Times of Malta, 18th September 2008, by Fiona Galea Debono –

The construction of the protective shelters over Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra temples yesterday moved from the “concept” stage to a more “tangible” phase, with the delivery of the material from Italy.

A curtain raiser, three large trucks, carrying parts of the shelter, arrived at the World Heritage Site and were unloaded, although no exact date has yet been set for the installation of the tent-like structures.

The steel arms to support them are still on the way, Heritage Malta head curator Kenneth Gambin said.

Mnajdra is set to be the first of the megalithic monuments to get its protective covering and the anchor points for the structure are already in place.

It is not yet clear exactly how long the process would take but Mr Gambin said it could be a matter of days once the project gets off the ground.

Although it was a question of assembling the parts, the procedure could, nonetheless, be complicated.

The installation of the hi-tech shelters is being carried by both locals and technical staff from Canobbio SpA, who will be on site to monitor and advise.

Canobbio, one of the longest-established companies in Europe in the business of tensile membrane structures, had been awarded the tender.

Mr Gambin said the project should be completed before the end of the year, together with the Visitor Centre, where construction work is under way and on schedule.

The December 2008 deadline is, after all, an obligation to be eligible for the EU funding the project is benefitting from.

The membranes that were transported to the site yesterday are a highly-resistant fabric, known as PFTE, which can withstand any weather conditions and usage, while still letting the light through. They should have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years. The hi-tech material has already been tried and tested worldwide for a variety of situations and locations, including covering stadiums.

With regard to the impact on visitors during the procedure, Mr Gambin said the site is still accessible but may be closed temporarily for health and safety reasons when the shelters are being erected. The closures, however, would be kept to a minimum, he said.

The shelters are not something Heritage Malta decided to do on a whim: “There was no way out of it; it was something we had to do for the sake of the temples,” Mr Gambin explained.

Their purpose is to protect the megaliths from the elements in the best way available to date while research continues on alternative and less visually-intrusive ways to conserve them. They have been designed as a temporary measure, which is totally reversible and would have minimal impact on the ground.

Since the temples were dug up, they have been vulnerable to the elements, particularly due to their exposed coastal location and because they are mostly built from soft globigerina limestone. Rain, which washes away the soil that was used to fill the gaps between the stones, is another deteriorating factor.

For the head curator, it is a case of “starting to see the light at the end of a six-year-long tunnel. But it is not over yet. It will be over when it is over!”

The project dates back to 2002, when the application was first submitted. However, the decision to install the shelters goes back even further, to 2000, following an intensive study by a team of experts on the problems that threaten these monuments.

While the fundamental concept of the shelters remained unchanged since the international competition in 2004, the design had evolved slightly to have less of a visual impact.

It may take the public a while to chew on the fact that the temples will be roofed over. Reuben Grima, senior curator for World Heritage Sites, had told The Times at the onset of the project that the choice was between presenting the next generations with their somewhat reduced version or taking on the responsibility and challenge of preserving them for the future so they could be enjoyed.