A female giant living on Gozo, known for her love of eating broad beans and honey, had a child with a common man. Holding the child, the giantess built the Ġgantija temples in Xagħra, Gozo, to be used as a place of worship.
This is what Gozitan folklore says, and who are we to claim otherwise? The Ġgantija temples date back to 3600BC – making them older than Stonehenge and the pyramids in Giza – so why not let our imaginations run wild? This is what Daphne Caruana Sant, Heritage Malta Curator of Ġgantija Temples, wants visitors to do when absorbing Gozo’s neolithic marvel and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Let’s face it, no trip to the Ġgantija temples starts without a cup of coffee and pastizzi (delicious Maltese street food) in Victoria, but it really kicks off when arriving at the temples’ interpretation centre. Sant “designed and opened the EU co-funded interpretation centre in 2013 to give visitors the interpretative means to really understand the Ġgantija site.”
Some say the temples served as a ceremonial site in a fertility cult, but with no written records from the time, nothing is certain. “Science is invaluable when it comes to archaeological excavation and making deductions about life 5,000 years ago,” Daphne says, “but, the wonderful thing about this kind of history is that visitors can create their own perspective – especially regarding artistic artefacts, which are loaded with significance but remain mysterious.”
Rather than cramming objects into imposing showcases, the interpretation centre displays a few of the tools people need to engage with Ġgantija’s story. This is no accident on Sant’s part: “We have many more objects in our archives, but we curate select artefacts, texts, images, videos and questions to get the imagination flowing. This also allows us to rotate objects and displays, which is healthy for the longevity of the artefacts.”
A wooden walkway leads to the archaeological site, preserved in nature amidst residential buildings. The team is working on maintaining this buffer zone by planting more indigenous vegetation to mask the urban visuals. But, in reality, the location’s dynamics are nothing new as the likelihood is that the temples have always lived alongside nearby settled communities.
One of the highest locations in Gozo, the Xagħra plateau is a fantastic vantage point with access to the sea, rich soil and what used to be fertile springs. Again, this is no accident: “The Ġgantija temples were built here because this is where people lived, this was a farming community rather than a nomadic people. The discovery of agriculture was revolutionary, people settled and populations grew. In the case of Malta and Gozo, early communities originated from Sicily, which we know because of pottery remains that are identical to ones found in Sicily.”
Other finds nearby suggest the area was populated during the Neolithic Period, leading experts like Sant to refer to the area as “an archaeological landscape rather than a site”, better looked at in a world context:
“Rather than its age, Ġgantija is unique because we have a community constructing a completely new style and size of building – nothing like this was happening anywhere else at the time.”
When entering the site, the first thing visitors see is a large rocky wall, which is the back of the temples. Walking around it, a large area opens up to overlook a deep valley and more of Gozo’s plateaus. The structure itself comprises two temples enclosed by a single wall – a façade with two entrances to the two separate units that were built 400 years apart.
One thing to note before starting to explore, according to Sant, is: “The area in front of the temples is an ancient piazza and an integral part of the neolithic site. Knowing this helps you read the functionality of the site. Just imagine: there would have been large gatherings of people outside listening in on the sacred spectacle happening inside – kept mysteriously hidden from the common people’s gaze.”
“The definition of a temple is vast, but these structures definitely held a sacred function. Throughout Maltese history, the largest, most iconic buildings have always been sacred – just look at the churches all over the island!” remarks Daphne. “Humans have always felt the need to respond to what they cannot see – to something bigger than themselves.”
Ancient structures worldwide have been dismantled and reused throughout history, so we’re fortunate that Ġgantija is quite well preserved – something Daphne stresses in a final piece of advice. “Preserving the past is a modern phenomenon, but very much our present obligation because understanding the past means preserving our identity. So, clear your mind and imagine what was happening in Gozo 5,000 years ago, because this is the seed that grew into the Gozo of today.”