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    Volume 11 |Issue 47| November 30, 2012 |


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Is it really the work of giants? Photo: Andrew Eagle

A Reflection of Stones

Andrew Eagle

An islet in the Mediterranean between Malta and Libya.
The distant past is right in front. Photo: Andrew Eagle

At the temples of Mnajdra and Hagar Qim the Mediterranean sun is intense. Its glare on the dark blue sea and on the nearer rocky hillside blinds and makes one squint. To the south is Libya and Sicily is to the north. Front and centre is the very distant past.

Tapping away, tapping away, rock on rock. There must've been a meditative quality in working each dimple, forming each spiral and spot. With certainty it's a recipe for quiet reflection even to consider those workings, to look over those simple temple designs, and it brings wonder at the efforts of their creator, wonder in the minor glimpse given into the thoughts of prehistory.

More than a thousand years before work began on the Great Pyramid at Giza; more than five hundred years before the first Egyptian dynasty and the writing of the first hieroglyphs; about four hundred and eighty six years before the start of the Mayan calendar in Mesoamerica; and a century before the wheel was first used in Mesopotamia, the people of megalithic Malta first got about moving stones.

The first inhabitants had reached the Maltese islands as early as 5000 BCE and they didn't set to building the temples straight away; but by 3600 BCE construction had begun on the eleven megalithic temples that became part of the small Mediterranean nation's inheritance. The stone temples of Malta are the oldest freestanding structures on Earth.

Our lives are a kind of rocky arrangement also, with each day inevitably there comes about a little tapping, tapping of our own miniscule histories and designs, and as sure as we're human there are moments of pause, of deliberating those ever-present unanswerable questions and determining now and then to rearrange. Sometimes we also wish to chisel or to move about a few stones.

The temples are mysterious. Little is known. Maltese folklore says they were built by a race of giants, why one of the sites is called Ggantija, the 'Giant's Tower.' There's evidence that would support such a theory, since the largest stone at Hagar Qim is more than five metres high and weighs nearly 60 tons. Without modern machinery someone put it in that place, to their liking. Somehow someone did that.

But if not giants, then who completed that work? The identity of the temple builders is unclear because, around 2500 BCE and quite abruptly, the Maltese stone moving stopped and the temple building society vanished. The Maltese islands were left for later resettlement by others.

Tapping away, tapping away, rock on rock. There must've been dedication in it, with each temple added to, enhanced and rearranged over the course of many generations. In the Mnajdra complex at the time of the equinox in Autumn and in Spring the sun's rays shine through the main doorway with astronomical precision. Is Mnajdra of calendars and clocks? Is it a time piece? We have our ways still for remembering and counting.

A pedestal altar.
A megalithic doorway. Photo: andrew eagle

There are stone tables and benches, the world's oldest furniture, and rope holes, flint knives and animal bones have been uncovered in the arrangement of circular rooms. Archaeologists have suggested animal sacrifices took place and that the temples may have been dedicated to fertility or healing illness. There are deity statues that have been found, unflatteringly referred to as Maltese 'fat lady' statues due to their appearance.

Tapping away, tapping away into prehistoric designs. Photo: Andrew Eagle

Counting on change and continuity; counting on blessings from sacrifice; counting on the days and seasons; and counting on reward for labour. Counting on a better future; counting on a protector and saviour; counting on the constellations; and counting on daylight to follow on from the night. We have our ways still for hoping and for faith.

But what was it exactly that prompted the megalithic Maltese to first get about moving stones? Was there a malady, a natural catastrophe like a storm or a drought, or alternatively no singular event to give rise to their architecture? Of the details there can be no knowing, but of course it was the big questions that must've been involved.

What we may know something of is the human: that inexhaustible curiosity. What's it all about? Why are we here? Where are we going? Indeed the essence of humanity may not even be in the answers primarily, as much as in the wondering. To visit the megalithic Maltese temples is not only to look into the past but to see our human condition reflected and it becomes us.

The stone temples of Malta are the oldest freestanding structures on Earth.

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