Between around 5500 and 4500 years ago, the Maltese Islands were inhabited by an extraordinary society, one both intelligent and resourceful. The Islands witnessed a unique, megalithic, building phenomenon.
The lives and beliefs of these early Maltese Islanders are shrouded in mystery. But they left us an indication of their lifestyle and their level of sophistication through an impressive number of elaborate structures which are still standing today.
The temples in Ġgantija, Gozo, are considered the oldest, surviving, free-standing monuments in the world. They predate the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt and Stonehenge in southern Britain by around 1000 years. The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum in Paola – a labyrinth of passageways and chambers dug out of the rock – is an outstanding feat of prehistoric engineering. It is the only underground temple and burial place of its kind in the world.
Other temples, those of Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra and Tarxien, as well as a dozen other sites seem to confirm the theory that Malta was a “Sacred Island” – a kind of centre of worship and mystic practices for prehistoric communities in the region.
This new people to inhabit the Islands after Neolithic man probably also came from south-eastern Sicily. We find their early rock-cut tombs at Ħaż-Żebbuġ and Xemxija, Malta; and at Xagħra, Gozo. The tombs were already in the three-lobed or trefoil shape developed later and more fully at the major temple sites. These catacombs were perhaps the forerunner of enormous underground complexes, such as that of the Hypogeum. Though this site and the smaller chambers at Xagħra remain the only significant ones discovered to date.
By the time of the construction of Ġgantija, these farmers had developed a new cultural system, in total isolation and without any foreign influence. Although these people kept in contact with their ancestoral home in Sicily and voyaged as far as other Italian islands, Pantelleria and Lipari, for trade, there is no evidence of any cultural exchange. Their temples and beliefs remain unique to the Maltese Islands.
The temple culture came to a mysterious end by around 2500 B.C. No one knows whether these people died out, were subjugated by invaders or simply left the Islands. They were replaced by peoples from various parts of the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age.