The Ggantija temples in Gozo

The Ggantija temples in gozo are claimed to be the oldest free-standing structure

The awe-inspiring prehistoric complex of Ggantija was erected in three stages, over a period of several hundred years (c. 3600-3000 BC), by the community of farmers and herders inhabiting the small and isolated island of GOZO. It consists of two temple units built side by side, enclosed within a single massive boundary wall and sharing the same facade. This boundary wall incorporates a number of huge blocks measuring over five metres in length and weighing several tonnes.

Both temples have a single and central doorway, opening onto a common and spacious forecourt that is, in turn, raised on a high terrace. The temple to the south is both the larger and the older. Its plan consists of a central corridor with two apses on each side and one at the back. The inner pair of apses is the larger and measures 23 metres from end to end. More striking, however, is the undisturbed seven-metre high facade and inner apses. Altar arrangements are preserved in the outer apse right and inner apse left, while the characteristic spiral designs and dotted decorations adorn several architectural elements. Other interesting features include libation holes for liquid offerings, a hearth and a series of four round perforations on each side of the inner door jam to control access.

Apart from being smaller and not as old, the temple to the north is also less elaborate. The rear apse has been reduced to a spacious altar niche and no decorative carvings embellish this temple unit. Of particular interest, however, are the finely carved uprights on the inner side of the first pair of apses, modelled on the concave layout of the respective apses.

Originally, these temples were roofed over, though the rough cyclopean walls are too weak to resist the huge pressure exerted from a corbel stone vault. Instead, a lighter superstructure of wooden beams, reeds and an impervious clay lining seems to have been employed. Nonetheless, as timber is relatively rare in the Malese islands, the distance to be covered by such beams was shortened by the slight outward inclination of the walls.

Rituals of life and fertility seem to have been practised within these precincts, while the sophisticated architectural achievements reveal that something really exceptional was taking place in the Maltese islands more than 5,000 years ago. This complex stayed in use for some 1,000 years, down to the mid-third millennium BC, when the Maltese temple culture disappeared abruptly and mysteriously. Eventually, the successive inhabitants of the early Bronze Age (c. 2500-1500 BC) adopted the site as a cremation cemetery.

Prior to their excavation in the 1820s, these ruins resembled a large mound encircled by a colossal wall and were believed to be the remnants of a defensive tower built by a race of giants some time in the long forgotten past, thus the name Ggantija.