A Round Landscape: Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Temples in Malta
by Margaret Louderback

Introduction

The megalithic temples of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra located on the southwestern coast of the island nation of Malta are unique freestanding stone monuments. Dating back 5,000 to 5,500 years ago, these prehistoric temples are among the oldest surviving examples of stone architecture in the world, and have been designated by UNESCO as part of the World Heritage register. 

The archeological park consists of two temples, Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra. Mnajdra is located several hundred meters downhill from the Ħaġar Qim temple site. Uncovered in 1839, the temples are constructed of globigerina limestone slabs weighing up to 57 tons. One upright menhir stands 5.2 meters (17.06 feet) high. The temples are sited on high cliffs along the coastline overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in the rural countryside of Malta. Threatened by exposure to heavy rainfall, as well as sun and wind, protective intervention was deemed necessary resulting in the installation of tent shelters completed in 2009 (Torpiano).

 “Roundness of Being:” An Essential Part of the Ħaġar Qim/Mnajdra Site Experience

An engaging landscape arouses the senses: the expanse, the roundness felt, the calm silent energy of the horizon. “Space has always reduced me to silence,” (Jules Valles L’Enfant) and this quiet immediacy is felt in the first experience of horizon at the temples of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra. Seen from elevated cliffs overlooking the sea, the horizon is physically real, but incomprehensible in a single glance. Touching internally, its physical presence is overwhelming vivid. 

As Jean-Batuste Dussert notes in his review of philosopher Husserl’s “The Metaphor of Horizon,” “No one can survey the horizon or take it in completely . . . . We can never go beyond the horizon, as we move forward, we never come closer to it. It always slips away . . . . [It] is not a metaphor for a single point of view . . . . [t]he horizon is changeable, owing to the fact that [a] person moves in its ‘middle’ ”(Dussert).

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The expanse of horizon seen from the megalithic World Heritage temple site of Ħaġar Qim/Mnajdra, Malta. Image courtesy Margaret Louderback.


Standing on rough rocky ground, one is aware of the raw physicality of the horizon. On this remote coastline in southwestern Malta, the horizon is strictly elemental consisting of the light of the sun, the sea, and the sky. It is forever present; the enigmatic line only broken by Filfla, a smaller island, or an occasional boat. It is a place where the senses and imagination can be educated (Norberg-Schultz).  As an elemental world, and an elemental experience, it commands a phenomenological attitude. 

Horizon is not a thing, but a process, as Dussert further explains. The word horizon is used to fill a lexical gap. Dussert adds that according to Husserl, there is no word “to denote what is not really an object, but a process, that of uncovering or displaying potentialities” (Dussert). In this explanation, horizon is an indication of “the multiple stages of the process, in conjuring them up in a single word” (Dussert). 

Essential in its limited combination of elements, one is aware of an external to internal movement. The forest is a place to let one’s mind rest with a feeling an internal self. This internal reality is centered, whole, and round (Pallasmaa). Pallasmaa’s description of a forest could easily be replaced by horizon.  As another bold and elemental natural setting exemplifying the power and movement that natural places incite, the forest (or horizon) enfolds us in its multisensory embrace. The multiplicity of peripheral stimuli effectively pulls us into the reality of space (Pallasmaa). Pallasmaa adds that peripheral vision, profoundly present in the experience of the open horizon, affords an aura-like sense in its unfocused awareness. A peculiar exchange takes place; I lend my emotions and associations to a space and the space lends me its aura, which entices and emancipates my perceptions and thoughts (Pallasmaa). One is aware of a bodily centeredness, not in the viewing from a central perspective, but the immediacy of the experience (Pallasmaa).

The horizon is not an image, but a verb of imagining. As a process, it is a pause, an alive moment in an open experience of place. As an extended space externally, it brings one into a close interpersonal experience of self-space. There is an automatic gathering together of inwardness to a center inside oneself, a surrounded experience of immediacy brought home to the personal self. Horizon landscapes motivate an inward centeredness, “a roundness of being” (Bachelard).

The attraction is immediate, and primitive in the sense that the experience occurs before thoughts or words are formed and attached to it. Seized in its center and brevity (Bachelard), the mere feeling of roundness is astonishingly complete. Nancy Doyle, in “Artist Profile: Agnes Martin,” described Martin’s view of the ocean “. . . regardless of why we are drawn [to it], we see . . . some kind of answer, an assurance - of, if nothing else, that the universe is unfolding in its cosmic mystery . . . .” We experience it “without the need for words - in fact, we are counting on the wordlessness to comfort us” (Doyle). The power lies not in the ability to describe what the ocean (horizon) is, but in the felt process of absorbing oneself into a landscape that is open and boundlessly round. This experience is a working description of phenomenology, an unguided direct connection of what is surrounding oneself. 

The temple complex of Ħaġar Qim/Mnajdra, as a “center of cosmicity” celebrates seasonal cycles in the architecture built to capture the solstices and equinoxes marking time related to agricultural activity.

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An aerial view of the Mnajdra temple complex prior to the 2009 installation of a protective conservation tent. Image by Jonathan Beacom, courtesy Proud Publishing Limited.

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An illustration of the sun’s path entering one of the three temples at the Mnajdra complex during the solstices and equinoxes. Image courtesy Heritage Malta.

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Interior of Mnajdra temple as the sun hits its intended spot on the large vertical rock slab, summer solstice, 2010. Image courtesy Margaret Louderback.

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Mnajdra temple couched in the winter landscape, 2011. Image courtesy Margaret Louderback.

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Mnjadra temple under conservation shelter, which protects it from eroding rains, wind and sunlight. Image courtesy Margaret Louderback.

An agriculture life is found on the edge of the sea overlooking a vast and uninterrupted horizon—a roundness of life. Archeological study offers evidence showcasing the importance of experiences of land-sea-land travel reflected in the rounded interior temple spaces. It is theorized that during travel from land to open sea (where horizon is omnipresent and no land is in sight) and back to land, is an important part of enacted rituals within the interior temple architecture. (Grima). 

Norberg–Schultz believes that in general, an understanding of the natural environment grows out of a primeval experience of nature as a multitude of living forces. From the beginning of time, man has recognized that nature consists of interrelated elements, which express fundamental aspects of being. The landscape where he lives is not a mere flux of phenomena; it has structure and embodies meaning. These structures and meanings give rise to mythologies (cosmogonies and cosmologies), which form the basis of dwelling (Norberg-Schultz). Dwelling implies being in a centeredness that expands outward toward an understanding of place.

Landscape is foregrounded in the building of temple cosmology and architecture. The elemental experience of horizon is capable of opening up new realms of internal dialogue. Ripe with meanings, the mysteries capturing the elemental experience of the sun’s round movement across the sky and land sea-land travel experience, feed cosmological sensibilities and imaginations that are capable of creating ideas of  “inner immensity” (Bachelard).

What is phenomenology other than a validation of human feeling and sensibility?  Philosophically considered in its spatial sense, phenomenological experience is stimulated by landscape, natural as engagements with horizon, and man-made in the couched roundness of the architectural temple typology situated in the landscape and reflecting the landscape experience. Considering the cosmological imagination of spiritual practitioners long ago or the contemporary visitors of today, “the roundness of being” (Bachelard) is an essence—an essential part of the Ħaġar Qim/Mnajdra site experience. 

Margaret Louderback is currently engaged in a PhD program at the University of Malta focusing on a phenomenological approach to site analysis. She can be contacted at: mlsidewalk@yahoo.com.

References 

Bachelard, Gaston. 1964, The poetics of space, Orion Press, New York.

Doyle, Nancy. Artist profile: Agnes Martin. Internet source, accessed February 2011.

Dussert, Jean-Baptiste (Universite de Paris-Sud XI). The metaphor of the horizon. Internet source, accessed January 2011. 

Grima, Reuben. 2001. An iconography of insularity: A cosmological Interpretation of some images and spaces in the late Neolithic temples of Malta in: Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, vol, 12, Institute of Archaeology, UCL: 48-65.

Norberg-Schultz. 1980. Genius loci: towards a phenomenology of architecture. Academy Editions, London. 

Pallasmaa, Juhani. 2005. The eyes of the skin: architecture of the senses. Wiley, Academy, West Sussex, England.

Torpiano, Alex, "The Protective Shelters over Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Megalithic Temples and the Visitor Centre Project" The Architect, the official journal of the Kamra Tal Periti, issue no. 54, November 2010: 11.

 
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