The massive ruins of Ħaġar Qim (pronounced “agar-eem”) and Mnajdra (pronounced “eem-na-eed-rah”) stand on a rocky plateau on the southwest coast of Malta, overlooking the sea and facing the uninhabited islet of Filfla, 4.8 kilometers away. This plateau is composed of two types of limestone; the lower, harder stone (gray coralline limestone) out of which Mnajdra is constructed, and the upper, softer stone (pale globigerina limestone) from which Ħaġar Qim is built.
The name Ħaġar Qim means ‘standing stones’ and previous to the excavations of these ruins, all that could be seen was a mound of earth from which only the tops of the tallest stones protruded. Possibly, this temple was constructed in several phases between 3500 BC and 2900 BC. The temple’s soft globigerina limestone walls have weathered badly over the millennia and later temple builders used the harder coralline limestone, such as is found at Mnajdra complex just down the hill. The ruins were first explored in contemporary times in 1839. Further excavations in 1885 and 1910 produced detailed surveys of the site and repair of some of the damaged structures.
The Mnajdra temple complex is located about 500 meters to the west of Ħaġar Qim, closer to the edge of the promontory facing the sea. Mnajdra consists of two buildings; a main temple with two ellipsoidal chambers and a smaller temple with one chamber. Among their other possible uses, the temples of Mnajdra may he fulfilled astronomical observation and calendrical functions. The main entrance faces east, and during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the first rays of light fall on a stone slab on the rear wall of the second chamber. During the winter and summer solstices, the first rays of the sun illuminate the corners of two stone pillars in the passageway connecting the main chambers.
Writing in his fascinating book Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization, Graham Hancock gives more precise information on these alignments,
As the sun crests the horizon on the spring and autumn equinoxes, 21st March and 21st September (when night and day are of equal length), its rays exactly bisect the huge trilithon entrance to Mnajdra’s Lower Temple, projecting a spot of light into a small shrine in the deepest recesses of the megalithic complex.
On the winter solstice (20th/21st December, the shortest day) a very distinctive ‘slit-image’ – looking something like the illuminated silhouette of a poleaxe or a flag flying on a pole – is projected by the sun’s rays onto a large stone slab, estimated to weigh 2.5 tonnes, standing to the rear of the west wall of the Lower Temple’s northern apse.
On the summer solstice (20th/21st June, the longest day), the same distinctive slit-image appears – but now with the ‘flag’ oriented in the opposite direction – on a second large stone slab, this time weighing 1.6 tonnes standing to the rear of the west wall of the Lower Temple’s southern apse.
Similar to the Mnajdra temple, Ħaġar Qim offers several alignments of the summer solstice. One, at dawn, is on the north-east side of the structure, where the sun’s rays, passing through the so-called oracle hole, project the image of a disk, roughly the same size as the perceived disk of the moon, onto a stone slab on the gateway of the apse within. As the minutes pass, the disc becomes a crescent, then lengthens into an ellipse, then elongates still further and finally sinks out of sight as though into the ground. A second alignment occurs at sunset, on the north-west side of the temple, when the sun falls into a V-shaped notch on a distant ridge in line with a forsight on the temple perimeter.
In the case of Mnajdra, the alignment today is good, but not quite perfect because the rays that form the slit-image are projected two centimeters away from the edge of the large slab at the rear of the temple. Yet, calculations show that when the obliquity of the ecliptic stood at 24 degrees 9 minutes and 4 seconds, the alignment would have been perfect with the slit-image forming exactly in line with the edge of the slab. This ‘perfect’ alignment has occurred twice in the last 15,000 years: once in 3700 BC, and again, earlier, in 10,205 BC.
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