Island of Gozo is a monument to time's mysteries

May 15, 1994|By William A. Davis | William A. Davis,Boston Globe

The Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt are widely regarded as the ultimate in ancient buildings, but here on the island of Gozo they seem like examples of modern architecture.

For reasons lost in the fog of time, the oldest free-standing monuments in the world -- estimated to be 5,500 years old -- are found not by the banks of the Nile or on Salisbury Plain but on this small Mediterranean island, Malta's sleepier and greener little sister. A thousand years before the first pyramid rose from the sands of Egypt and centuries before Druid astronomers conceived of Stonehenge, the temples of Ggantija stood in Gozo -- and had long been in use.

Just who built these Stone Age cathedrals and what powerful deity commanded such fervent devotion can only be guessed at. Whatever their origins and motivation, Ggantija's builders were certainly hard workers and had a natural sense of the dramatic.

Well-preserved, the two temples are built of large slabs of local limestone shaped with flint tools and laboriously moved to the site on stone rollers and then hauled into place by hand. The massive structures are dramatically sited on the edge of a plateau, surrounded by meadows speckled with wildflowers and clumps of bougainvillea, and have a sweeping view of the blue Mediterranean.

Archaeologists think the people who erected Gozo's temples came originally from Sicily, possibly over a land bridge now covered by the sea. Among Malta's and Gozo's archaeological puzzles are "cart ruts," deep parallel grooves -- apparently created by centuries of dragging things back and forth over the same route -- that link local Stone and Bronze Age sites and also seem to connect with similar ruts in Sicily.

Two stone female heads and a carving of a serpent were found at Ggantija, suggesting that a fertility divinity was worshiped there as at other prehistoric sites in Malta. At the temple complex at Tarxien and the subterranean burial vault of Hypogeum on the mainland, built a few centuries after Ggantija, artfully crafted statues of the famous "fat goddess" have been found.

These are representations of a serene-faced woman of elephantine proportions, usually depicted wearing a long, elegant, pleated skirt. Apparently the goddess of fertility, she was appeased by frequent animal sacrifices, judging by the animal images on temple altars and the many charred bones found at the sites.

Ggantija doesn't have the graceful lines and beautiful decorative carving of later Maltese ancient temples -- the curved shapes of the two temples have been likened to obese female forms -- but with its splendid setting, massive size and aura of awesome antiquity it makes a powerful impression that lingers long in the mind.

The culture that built the Ggantija and Tarxien temples mysteriously vanished around 2600 B.C., leaving only mute, fire-scorched stones behind. However, they may somehow have subliminally affected Maltese -- and especially Gozoan -- taste in ecclesiastical architecture.

Although it long ago collapsed, one of the Ggantija temples had an enormous domed roof, made by "corbeling," or overlapping flat rocks. To this day, Maltese (who are among Europe's most devout Roman Catholics) are inordinately fond of large, domed stone churches. Gozo isn't very big, only 8 miles by 5, but each of its 13 small villages has a massive domed church that could easily be a cathedral anywhere else.

Gozo is separated from its big sister by the Gozo Channel, which is less than 5 miles wide: The frequent ferries from Cirkewwa in the northwest corner of Malta to the little fishing port of Mgarr on Gozo do the trip in 15 minutes. Close as they are, the two islands are different in climate, geology and atmosphere.

Gozo gets more rain than most of Malta, and its soil retains it better, so the island usually stays verdant during the baking Mediterranean summer. Malta has a rocky, rolling terrain, but Gozo is dotted with small buttes, mini-versions of the ones found in the American Southwest -- except instead of a few cactuses, they are usually topped by stone-walled villages and a massive domed church.

With about a tenth of the population and territory of Malta, and lacking the bigger island's many sheltered harbors, Gozo has always been a quieter and less commercialized place, which is ** what a lot of people like about it. "See it now," Maltese tell you, a note of urgency in their voices. "See it before it changes."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.