Towns and Villages in Malta and Gozo

A four-part series
By Charles Fiott
Published by the Conventual Franciscans of Rabat (Religjon u Hajja), Malta - 1994
(Excerpts)
Books 1-2-3-4


- Book 1: The Twin Harbour Area
- Book 2: The South
1. Luqa 2. Santa Lucija 3. Tarxien 4. Fgura 5. Xghajra 6. Zabbar 7. Wied il-Ghajn 8. Zejtun 9. Marsaxlokk
10. Birzebbuga 11. Ghaxaq 12. Gudja 13. Kirkop 14. Safi 15. Zurrieq 16. Qrendi 17. Mqabba 18. Siggiewi
19. Dingli 20. Zebbug 21. Qormi

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Book 3: The North
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Book 4: Gozo



1. LUQA

(...) Luqa is also very close to the Mediterranean, a fact easily forgotten in these days of three-storey buildings and industrial estates. But the sea must have been a common sight when the motto Oras Prospicio (I look over the sea) was originated. The village's coat of arms is also connected with the waters. It displays the cross of St. Andrew, patron saint of fishermen. (...)

The parish church of St. Andrew dominates the village square. Started in 1634, the year Luqa was declared a parish, it was built around an older one dedicated to the same saint. This Doric masterpiece by Tumas Dingli houses several works of art, among them the titular painting by Mattia Preti (1687).

The devotion to St.Andrew was enhanced in 1715 when a relic of the saint was brought from Italy to be taken out in the annual procession. In 1777 band music was added to the procession and in 1781 the relic was replaced by a statue of St. Andrew holding a diagonal cross, symbol of his martyrdom. Thus the annual procession slowly developed into the crowd-pleasing festa that is so popular today. (...)

2. SANTA LUCIJA

(...) It was in the mid-fifties when the controversial decision was made to recycle some of the best farmland in the southern plains into a housing estate. And the opportunities that were lost were not just agrarian. As is almost inevitable in archaeologically rich Malta, the digging reached into prehistory, striking at unprotected tombs. Only in 1995, much to the credit of the newly created local council, were steps taken to restore a surviving tomb. Also levelled without much ado was Fort St. James. (...)

The reason for the location of the new town was its proximity to the dockyard area, the largest employment centre of Malta. It was designed to take in those willing to move a few miles away from the congested harbour area and from their families. In traditional Malta, where the family structure is so closely knit to the village of birth, it was an experiment with less than a fifty-fifty chance of succeeding.

But succeed it did, with one neighbourhood following another. What started out as a little section of Tarxien quickly became a town on its own and received its official name in 1961, just one year after the first residents moved in. (...)

3. TARXIEN

(...) One of about two dozen known prehistoric temple sites on the islands, the Tarxien Temples give rise to what some archaeologists call the Tarxien Phase, a copper age culture which lasted 500-800 years and ended around 2500 BC.

Compared with other temple sites in Malta and Gozo, this one is neither very large nor very old. But while others regale us with two or even three temples, Tarxien is the only one with four. Besides, the size of the stone idols and the complexity of the decorative motifs suggest that Tarxien (tar-shin) was the centre of Maltese civilization at the time...

... Some four hundred years after the building of the last temple, a bronze age culture identified as Tarxien Cemetery (2300-1450 BC) arrived on the site. This culture added decorations such as shark teeth and Noah's ark shells.

The Cemetery People cremated their dead here and used flint knives to sacrifice goats, pigs, and sheep. (...)

...Tarxien continued to be an important village throughout the Roman period, as evidenced by the several Roman tombs and wells that have been discovered. The Romans even used the Tarxien Temples, where at least one wall and one cistern survive within the much older sanctuary. But after that the temples went into a long hibernation which lasted till 1913, when a farmer's plough picked on them. (...)

4. FGURA

On the surface Fgura seems to be a brand new town. Established only in the late sixties, after being made a parish in 1965, it is assembled primarily with the excess population of surrounding towns. Its northern borders are defined by the Kottonera Lines, which were built to protect the three cities (Birgu, Bormla and Isla) and which now limit their growth. On the other fronts, Fgura blends more freely with Zabbar (east), Rahal Gdid (west), and Tarxien (south). With the exception of Zabbar, Fgura's population has already exceeded that of every town around it. (...)

But Fgura is as ancient as it is new. With its neighbours, it shared a curious prehistoric age. Ptolemy wrote of a 5th century BC town called Chersonesos. The Greek name means "peninsula" and the best guess for the location of this town is somewhere in the Kottonera area. Burial within city limits was not practised, hence the prehistoric tombs found at Ghajn Dwieli in northern Rahal Gdid and tal-Liedna in Fgura.

A corruption of figura (image), the town's name reminds one of a revered niche that was turned into a small church in 1790 (rebuilt 1844). On July 10, 1940, exactly a month after Italy declared war and started raiding Malta, the church was hit. An Ecce Homo statue was destroyed, bar the head, which was left peeking out of a hole caused by a shrapnel. To passers-by there could be only one meaning for the image of Jesus gazing at the sky: Our Lord himself was imploring peace from heaven. (...)

5. XGHAJRA

(...) The rapid development is encroaching upon a rugged and scenic shoreline with engaging names such as Bajja tan-Nisa (Bay of Women) and Bajja tal-Qassisin (Bay of Priests). Such names hint at a certain privacy which this place provided prior to the recent influx of residents. In the beginning of the 20th century this shoreline began to attract people seeking a quiet villegjatura (second home), but any real development had to wait out World War II.

The coast is lined intermittently with salt pans. These rock-hewn cisterns designed to trap seawater are a traditional feature of the Maltese coastline. Their shallowness allows the water to evaporate quickly under the strong Maltese sun, leaving the salt for harvest.

Despite its ruggedness, Xghajra had to be protected from invasion just like any other coastal area. In 1620, towards the end of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt's rule (1601-1622), a tower was built on the design of Vittorio Cassar (1550 - 1607). It was named, in Italian, for the patron saint of Zabbar - Forte Santa Maria delle Grazie. Its battery, known in short as tal-Grazzja, is still extant. At one time, the coast was fortified with entrenchments all the way to the Grand Harbour.

6. ZABBAR

Zabbarija t-tut ! (Mulberries from Zabbar!). The familiar vendor cry attests to the high quality of Zabbar's agricultural products. (...)

(...) Haz-Zabbar is a varied lot. The western part is congestedly urban and borders on the Kottonera ramparts, which include the magnificent Zabbar Gate. Other buildings of interest include an old (1529) tower in Triq Santa Marija, a windmill tower in Triq Bajada, and Bishop Labini's villa in Triq San Guzepp. This villa served as hospital during the French blockade (1798-1800).

The eastern half retains an idyllic village charm with thick hitan tas-sejjieh (rubble walls) and prickly pear cacti to protect the fields from the wind. Its curiosities vary from prehistoric megaliths to i c- cirku (The Circle), a karstic depression resembling a Roman amphiteathre.

Rural Zabbar extends to a coast characterized by fortifications built over a 300-year period. Although De Redin's tower, one of 13 built around the Maltese shoreline in the middle of the 17th century, is demolished, another survives. This has various names - Mwiegel (Cisterns) for the roughly hewn salt pans nearby, ta' Triq il-Wiesgha (Wide Road) for the open coastal stretch it was built to defend, and ta' Leonardu, a name we find with consistency in Zabbar. The tower is in the company of pre-World War II structures - pillboxes and a coastal searchlight post - as well as a fort which the British built in 1879.

The fort, again named St. Leonard (San Anard), perpetuates a devotion to the saint who used to be called upon in times of piracy. Partial credit goes to Leonardu Sammut, a cleric responsible for the building of the coastal tower as well as a church to his namesake (1656). This is adjoined by a villa which is erroneously referred to as il-Kunvent (Religious House) and which has been used on occasion by the film industry based in nearby Kalkara. (...)

(...) This devotion, which predates the Knights, is rooted in the rites of atonement. With the introduction of carnival, the aspect of repentance gathered strength. Ash Wednesday, which follows the three days of folly, became the day when people fulfilled their vows. Pilgrimages from all over the country arrived at Zabbar with offerings of thanksgiving for favours (graces) acquired through Our Lady's intercession. At times, the walls of the church were covered with these ex-votos. As Ash Wednesday became a regular working day for more and more people, pilgrimages started to occur more often on the following Sunday, which is the first Sunday in Lent. Big crowds earned this day the name Hadd in-Nies (People's Sunday). This pilgrimage is held to this day. (...)

7. W I E D I L - G H A J N

(...) We meet by the 18th century fish ponds and walk south along Triq tal-Gardiel. In a few minutes we come to a crossroads. Here we have three choices. The road west leads to 17th century structures - the churches of San Gejtan (1657) and Sant'Antnin (1675) and fortifications such as tal-Buttar Tower and the recently restored Mamo Fort. Cross-shaped, this is surrounded by a ditch hewn out of solid rock.

The road south brings into full view the beautiful St. Thomas Bay, which includes a small bathing spot. On the way we pass by tall and narrow tal-Mozz (rhymes with "watts"). This is another 17th century tower (it bears the inscription Die 22 Mensis Octobris 1628 ).

The last choice is a trek down the sad side of progress. Nadur Street is now an easy jog since an old tower known as ta' Gomu ta' Gardiel (soft G for Gomu, hard one for Gardiel), was torn down. Just before we get to Triq il-Menhir, there used to be a 9-foot menhir (prehistoric monumental stone). But this was knocked down and then removed. Finally there is Triq il-Katakombi, without the catacomb. The old Roman tomb is now under the foundation of modern houses.

We are fast approaching Fort St. Thomas, a massive landmark built by Vittorio Cassar on commission by Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt in 1616, two years after a Turkish onslaught. The building of the fort turned this heretofore undefended district into a showcase of strength. The 17-foot thick walls, the eight brazen cannon, and the forbidding moat proved too strong for the Ottomans, who never set foot on Marsaskala again. The fort was used only once in 1798, when the Maltese tried to fend off the French. (...)

8. ZEJTUN

(...) Zejtun is unofficially divided into two main sections known as ir-Rahal ta' Fuq (Upper Village) and ir-Rahal t' Isfel (Lower Village). The descriptions refer to altitude, not geographic location (the upper portion is in the south). Their historic names are Hal Bizbud (or Bisbut) and Bisqallin, respectively. Another village, Hal Gwann, seems to have been squeezed out of existence. The titular painting of Hal Gwann's extinct church, which was dedicated to the Beheading of St. John, survives at the Parish Church Museum. (...)

Zejtun is a different kind of town. For starters, it is hardly a town at all. Despite a large population and several urban amenities, Zejtun sticks to a village way of life. But it's more than the rural aspect that sets Zejtun apart. Superstitious accounts make iz-zwieten even physically different, like having flat feet.

Less peculiar is the theory that they resisted Christianity in the 1st century AD, while under Roman rule. Apparently St. Paul had better luck converting their distant countrymen across the archipelago. Remains of Zejtun's Roman past include a villa within the limits of Carlo Diacono School and a cistern in a private residence a few hundred feet to the north.

Zejtun's dialect is also quite distinctive. A good example is the word mano a or manucca (kite), from the Italian words mano (hand) and uccello (bird). Elsewhere, it is called tajra (bird) or hamiema (pigeon); only at Zejtun is it a bird in the hand! Another interesting word, though not restricted to Zejtun, is culqana, a traditional black robe with a stiff hood that is otherwise known as faldetta or ghonnella. Prior to World War II, this was quite common in Zejtun and other localities. (...)

(...) One of the major changes of the late 17th and early 18th centuries was the advent of windmills, whose lofty sails altered the skyscape and a way of life.

At Zejtun, though, the mill resembled the iron-spiked wheel to which St Catherine was tied before she was beheaded. Out of respect for their saint, Zejtun women refrained from taking their grain to the mill on St Catherine's day. It is said that a woman who refused to follow this tradition was killed by a splinter from the rotating wheel. (...)

(...)Towards the end of the 18th century, villages vied for township status.

Thrilled with the presence of Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch at St. Catherine's festa, village elders requested this symbolic tribute citing some engaging arguments. The village had a population of 6,000, they said (an exaggeration), its militia unit was under the command of a colonel (rather than a captain), and it had a flourishing commerce. His eminence was convinced. Only trouble was he had already conferred the titles Città Hompesch (to Zabbar) and Città Ferdinand (to Siggiewi) and was running out of names. So he called Zejtun Città Bilandt (now spelled Beland), after his mother's lineage. (...)  

9. MARSAXLOKK

Numerous incisions relating to the Phoenician goddess Astarte (Axtart) have been found in a site dating to the 7th or 8th century BC. Ptolemy wrote of a prehistoric temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Hera. Orator Cicero accused Caius Verres, Roman governor of Malta, of plundering a sanctuary of goddess Juno. And ruins of a Byzantine church dedicated to the Virgin Mary were discovered in 1966.

These four diverse sites have something in common: they are but one. Astarte, Hera, Juno, and the Virgin Mary, equivalents of one another, have taken turns presiding over tas-Silg before succumbing to the Arabs in the 9th century. At this site, where large amounts of Greek and Byzantine pottery have been collected, brothers Abdosir and Osirxamar offered cippi (incense-burning pillars) to Melqart, the Phoenician equivalent of Hercules. Two such cippi, with inscriptions in Phoenician and Greek, were discovered in 1697. Grand Master De Rohan donated one to King Louis XVI of France. This is now at the Louvre. The other can be seen in the Phoenician section of the National Archaeological Museum in Valletta. (...)

(...) Nobility and churches go hand in hand in Marsaxlokk. Il-Madonna tas-Silg, originally built around 1650, was reconstructed in 1832-3 thanks to a donation by Marchioness Elizabeth (Bettina) Muscat Cassia Dorell, who also paid for the tower at Xrob l-Ghagin. The Testaferrata family of nobles built Palazzo Marnisi in 1650 and St. Dominic's chapel in 1683. Then in 1875 they enlarged St. Peter's Chapel, originally designed by Lorenzo Gafà in 1682, so they could get buried in it. In 1876, a donation by noblewoman Margerita dei Conti Manduca helped build the Sacred Heart Chapel, now no longer in use, within the pink Torre Kavallerizza (1613), a tower that the Knights of Malta built for their horses. (...)

(...) The Turks were not the first to make use of Marsaxlokk Harbour. Nor the last. Presidents Bush and Gorbachev chose this gaping mouth of the fish-shaped island to dump the cold war in 1989. Centuries before the birth of Christ, the Phoenicians had also anchored their ships in this cliff-ringed bay which they called "Harbour of Melqart". The term survives as Marsaxlokk's nickname, Portus Herculis. (...)

(...) Seafaring people these xlukkajri are, worthy of their ancient predecessors. They are a hardy stock of fishermen who ply the harbour and the open sea in traditional boats still displaying the eye of the Phoenician god Osiris. There are some 200 full-time fishermen and several part-time ones, more than in any other Maltese village. Groupers, squid, and other delightful catches can be savoured at authentic restaurants along the wharf or bought fresh. Vendors yell ghadhom telghin mill-bahar (straight off the sea) and il-lampuki haj (the fish are alive), and sometimes they are right. Market day is Sunday, when the aroma of the mqaret (date-filled fried pastries) also fills the air. The unforgettable scene may also include open-air bingos and vendors selling fishnet mesh bags near a historic covered spring known as Ghajn tal-Hasselin (Washers' Spring). The spring's loggia, was installed in 1876 at the cost of 20 English pounds.

10. BIRZEBBUGA

(...) The cave is located along Wied Dalam which, a full-fledged river at the time, must have washed the fossils into the cave. The animals that roamed Malta included hippopotamuses and sabre-toothed tigers, elephants that grew to a height of only three feet and giant swans that may have looked those elephants in the eye. Some of the deposits are still in the cave, together with the stalactites and stalagmites. (...)

In modern Maltese, dalam means "to get dark" and one might be tempted to translate Ghar Dalam as "Cave of Darkness". But then would Wied Dalam be "River of Darkness"? No. The darkness of the cave is not caused by its menacing roof but by the mysteries of history. The cave, in which people are known to have lived, was thought to contain secrets long before the 20th century discovery of the fossils. And the best secret may be the name itself, which in Semitic idiom stands for "elephant"...

...Perhaps due to these fortifications, Birzebbuga itself survived the period of the Knights with very few incidents. When the age of piracy ebbed on Birzebbuga's placid horizon, the scenic coastline became a cottage resort.This villegjatura business is still healthy today. The Maltese just love a second house, even though their main home may be only a ten-minute drive from the nearest beach. The meticulous Maltese homemaker, who takes pride in the shining floors of her house in the town, concedes sand creeping into the living room of her villegjatura (summer house) with resignation. But she goes back to town every few days to clean her immaculate primary house.The city folk brought much with them to Birzebbuga, not least their churches. One of the first churches of modern Birzebbuga was built at the behest of a vacationing priest from nearby Zurrieq in 1822. Rebuilt and enlarged 40 years later, il-Kuncizzjoni (Immaculate Conception) still serves the people of Benghisa.

...Then came the people of Bormla. Canon Albanese raised enough money to build the church of the Holy Family in 1865, a cruciform. Years later, Canon Penza found out that it wasn't easy to say mass in someone else's church. So, between 1907 and 1909, he converted three empty stables into a church dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. This became the seat of the newly formed parish..

11. GHAXAQ

The year was 1806. Land assessor Mikelang Zammit was riding his karozzella (stagecoach) along a road where he had intended to build a religious niche. As he passed the planned spot, his coach overturned. He escaped with a few bruises and a cue - proceeding to build not one, but two niches. He dedicated them to Saint Veronica and Christ the Redeemer. A cross marks the site and an 1859 church known as ta' Santu Kristu, or Knisja tar-Redentur, stands across the street.Whether the details of this account are exact is not the point. (...)

(...) As festa day approaches, everybody gets into the spirit. The man of the house paints the front door. The lady replaces the curtains. No detail can be overlooked. Spiritually a tridu (three days), novena (nine days) or, as is the case in Ghaxaq, a kwindicina (fifteen days) of prayer is conducted. Many go to confession. Finally, the big occasion. For the main festa (St. Mary), this is at lease a three-day affair starting with band marches and ending with the procession of the titular statue. The secondary festa used to be limited to two days, not for any lack of energy or volition but by church dictate. Restrictions on outside festivities were lifted in 1975. Festa eve is boisterous, with competing factions irking for a fray, and ends with a superb show of ground fireworks. Festa day festivities start with a high mass, when the panegyrics are as fiery as the petards, the bells as loud as the band marches. Guests from other villages arrive to savour the atmosphere created by the decorations, the enthusiasm, and two or more bands playing within yards of each other.. They watch the procession with Marjanu Gerada's statue (1808), considered the most beautiful among the many Maltese titular statues of the Assumption. They go back with packages of qubbajt (nougat) after witnessing the final ritual - the kaxxa infernali (literally "infernal box"), a long string of fireworks. (...)

12. GUDJA

One of the oldest villages and parishes in the Maltese Islands, Gudja (Goo-d'ya) derives its name from an Arabic word meaning "prominent" or "superior". Its motto is Pluribus Parens (Mother of Many Children). The children are the villages of Kirkop, Luqa, Mqabba, Safi, and Tarxien. At one time, all of these formed part of the parish of Gudja, whose jurisdiction extended to the Grand Harbour. With further spin-off parishes from these "children", Gudja can now be considered a grandmother. (...)

(...) By this time, the feared Turkish corsairs were striking at undefended villages with impunity, and Birmiftuh fell prey on more than one occasion. Eager to protect the church's treasures, the villagers started "saving" these riches by burying them in the ground. They are still believed to be there!

On January 26, 1663, the tabernacle was desecrated. This mortification brought both Bishop Balaguer and Grand Master Cotoner to the spot. A permanent solution was called for, and it was decided to build a new church in a safer area 500 metres east. The lovely church of Birmiftuh was sadly abandoned. Today Birmiftuh is but a ghost village. All that's left besides the church are the stone ruins of a militia cross and a few plough-and-sickle fields interrupted by carob trees and rubble walls. But lack of buildings makes the medieval church even more alluring. (...)

(...) Most of the neighbouring parishes organize two annual festi. But this is a "superior village" and therefore it has three (or four, if we include the satellite churches). All of them honour the Virgin Mary. Both bands participate in the main festa of the Assumption, which is celebrated on August 15, while each organizes one of its own. St. Mary's Band Club, also known as La Stella, is in charge of Our Lady of the Rosary in October while Our Lady of Consolation Band Club, also known as tac -Cintura (The Sash), takes care of their namesake's festa in September. The red and silver banner of the village is proudly displayed at all events. (...)

13. KIRKOP

(...) A family name first recorded in 1397, Kirkop (rhymes with chop) is a model of durability. Of its medieval foundations, it retains a militia stone cross known locally as salib tal-bandu (a cross mounted on steps from where official edicts were made). Of its more primal times, it saves a menhir called simply is-Salib, for even this prehistoric milestone is dominated by a cross. Of the few menhirs that still stand in Malta, this is the only Christianized one, and it is very dear to the hearts of il-koppin. Proposed construction in its vicinity in 1994 created quite a stir between the local council and the central government. (...)

(...) How does a little village like Kirkop maintain two annual festi? How can a closely knit community remain divided, supporters of one side sometimes at odds with those of the other, parents opposing marriages that cut across rival factions? It all began in 1876, when Joseph Barbara was installed as parish priest.

St. Leonard was then, as he is now, the patron saint of Kirkop and a festa was duly celebrated in his honour. Indeed St. Leonard Society, now a band club, had been in existence since 1855. In 1877 a titular statue was executed in papier-mache by well-known statuary Karlu Darmanin. Now retired to the sacristy, this statue was taken out in procession every year until it was replaced by a wooden one in 1949.

No doubt, Father Joe shared his constituents' devotion for San Anard. But he also showed great a zeal toward his namesake, St. Joseph, who in 1879 was accorded the title "Patron of the Universal Church". He instituted a confraternity for his patron saint, ordered a statue of St. Joseph from France, and insisted on a secondary festa in honour of the putative father of Jesus. Little did he know that these actions would split the village. (...)

14. SAFI

(...) It's no secret the people of Hal Safi think very highly of their village. The very name means "pure", the motto sine macula (without blemish). (...)

(...) Boundaries were designed in a way to help parish priests make a living from tithes and first fruits. If the village seceded, il-halsafin would still be obliged to provide Birmiftuh's priest with such fees for as long as he lived. "First fruits" were valued at around two rbajja (four cents) per family per year as a base fee, to which specific service charges were added. Baptism cost 3 cents. Marriage, a bottle of wine and a flat loaf of bread.(...)

(...) So it came to pass that as of 1598 Safi became Malta's smallest parish. It was probably also the poorest. The church of St. Paul was poor, because it lacked all sorts of amenities. The parish priest was poor, because the tithes were going to Kirkop. And the people were poor, because they had to foot all the bills. In 1618 they were asked to buy books for the parish priest because he was too poor to pay for them. (...)

(...) Safi is situated in the middle of a group of small villages clustered around the airport. These communities tend to be fiercely competitive, with rival inter-parish band clubs and festi. Safi is an exception. Throughout the last 500 years, it has had only one patron saint. Its pride remains steadfast in the titular painting of St. Paul by Stefano Erardi and the titular statue which Xandru Farrugia molded in 1840. Although, like other villages, Safi organizes several religious activities throughout the year, it has only one main event (last Sunday of August). It's the culmination of the 300-year-old village festa. Safi's only festa. By maintaining its unity, Safi gives another example of its purity.

15. ZURRIEQ

(...) Medieval churches were often built in pairs. Such is the case of Santa Marija Ta' Bubaqra, which replaced two adjacent churches circa 1490. (...) Another interesting church at Bubaqra is located within St. Leo Cemetery. This church was already an old one in 1575, when Monsignor Dusina ordered its restoration. A triptych (set of three paintings) that was admired at St. Leo for several centuries (now moved to the parish church) is said to have been brought to Bubaqra on Dusina's orders from a fishermen's church on the lonely islet of Filfla, which is clearly visible from Bubaqra's open farms. (...)

(...) Zurrieq preserves landmarks from all major epochs of Malta's chequered history. The one that is best portrayed is the medieval era. And the district that does it best is the abandoned casale of Hal Millieri. Several casali dotted the Maltese countryside in the middle ages. Little churches, again in twosomes, bound together the lives of farming families. Most of these casali have disappeared or changed drastically. Hal Millieri remains, guardian of an ancient life.

No ruined palaces or romantic legends haunt the now empty hamlet. What we have is a large number of ancient cisterns and several examples of medieval architecture and art. The cisterns are a remarkable network of a bygone irrigation system. One of them is an oval cut and has an impressive stone arch. The farmhouses and field huts preserve fine examples of stone carvings, corbelled roofs, and torba (a cement mixture used for flooring and ceilings). There is a perfect example of a medieval stone cross pillar (although the cross itself is a modern replacement). The field walls are fine specimens of the Maltese hitan tas-sejjieh (rubble walls), whose main purpose is to prevent soil erosion. A better picture of a medieval village one just cannot compose. (...)

(...) Mattia Preti came from Taverna, in Calabria, Italy, and was affectionately known as il calabrese. He lived in Zurrieq during the plague of 1676.(...)

(...) Perhaps the most unusual of Zurrieq's heroes was Dr. Joseph Callus, one of Malta's first physicians born sometime between 1510 and 1515. In a time when freedom meant little more than a dubious right to live, Callus chose to die for it. In a signed petition to King Philip II of Spain, he addressed the lack of political freedom under the Knights. For this "crime", he was hanged. But his sacrifice inspired many generations and in 1878 he became the subject of a short Italian novel titled Un Martire (A Martyr). (...)

16. QRENDI

(...) The isle of Filfla has been claimed by Ulysses, Maltese fishermen, and British gunners.Ulysses was the first mortal, though hardly a mortal was he, to seek refuge on the islet of Filfla. When the weary hero of Homer's Odyssey spotted the southernmost isle of the Maltese archipelago, he thought he was seeing a boat. Realizing it was instead an inhospitable rock, he sailed on to Gozo...

(...) Galapagos of the Maltese archipelago, Filfla provides a habitat for some unusual creatures. We begin with the tale of two tails. Falsely believed to have a double tail, the endemic dark green lizard known as gremxula ta' Filfla has commanded interest for centuries. More interesting is Filfla's winged life, particularly the curious-looking Cory's Shearwater (ciefa ). This waterproofed bird seems ill at ease on land. It labours hard just to walk, for its legs are set too far back. Once it takes flight, however, this "handicap" becomes a powerful flying machine. Other inhabitants of Filfla are the herring gull (gawwija prima ) and storm petrel (kangu ta' Filfla ), whose 20,000-strong colony may be the largest in the Mediterranean. (...)

(...) The last wild sanctuary of ta' l-gharghar (sandarac gum), Malta's national tree, il-Maqluba is a dissolution pocket caused by the collapse of an underground cavern. An earthquake or a storm, which may have prompted the collapse, occurred in the 14th century. (...)

(...) November 24 is the eve of the feast of St. Catherine, whose widespread allegiance in the southern villages dates to the time when Malta formed part of the Eastern Church. The story must have passed through 10 or 12 generations to little Gian Francesco: the Lord sent a big tempest on St. Catherine's eve to destroy the wicked village. (...)

(...) These two sets of temples are as similar as they are different. Hagar Qim , or "Stones of Worship", is built mainly of globigerina limestone, the softer of the two kinds of limestone found on the island and the type more prevalent in the surrounding quarries. The seaward side has been carved into fantastic shape by the salty Mediterranean wind. One of these stones of worship is 7 metres high, the largest in all Maltese temples. The once-roofed, five-apsed set of temples with pedestalled altars and relief figures has yielded important statuettes to the Archaeological Museum in Valletta. These include small "fat ladies" and the so-called "Venus of Malta". (...)

(...) Il-Hnejja is the most famous cave in Malta under the name Blue Grotto, given to it by British military personnel who found it similar to the Grotta Azzurra at the Isle of Capri. Easily navigable by local boats, the waters of the grotto display an array of colours that no artist can match, especially when early morning sun rays peep through the main opening. (...)

17. MQABBA

If the land around Mqabba seems barren and stripped, it is because this village is situated in the heart of the soft limestone quarry area. Geologically, Malta can be divided in two. The western half is an expanse of a hard variety of limestone called tal-qawwi, or coralline. Because it's so hard, coralline limestone was widely used in the construction of the fortifications. Most of the eastern area consists of the much softer globigerina type. Known as tal-franka, this material is easier to handle and more often used in the building industry today. Mqabba has more than a quarter of the nation's quarries, and activity is visible along its main approach on both sides of Triq il-Belt Valletta. (...)

(...) The character of the villagers, a strong-willed and highly competitive community, began to manifest itself in the 16th century. In 1575 the village had only 30 families and, together with several nearby villages, formed part of the parish of Bir Miftuh, two miles east. Unhappy with the situation, l-imqabbin clamoured for parish status. In 1592 Bishop Gargallo established a new parish consisting of Mqabba, Kirkop and Safi, but he chose Kirkop to run it. This, of course, failed to appease the people of Mqabba. (...) In 1598 Mqabba became one of the smallest parishes.(...)

(...) The next big obstacle for Mqabba was World War II. Situated on the fringes of the airport, Mqabba could not escape the onslaught of enemy bombs. 19 villagers lost their lives and the church was badly damaged. Many activities had to be interrupted. But no sooner were the enemy planes recalled than the mqabbin were back at work in their fields and quarries with their exemplary resolve and competitiveness.(...)

18. SIGGIEWI

(...) The church overseas Misrah San Nikola, the focal point of the village. This is the "Siggywiggy" of British tourists, the perfect postcard. Dominated by a huge statue of the patron saint, the village square brims with devotional and recreational sites - the Holy Family Oratory (1913) and San Nikola Band Club west of the church, Siggiewi Festival Brass Band on the east, St. Mary Church (1611 and 1742) on one side of the misrah, St. John the Beheaded (1730) on the other. (...)

(...) Buskett (Little Forest) was developed by the Knights, who were ever searching for places to practice their hunting bents. Grand Master de la Valette, who successfully led the knights and Maltese to victory in the Great Siege of 1565, died not of scars on the battlefront but here at peaceful Buskett through overexertion in his favourite sport of falconry. And Grand Master Hughes Loubenx de Verdalle "surrendered all cares", as a Latin inscription reads, in the summer castle that overlooks the gardens.(...)

(...) Guests probably aren't told that the castle is haunted by the Blue Lady. As usual with Maltese legends, there is more than one version. The Blue Lady could have been one of de Verdalle's maids who refused to submit to punishment. Or it could be a woman who had been forcibly abducted and refused to be raped. Or Grand Master de Rohan's niece Cecile who, not bearing to see her fiancé tortured by French soldiers demanding a non-existent treasure, borrowed a soldier's sword and killed her fiancéex to end his misery. Then - and the ending is the same for all versions - she threw herself out of a window into the moat. (...)

(...) Ghar il-Kbir (The Great Cave) has collapsed. Its remaining cavities now used by sheep and goats, it resembles a Christmas crib and gives no indication that back in 1637 it housed 117 people. The last inhabitants of Ghar il-Kbir were relocated against their wishes in 1835. (...)

(...) This is one of the prettiest parts of the country. To the north are the trees and water mills of Buskett's evergreen plateau, which leads to the grand castle. To the east is ta' l-Gholja (Hill), a lofty expanse crowned by a 52-foot cross. To the west are the nature-chiselled Dingli Cliffs, a favourite scenic spot. To the south is the hanging hamlet of Fawwara. (...)

19. DINGLI

(...) The story of Dingli is one of two twins named Tartarni and Dinkili. Hal Tartarni (Village of Tartars) used to be the more prominent one. In fact it was the seat of one of the earliest parishes in Malta. This honour was deserved. A militia list compiled in 1419-20 shows 40 enlisted men. This meant a population of nearly 200, making it one of the largest communities on the islands. Three of the men had the name Dinkili.

(...) The name that stuck, Dingli, is also a Maltese family name. One interpretation would have one believe that it was Sir Thomas Dingley (same pronunciation) who lent his name to the village. Sir Dingley was a member of the English Langue at the time that Henry VIII confiscated the rental income of the English knights. The poor knight asked the Order for some land at Dingli, and he got it. (...)

(...) The titular statue, a work of Anton Busuttil dating from 1861, portrays the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven. Several other localities in Malta and Gozo have similar statues, but Dingli seems to have an authenticity edge, even if it is one of the last villages to hold its annual festa (can be as late as August 23). Capping 17 days of preparation - a kwindicina (15 days of prayer), festa eve and festa day - the dinglin congregate on the village square to witness the appearance of the statue being carried out of the church. The Virgin's right arm reaches out to heaven from Malta's loftiest village. (...)

(...) On July 22 a mass is said on the steps of St. Mary Magdalene as the sun dips into the sea. At the lull of day the horizon fades, the lonely isle blackens, and the shimmering sea becomes a cradle for the setting sun. (...)

20. ZEBBUG

(...) Zebbug claims more heroes and patriots than any other town or village with the exception of Valletta. (...)

(...) Many of the heroes are household names. Internationally acclaimed sculptor Antonio Sciortino (1883-1947), who gave us the Christ the King, is one. Famous painter Lazzaro Pisani (1854-1932) is another. The first national poet and author of the national anthem, Dun Karm Psaila, is yet another zebbugi, as are author/philologist Mikiel Anton Vassalli (1764-1829) and composer/conductor Nicolo Isouard (1775-1818). Mikiel Xerri and Francis Xavier Caruana are heroic priests who played a big part in the anti-French uprising of 1798. Xerri, better remembered as Dun Mikiel, was executed by a French military tribunal in 1799 at the age of 60. Caruana (1759-1847) survived the brief French occupation and became one of the better known bishops. (...)

(...) In the 18th century, the outlying villages of Malta vied to have each new grand master in their midst, hopefully to bestow city status to their localities. Zebbug leaders warmed up to Grand Master De Rohan. In their request they stated that Zebbug had the wealthiest people of Malta, the healthiest air, and abundant building material. They even promised that, if Zebbug became a city, they would erect two gateways. Could the grand master turn down such a request? (...)

(...) So in 1777 Zebbug became Città de Rohan, but it has yet to give up its 18th century architecture or its quintessential village charm. Distinctive wrought-iron windows, intricate balconies and arch-framed courtyards endure.Also surviving are three windmill towers, whose sails were so distinctive of the 18th century airscape. 17th and 18th century houses and palazzi still grace the streets of Zebbug. De Rohan Arch - only one was built to commemorate the new city status - is the entrance not to some belated city paradigm but to a dainty village-like town that gives one the feeling the 18th century isn't over yet. (...)

21. QORMI

Dealings with the people of Qormi should be conducted in the morning. Il-qriema are said to be reliable till noon only - sa nofs in-nhar irgiel ! After lunch, their main meal, they purportedly drink a long glass of wine and take an equally long nap.

This remark invites much conjecture and humour. Blame has even been placed on buildings blocking the sun from reaching the sundial on the side of St. George Parish Church in the afternoon hours, making the time-piece reliable in the morning only.

More appropriately, the remark reflects the fact that many qriema (also called qormin ) start their day very early and work very hard. This is particularly true of bakers. Before the Order of St.John built its own bakery in Valletta, it was Qormi that supplied the bread. At that time the village thrived on its imtiehen tal-miexi (mule-driven flour mills) and was known as Casal Fornaro or Hal Fornaro, i.e. "Baker Village". (A windmill tower survives from a later period.) (...)

(...) Other traditional occupations have to do with Qormi's location. Being so close to the horse race track at Marsa, it is no surprise that there are several blacksmiths and carriage makers. The only sight that beats the distinctive sulkies in action at the Marsa is the distinctive sulkies being assembled at Qormi. But the equestrian bond goes back to times much prior. In 1419, Qormi's 102-strong militia (110 with the lost village of Hal Kaprat) included 15 horsemen, quite a number in those times. To this day many qriema are horse owners.

Qormi also provides many port workers, such as stevedores. The proximity to the harbour, less than a mile away, is the primary reason. But, again, there is more to it than that. In older times Qormi was actually a port town, the waters of the Grand Harbour extending so much further inland that Pinto's Loggia (1772), now a mile from the Harbour, was erected as a waterfront pavilion. Through the 15th century Qormi was the only harbour town besides Birgu and its limits included the entire Xiberras (Xebb ir-Ras) promontory, on which Valletta and Furjana now stand. Even at today's reduced boundaries, Qormi would still be a port town had the Grand Harbour waters not receded. (...)

... One of the biggest draws is the Good Friday pageant at the parish of St. George. Dating from at least 1764, it features actors dressed in first century Jewish garb and artistic statues detailing the passion and death of Christ. There are traditionally eight statues. In 1908, Qormi was the first to introduce a ninth, portraying the betrayal of Judas. Zejtun tried to catch up with its own betrayal statue in 1961, but in that same year Qormi came out with two additional ones. The race was on. At the moment the two are even with twelve.

The drama unfolds along narrow, winding streets with hood mouldings, circular windows, stone arches, and intricate balconies. Triq il-Kbira offers several examples while a small street off Triq Dun Marju holds Stagno Palace (1589), one of Qormi's architectural treasures. (...)

END OF BOOK 2
GO TO BOOK 3

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We would like to thank Charles Fiott for granting us permission to publish the above excerpts.

Award
'Award of Excellence' received from StudySphere (July 2006)