Sunday, August 10, 2008

Megalithic temples

The oldest monumental architecture in the world is found on the tiny islands of Malta and Gozo, south of Sicily in the western Mediterranean. There, for perhaps 1,500 years from 3800 b.c., communities of neolithic farmers built about thirty massive post-and-beam temples. None of these megalithic structures has survived intact, but no doubt they were architectural masterworks, the earliest of them a thousand years older than the pyramids at Giza, Egypt. The most striking examples are at Ggantija (the word means “giant”) on Gozo and at Hagar Kim Mnajdra, Tarxien, Ta’ Hagrat, and Skorba on Malta.

The islands were first settled, quite separately, by people from southeast Sicily sometime between 5000 and 4000 b.c. These simple agrarian immigrants bred cattle, sheep, and pigs and grew lentils and barley. There probably followed a second wave of colonists from Sicily who absorbed or displaced the original group, and who left evidence of a culture expressed in communal underground tombs, for example, those at Zebbug on Malta and at Xaghra on Gozo. These graves foreshadowed the spectacular subterranean building known as the Hypogeum at Hal-Saflieni, described below. It has been suggested that later temple forms were also derived from these earlier burial places, because both building types consist of irregular compartments joined by short corridors.

Architecture, especially religious architecture, on such a scale indicates that the society produced an agricultural surplus to fund the work, that their organization permitted collaborative effort, and that their religious beliefs were strong enough to inspire and maintain that effort. The temples demonstrate a developing form. The earliest were constructed by piling massive limestone rocks that were neither dressed nor carved. Later temples, like those at Ggantija, Hagar Kim, Mnajdra, and Tarxien, were also built of huge slabs transported from neighboring quarries, but the blocks were set out to a clearly predetermined plan, carefully dressed and fitted and carved with finely detailed ornament. This later phase is lucid evidence of an ingenious people with a well-developed technology. They could transport immense blocks of stone, up to 20 feet (6 meters) high and weighing many tons, and accurately shape them using only flint or obsidian tools. The quality of the decorative work that embellished the structures—spiral carvings, intaglio patterns, and figures—demonstrates creative and artistic skills of a similar order.

The Hagar Kim and Mnajdra Temples stand on rocky ground a few hundred meters apart near the village of Qrendi on Malta’s southeast coast. Their layout is difficult to describe. For example, the entrance to the approximately oval compound at Hagar Kim is set in a wall of carefully shaped and fitted rectangular limestone blocks. The doorway itself is a trilithon (three stones). This device, consisting of two uprights supporting a lintel, would remain the essential architectural and structural element of European architecture for the next 3,000 years. But beyond the gate there is a confused assemblage of amorphous rooms and courtyards linked by corridors, whose elaborate arrangement must be seen to be understood.

The three temples and the small enclosure of the Mnajdra complex are built of hard and soft limestones and are rather better defined. Two large elongated elliptical spaces forming a figure eight make up the largest building; they are entered through trilithonic doorways flanked by small square apses. The enclosing walls are built in two layers; internally they present as tall, massive slabs, while the outer face is constructed of masonry blocks. Although smaller, each weighs several hundred kilograms. It seems that some of the temples once had domed roofs. The complex of three linked temples in the town of Tarxien probably was built sometime later than the others, although the basic form is the same.
Perhaps the most striking prehistoric site on Malta, dating from around 3000 to 2500 b.c., is the Hypogeum at Hal-Saflieni, near the town of Paola. The three-story, 1,600-square-foot (150-square-meter) subterranean curvilinear building was excavated from the soft coralline limestone. Its upper level is a series of irregular, roughly finished burial chambers, very like the earlier rock-hewn tombs found elsewhere on the island and on Gozo. The middle level has twenty larger more regularly shaped rooms joined by corridors. One is carved from the rock in close imitation of the contemporary aboveground temples, complete with trilithonic forms, roof beams, and other structural devices, none of which (of course) are structural. Some walls are almost covered with painted animals and curvilinear geometric designs. An ante-chamber known as the Holy of Holies has a stairway leading to the lowest level, 36 feet (11 meters) beneath the surface, which has a maze of chambers and more rock tombs. That section seems to have had little use, but the remains of some 7,000 people have been found in the whole Hypogeum. Perhaps the building was designed as a temple for the dead, since archeological discoveries suggest the spaces were used for rituals other than burials.

The theme of an earth-mother goddess was common throughout the ancient Mediterranean region, but the intricate art of Malta may have been associated with a more complicated cult than fertility worship. Whoever or whatever they worshiped, it seems that this mysterious culture was suddenly terminated around 2000 b.c., when it was at its height. The directors of a joint archeological project between the Universities of Cambridge, Bristol, and Malta have theorized about the reasons for this sudden collapse, attributing it to a combination of several factors: the transition from an egalitarian to a hierarchical social structure, the pressures of increasing population, obsession with temple building that detracted from agricultural efforts, the effects of erosion on productivity, and diminishing trade links with Sicily.

The architecture they left behind was undervalued for centuries by the Maltese authorities, and through exposure to the severe marine climate and more recently shocks from nearby quarries, it inevitably decayed. In 1980 the Temple of Ggantija was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and in 1992 the listing was extended to include five more complexes on Malta and Gozo under the title “the Megalithic Temples of Malta.” In that year a carefully designed conservation project was launched by a multinational team of experts to save the Hypogeum, whose ochre rock paintings were being badly affected by seepage and eighty years of tourism. Each site presents its individual challenge and further conservation measures are planned for the oldest monumental architecture in the world.

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