The re-generation of the South-East
The organization Wirt iż-Żejtun last Saturday held its third symposium.
In its first two, it had kept rigorously to Żejtun – the first as regards Roman ruins and the second to commemorate a battle against Muslim invaders.
Now, in its third symposium, it came out of Żejtun both physically in that the symposium was held at Villa Santa Anna in Marsascala, and thematically in that it has now broadened its range of interest to speak about the re-generation of the SouthEast.
It sounds better in Maltese – ixXlokk – but even then the focus was mostly Żejtun, Birżebbuġa, Marsascala, Żabbar and limitedly Għaxaq but that leaves a group of villages – Żurrieq, Gudja, Qrendi, Mqabba, maybe even Luqa – with no such visible link between them.
Nevertheless, the themes identified as regards the Xlokk are common and interlinked.
Wirt iż-Żejtun president Perit Ruben Abela kicked off with a long list of historic properties in the area suffering from neglect – from the Delimara Fort where an old gun rests on mounds of demel, to St Paul Battery, to Fort San Anard which houses cattle, to innumerable sentry boxes and gun posts which have been taken over by encroachment.
There are however some success stories – the Ferretti Battery in Birżebbuġa which is used as a restaurant, the Torri ta’ San Tumas which was restored three times but is currently closed, the Torri Mamo which has been restored by Din l-Art Ħelwa and is regularly opened by the same NGO, and of course the Fort Rinella which is kept open by Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna and is very popular.
Perit Abela asked why cannot such historic buildings be handed over to the private sector and used? As an example he mentioned fortresses that have been changed to hotels in the UK, barracks in Germany that have become residential etc. Here in Malta we can turn gun posts and pillboxes into a smart residence.
Michelle Borg from Planning Authority underscored Malta’s population density: 430,000 residents amassed in just 315sq km with a density of 1,384 persons per square kilometre when other countries would have a density of 300 or 500.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who found time to put in a brief appearance, encouraged the rediscovery of the Xlokk. The area must become sustainable, that is able to create jobs. The Xlokk must find its niche, just as Gozo has found its niche in diving. We are not aware of what we have, the PM said, telling of his anger when foreigners tell him things about Malta that are not known by the Maltese.
Sharon Sultana from the National Museum of Archaeology spoke about the contents of the archives of the museum with regards to the Xlokk. These are archaeological remains that are not on show and also notes relating to these mainly dating from 19th and 20th Century excavations.
These are stored in boxes that are only now being classified. Among these she listed the notes from Temi Zammit regarding his excavation of Xrobb l-Ghagin in April 1913 as well as subsequent excavations by others, the catacombs very near to where we were meeting (now closed up) with its Latin inscription honouring Jesus Christ from Byzantine times, the Marnisi remains excavated by Temi Zammit, etc.
An intriguing detail by Ms Sultana said that Temi Zammit wrote two diaries about his finds. Some of these copybooks had gone missing but were rediscovered lately by a university professor who had inherited the room of Professor Evans and found these among other papers.
Dr Nadia Theuma spoke about the possibilities for agro-tourism in the Xlokk. It is an area of 35 sq km with 54,000 residents, a mixed economy with 106 accommodation units with 737 beds, although it is not usually thought of as a tourist area. So far, the North-West of Malta and Gozo have moved ahead as regards agro-tourism. The Xlokk has been opened up to tourists by the hop-on hop-off buses. There are quite a number of developments in the area, regarding not just apartments but also some farmhouses, old houses and houses of character. The Delimara lighthouse has become a high-end tourist residence. The area has two nature parks but one has disappointingly few animals – a lost opportunity.
The area is ripe for a clean-up such as has taken place at Wied il-Mielaħ in Gozo and the promotion of its food offer – olive oil, wine, bakeries, ricotta and ġbejniet. People will also be interested to learn about the agricultural tools that used to be handled, the breeding of animals and the different ways of food production.
Dr Theuma also suggested the preservation of the dialects of the area, especially that of Żejtun, and the promotion of literature in dialect.
Professor George Cassar spoke about the religious heritage of the area, beginning with the 4th Century Byzantine catacombs already mentioned just two blocks from the area where we were meeting, moving on to the medieval chapels in the area especially the old St Catherine church in Żejtun which is more known as San Girgor, which is in a good state precisely because it has always been used except for a few months in 1614 when the Muslims attacked and the priest was unable to function from 6 July, the date of the attack, to 11 September.
In Birżebbuġa there is the St George chapel which existed already before the Great Siege as can be seen from Matteo Perez d’Aleccio’s frescoes. Interestingly, the chapel was later encircled by a fortress.
Religious tourism is a niche market and cannot be considered as a mass event. There is scope for this not just during the festa season but more in the shoulder months: it offers the authentic character of the Maltese, which mass tourists rarely get. One idea for this is establish cultural routes inside a village or between neighbouring villages.
In question time, Marsascala mayor Mario Calleja said that when Torri San Tumas was turned into a pizzeria many were upset but at least that building remained in use. The local council has been asking for the French redoubt in St Thomas Bay for seven long years with no result so far.
The afternoon session had three interesting presentations about ideas how the Xkokk may be developed but unfortunately the least interesting one is the one that is on the verge of becoming a reality.
This was the one explained by Alex Muscat from OPM who explained what will be happening to the recently announced Park tan-Nwadar, that is the park surrounding the land given to the American University of Malta. A legal notice in this regard will shortly be published. The area is
900 tumuli in extension and a plan has been existing for the area, at least on paper, since 2006. It is one of Malta’s most neglected area and even today dumping still takes place. It has much agricultural land which has been abandoned.
There are also a lot of cultural heritage sites mostly British heritage such as pill boxes, fortresses and so on. However, the most difficult task ahead is how to draw up and put in practice a management plan through stopping dumping, retrieving pill boxes from illegal ownership, and ensuring the area is given back to the Maltese population for enjoyment.
Two periti, Daphne Fenech and Katya Sammut, spoke about the potential for an archaeological park around Għar Dalam, Ta’ Kaċċatura and the surrounding areas. The area has two valleys, Wied Żnuber and Wied Dalam. The area has the remains of Borġ in-Nadur, cart ruts and tombs.
Ta’ Kaċċatura is a Roman villa with an underground cistern on columns. Casa Ippolito is a 17th century Maltese farmhouse which is in danger of collapsing.
Perhaps fortunately given our tendency to destroy and pillage, the whole area is very inaccessible, with difficult to find pathways.
But perhaps the most exciting presentation was that read out by a medical doctor, Dr Jason Bonnici (in conjunction with Ruben Abela) on the possibility of a national park from Munxar to Delimara.
This area may be called the area that fashioned the Maltese identity – enough to list the different peoples who passed through it, from the Romans to the French, the Portuguese, and the British. The Turkish armada landed in Marsaxlokk Bay in 1565. The area is the first line of defence of Mdina, then the first line of defence of St Angelo, which is why the Knights fortified the area with so many towers.
Dr Bonnici listed the various areas in the section chosen and described the attractions in each. The area offers many picturesque areas such as St Thomas Bay, the white cliffs, Roman baths and tombs, at least two menhirs, two chapels such as St Gaetano, and at least two pillboxes.
The Munxar area has Punic and Roman tombs where agricultural tools have been found, and the Munxar Reef. There was a historian who speculated that St Paul actually shipwrecked on the Munxar Reef.
The fish farms in the area attract dolphins and the Hurds Bank some distance away on a normal day has many ships in the area.
Xrobb l-Għagin has ItTaqtiegħa, a rock that fell into the sea, a Neolithic temple discovered by Temi Zammit and a chapel dedicated to St Paul Shipwrecked.
Delimara has many rocky beaches, especially Il-Ħofra lKbira and Il-Ħofra ż-Żghira, cliffs, gun posts, the AFM Radar station, and Fort Delimara.
Tas-Silġ has the enchanting church.
Such a national park would complement the Park tal-Inwadar and the other proposed park around Għar Dalam and Ħas-Saptan.
The last speaker at the symposium was Malta Tourism Authority chairman Gavin Gulia who outlined what MTA is doing and offered all collaboration to Wirt iż-Żejtun in its future activities.
The Delimara lighthouse
St Catherine Church in Żejtun
Torri San Tumas
Ferretti Battery in Birzebbuga