The Oldest Free-Standing Structures in the World

Ä gantija TempleThis weekend we visited the Ä gantija temples, the world’s oldest free-standing structures. The older of the two date back to 3600 BC, predating Egypt’s oldest pyramid by about 800 years. From Wikipedia:

The temples were possibly the site of an Earth Mother Goddess Fertility Cult, with numerous figurines and statues found on site believed to be connected with that cult.

In the Maltese language, Ä gantija means “belonging to the giants”. According to local Gozotian legend, the temples were built by the giants who resided in Gozo during ancient times. It is said that the temples themselves were used by the giants as watchtowers.

Interestingly, it took a Brit to first excavate and protect the temples in the 19th century. I find this is often the case with archaeological finds–they often require foreigner interest to preserve them.

You can see a few more photos in this Flickr set, and here’s an aerial view for some context.

To be honest, the idea that these are the oldest buildings in the world was more powerful than the experience of seeing them. They are essentially neatly organized piles of crumbling rubble. There is a sense of history about the place, but I didn’t feel the way I felt at, say, the Theatre of Dionysus or even in old growth rain forest on the West Coast. Those places seemed to have a far greater spirituality for me.


  1. Erm. Not exactly. When you are a colony and the colonisor is busy colonising (in a What did the Romans do for us sort of way) you have little time (and money) to go unearthing your nation’s treasures. While brits were dividing and ruling (all respect to ‘er majesty an’ all that) the Maltese were busy trying to retain a national identity. Thank God for the language.

    As for the feeling that Ggantija is a pile of rubble I know what you mean. It can happen when you visit certain historic sites expecting much more than what is actually there. It happens to me with the myriad middle age castles in this area (luxembourg)… seen one seen them all. Pity you missed the summer solstice – that really makes you wonder – how a civilisation around 3600 years ago moved that size of stones in precisely the right place to register an event that happens once every 360 something days – and the thing still works. Beats the hell out of the London Eye! 🙂

    Finally Wikipedia. I don’t normally meddle with the articles but the correct term for natives of Gozo is Gozitan.

    There. That’s me being a rightful pain in the backside once again.

  2. Jacques: I’m not speaking exclusively of Malta when I refer to foreigners preserving treasures, but I’m not sure your argument is particularly sound. The temples were preserved a mere 13 years after Malta became part of the British empire. There were plenty of preceding centuries for locals to take steps to preserve the sight.

  3. Chances are the original excavation and subsequent neglect during British rule did far more harm than good. Britain produced many amateur archaeologists during the anybody-can-be-a-scientist days of the early 19th century and they went around to all sorts of interesting sites, randomly digging and removing items, disrupting the archaeological record.

    Wikipedia notes that the site was not properly restored until 1980, 16 years after Malta became independent.

  4. Let’s be explicit about what the Wikipedia entry says about the excavation:

    “The Ä gantija Temples were excavated in 1827 by Col. John Otto Bayer, the Lieutenant Governor of Gozo.

    However, after his departure from Gozo, the temples were not properly maintained and soon filled with rubbish. It was only until after the Ä gantija temples were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, that proper restoration occurred.”

    I did some quick searches on the web, and was unable to determine Bayer’s expertise in archeology.

    This page does say he was a ‘man of learning’, whatever that suggests. There are also some interesting notes on the foreign participation in and encouragement of the restoration during the 1980s.

  5. Sure. Take your pick from the following colonisers : in reverse chronological sequence: the French, the Knights of Malta, the Angevins, the Suabians, the Normans, the Arabs, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians.

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