A-Ma Temple already existed before the city of Macao came into being. The name “Macao” is believed to derive from the Chinese “A-Ma-Gau” meaning “Bay of A-Ma”, on which A-Ma Temple is located. A-Ma Temple is situated halfway up the western slope of Barra Hill. It consists of the Gate Pavilion, the Memorial Arch, the Prayer Hall, the Hall of Benevolence, the Hall of Guanyin, and Zhengjiao Chanlin (a Buddhist pavilion),each forming a small part of the well-ordered complex which sits in perfect harmony with the natural environment. The variety of pavilions dedicated to the worship of different deities in a single complex make A-Ma Temple an exemplary representation of Chinese culture inspired by Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and multiple folk beliefs.
The pavilions of A-Ma Temple were built at different times, with its present scale acquired in 1828. The Hall of Benevolence is believed to be the earliest structure, dating back to 1488. The Prayer Hall or “The First Palace of the Holy Mountain” was built in 1605 and rebuilt in 1629; archaeological evidence of these dates was recovered on stone inscriptions at the pavilion. The date of construction for the Hall of Guanyin is unknown, but an inscription on a timber plaque at the entrance gives the date of a restoration conducted in the year 1828. Zhengjiao Chanlin was restored in the same year.
Guarded by a pair of stone lions, the Gate Pavilion is a granite structure measuring 4.5 metres wide. Ceramic animal decorations sit on exaggerated upturned roof ridges, forming a very distinctive profile. A succession of pavilions are aligned with the main gate, starting with the Memorial Arch (pilou), which leads to the Prayer Hall located in front of the Hall of Benevolence. The Prayer Hall dedicated to Tian Hou (Goddess of Seafarers) is a granite structure featuring lattice windows and upturned roof ridges. The Hall of Benevolence, also built in granite and brick, is much smaller in scale, incorporating the natural slope of the Barra Hill in its construction. Like the Prayer Hall, the roof is covered with green glazed tiles and decorative roof ridges. Further up on Barra Hill is the Hall of Guanyin, which is a plain brick structure, roofed in the yingshan (flush-gable) tradition. In comparison, the Zhengjiao Chanlin pavilion has more refined architectural details and is more impressive in scale. It consists of a shrine dedicated to Tian Hou and a retreat area with roof fashioned in the yingshan style. The shrine is a four-beam structure housed within high gabled walls that were used to protect against the risk of fire. The front façade features a moon gate, elaborately trimmed in granite and is richly decorated with colourful wall sculptures as well as delicate ornaments under the eaves.