had been briefly dipped in sulphuric acid. Tufts of green grass protruded from the gaps between stones. Scholars, discounting the possibility of a giant-enhanced workforce, have estimated that 50 men were needed to erect a single one of these exterior megaliths and that the entire temple took around 30,372 days to construct. To add to its complexity, though appearing to mark a single building, this great wall is actually a D-shaped enclosure that encompasses two separate temples to the north and south, each with its own entrance from a common forecourt. It was a temple complex rather than a single building and it had rested on this spot since around 3500 BCE.
Taking the South Temple first, I walked down a central corridor flanked by four oval chambers (referred to as “apses” by scholars), two to each side. These led directly to a fifth apse at its far end, giving the entire arrangement the slight appearance of a shamrock. The walls stood tall above me, unchanged in thousands of years, though their rough appearance was once smoothed by plaster. During excavations, archaeologists had found ritual furniture in one of the South Temple’s apses, including altars decorated with spirals but now heavily weathered. In the similarly designed but smaller North Temple, the entrance was originally very low, forcing visitors to crouch down as they entered, a feature bound to please the vertically challenged but surely with a greater purpose. As I explored, all I could think was: what was the meaning behind these curious features?
Luckily, my wanderings at Ġgantija were accompanied by Daphne Caruana, curator of Gozo’s sites and Vince DeBono, my expert guide for the duration of my time in Malta. After viewing the temple complex we headed into Ġgantija’s modern visitor centre where we came into the presence of some of Malta’s famous “corpulent anthropomorphic figures”, as the more scholarly literature calls them, or “fat ladies” as they are more popularly known. One obese figurine clutched her stomach, her prominent nose and eyes turned upwards to the sky. Another sat placidly, fat fingers locked in contemplation, resting on round thighs twice as big as her upper body. Her head was missing.
This article was first published in the Autumn 2015 edition
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