The megalithic temples of Malta, which date mainly from the period 3600 to 3000 BC, are among the oldest free standing stone structures in the world. They pre-date the pyramids of Egypt by more than 500 years.
The oldest surviving temples are thought to be those of Ta'Ħġrat and Skorba near the village of Mġarr on Malta. Ġgantija on Gozo and Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra on Malta are among the best preserved. Tarxien is the most developed, its last phase dating from 3000 to 2500 BC. The subterranean tombs of the Hypogeum date from the same period as the temples and mimic many of their architectural features below ground.
The purpose of these mysterious structures is the subject of much debate. They all share certain features in common – a site on a southeasterly slope, near to caves; a spring and fertile farmland; a trefoil or cloverleaf plan with three or five rounded chambers (apses) opening off the central axis, which usually faces between south and east; megalithic construction, using blocks of stone weighing up to 20 tonnes; and holes and sockets drilled into the stones, perhaps to hold wooden doors or curtains made from animal hide. Most temple sites have also revealed spherical stones, about the size of cannonballs – it has been suggested that these were used like ball bearings to move the heavy megaliths more easily over the ground.
No burials have been found in any of the temples, but most have yielded statues and figurines of so-called 'fat ladies' – possibly fertility goddesses. Most have some form of decoration on the stone, ranging from simple pitting to the elaborate spirals and carved animals seen at Tarxien. There are also 'oracle holes' – small apertures in the chamber walls, which may have been used by priests or priestesses to issue divinations.