Malta’s temples are a magnificent testimony to the Neolithic temple culture which flourished on our islands between 3600 and 2500BC. They can be said to correspond with contemporary and similar monuments found in England, Ireland and Northern France, and their architectonic alignment to sunrises and sunsets reflects religious archetypes which have been perpetuated since prehistoric times.
Despite the destruction, decay and reconstructions Maltese temples have had to withstand over the millenia, their original alignment can still be ascertained since the foundation walls and the axes of the buildings are still well preserved.
The ancient people of Malta were always interested in the motion of the stars and planets. The illumination by the sun at the side and main altars of such temples on the solstices and/or equinoxes, that is those days when the day is at its longest or shortest, or when the hours of light are the same as the hours of darkness, were of particular importance to Neolithic communities, which is why the temples at the time were built in this way on order to capture these religious ideas into architectural form.
Equinoxes and solstices have marked the change of seasons since time immemorial. A solstice is when the sun is at its northernmost or southernmost position as viewed from Earth, experienced as the shortest and longest days. An equinox is when the sun “crosses” the Earth’s equator, causing equal hours of light and dark. From sequences of measurements taken, models and drawings of plans, today it is possible to show clearly the way that the rays of the sun light the temples at such particular times of the year.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this are the Mnajdra Temples. This complex is made up of three adjacent temples, each of which has a separate entrance and consists of a number of altars and oracle chambers which were used by the worshippers to communicate with the gods. The southernmost temple was purposely built to be aligned with the first rays of the rising sun on the first day of each of the four seasons of the year, that is on the Spring Equinox (March 21), the Summer Solstice (June 21), the Autumnal Equinox (September 21-22) and the Winter Solstice (December 21). During these days at sunset, the rays of the sun pass directly through the temple’s main doorway and light up the main axis.
The same phenomenon can also be admired in the nearby Ħaġar Qim Temples. It is possible that the original intention was for it to be visible in other temples around Malta and Gozo, and that this took place at the time of their construction, however due to the change in alignment of the earth, as well as the erosion and dilapidation of the temples themselves, this is as yet uncertain today.
What is sure, is that as the Maltese take to heart their Catholic religion and churches today, so did they give full importance to their original fertility religion, centred around a female concept of divinity (depicted in many different forms and mediums throughout these same Neolithic complexes and their altars) and the relevant temples constructed at the time. This shows that the Maltese have always been a deeply spiritual people, reaching out towards something bigger and more infinite than themselves, in any way possible.
Who built the ancient temples of Malta? How did the people of antiquity accomplish this? What were they thinking? How did they measure such intricate movements as the rotation of the planets?
These are questions we are still uncertain about to this day.