Under the scorching sun, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi was yesterday given a guided tour of Malta's first crematorium in Tarxien, built nearly 5,000 years ago, aeons before the planning authority came into existence.

No planning application for change of use was required at the time when the Tarxien temples were converted to be used as a cremation cemetery in the early Bronze Age after 2,500 BC.

During a visit to the temple complex ensconced in the middle of Tarxien, Dr Gonzi and his wife Kate, accompanied by Tourism Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco, were shown around the megalithic remains where Heritage Malta will be erecting a tent structure to protect the site from natural deterioration.

The first megalithic temple in Tarxien was built around 3,600 BC and the remains can be found at the eastern boundary of the site. Another three temples were subsequently built side by side between 3,000 and 2,500 BC when prehistoric culture was at its apex. During this period existing buildings were redesigned, extended and embellished with works of art.

However, human remains and urns found at the temple showed that after this period inhabitants started to use the temple complex as a cemetery where bodies were cremated.

The Tarxien temples were uncovered by Sir Temi Zammit between 1915 and 1919 after farmers who tilled their fields in the area informed him that they were constantly striking large blocks of stone.

A large statue of the fat lady was also discovered along with stone etchings and graffiti of ships believed to be the oldest in the world.

The temples, completely surrounded by residential houses, a church and sports facilities, are built in a depression and they flood whenever it rains.

According to Heritage Malta chairman Joe Said, studies are under way to find a solution to the flooding problem as part of the €2 million tent project that is part-financed by the EU.

The project, which is still on the drawing board, will include an elevated walkway from which visitors can have a bird's eye view of the temples.

Mr Said insisted this project was of a higher priority than the construction of an interpretation centre at the same site, announced several years ago.

"Given that the temples were built from soft stone, leaving them exposed is more problematic. Providing shelter is a higher priority than the interpretation centre.

On the contrary, in Ä gantija, because the temple is made of hard stone, there is less wear and an interpretation centre was deemed a higher priority," he said when asked what happened to the plans for the visitors' centre that had to be built in an adjacent field.

The Tarxien temples are visited by around 100,000 people a year.

ksansone@timesofmalta.com

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