The Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples lie along the southern coast of Malta amidst the blue waters of the central Mediterranean. Built between 3600 and 2500 B.C., these hard limestone temples are thought to be amongst the oldest surviving free-standing structures in the world. The ruins at Mnajdra are grouped into three sanctuaries, each composed of several conjoined buildings arranged in the shape of a figure eight. One of the three temple complexes faces east and functions as a solar observatory: on the spring and autumnal equinoxes, the sun shines through the series of nested chambers to illuminate the altar. Though not much is known about the island’s Neolithic inhabitants, based on archaeological evidence it is thought that they were ancient mariners. Archaeological excavations in the 19th and 20th centuries brought increased attention to the significance of the Mnajdra temples. In more recent decades, increased tourism has brought to light the need to manage access to the site and provide visitors with a better understanding of the fragility of the temples. Vandalism has also been a regrettable occurrence in the recent past.
1998, 2000 and 2002 World Monuments Watch
By the end of the 20th century the Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples were in danger of collapse: vibrations from nearby quarries, limited tourism planning, and vandalism were taking a heavy toll on the structures. In addition, the individual stones were thinning and cracking due to water infiltration and the salty atmosphere. Citing the need for sustained commitment to conservation at the site, the temples were included on the 1998, 2000, and 2002 Watch lists. Preservation organizations, including UNESCO, convened in the aftermath of the 1998 listing to discuss the problems and emphasized the need for conservation work at the sites. Unfortunately, in 2001, a group of vandals overturned more than 60 of the temples’ monumental slabs and carved their own symbols into the stones. In response, the Maltese government hired guards, installed lighting, and erected a protective fence around the archaeological park. Malta also revised its cultural heritage laws to improve protection of its monuments. WMF secured a grant for the repair of the temples at Mnajdra and they now appear as they did before the attack.
A thousand years before ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Neolithic inhabitants of Malta laid the stones of the Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples, making them perhaps the world’s earliest free-standing structures still extant. By studying these monuments, architectural engineers have gained insight into the first methods of megalithic construction in the western hemisphere. The southern temple, which is illuminated during the spring and fall equinoxes, also constitutes one of the earliest known solar observatories. Because the people who inhabited Malta during the Neolithic period left few traces of their domestic culture, the temples provide crucial information about their religious practices. Images and statues of a heavy female figure at other Maltese sites indicate the primary worship of a fertility goddess. Mnajdra and other Neolithic sites on the island of Malta were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992.