Malta's old capital city Mdina founded by the Phoenicians

Malta’s old capital city Mdina founded by the Phoenicians

DNA tests have revealed that outside Lebanon, the home of the Phoenicians, Maltese people have the highest DNA concentration of Phoenician blood around the Mediterranean basin; the Maltese language, probably spoken by one the least number of people in the world does have some Phoenician basis and today in 2016 still contains a limited number of words of Phoenician origin.


However, the first settlers after the massive rifts and earthquakes that separated Malta and Gozo from the North African coast and the European mainland are presumed to have been Sicilians who brought cattle and crops with them about 4,000 BC and were responsible for the Temple Period and the building of 30 stone complexes, the oldest stone free-standing structures in the world.

The Malta stone mortar fougasse

The Malta stone mortar fougasse


For reasons that have not as yet been explained they disappeared about 2,500 BC and the Phoenicians loomed on the horizon about 1,500 BC, in some cases accompanied by Jewish sailors and traders.


There are two extremely important things to know about Malta and Gozo. The first and most important is that per square metre, the two islands have the richest historical heritage in the world. The second is that wherever anybody decides to dig they are almost certain to unearth something remarkable from the past, and I mean the past – not just 100 or 200 years ago but going back hundreds and sometimes thousands of years.

 MalDia 02 (20-07-16)

Remarkably, the two islands thus make up one of the smallest countries in the world with an identity and a heritage that is unique.


The Phoenicians were followed by the Carthaginians (Hannibal is said to have been born in Malta), the Romans and many others.


The Salina Coast Road where the most recent fougasse was discovered

The Salina Coast Road where the most recent fougasse was discovered

For many centuries it was strongly believed that the city of Mdina (Malta’s former capital city before Valletta and sometimes named Citta Nobile i.e. the Noble City) was first expanded by the Arabs during the 200 year duration when an Arab Caliphate ruled Malta and who thus named it Medina, a city which was later fortified by the Knights of St John against the marauding Moors and Ottomans. However, Mdina was in fact originally founded and inhabited by the Phoenicians.


In fact, the whole Punic (i.e. Phoenician) story is inextricably interwoven into Malta’s ancient history with an extremely strong presence in Malta of the descendent Carthaginians who tried to rival the ancient Roman Empire before they were vanquished by the Latin Roman.


The Phoenicians brought glass manufacture to Malta and it's still going strong today

The Phoenicians brought glass manufacture to Malta and it’s still going strong today

Originally, the Phoenicians were not warriors and empire builders, but traders. In a previous article I had mentioned that together with the Jewish tribes of Zebulon and Asher with whom they were in conjunction (in the bible the Phoenicians are known as the Canaanites) they had a strong presence in Malta 1,500 BC.


In fact, in Malta and Gozo, more than 700 Punic tombs have been unearthed and in Rabat (just a kilometre away from Mdina), Jewish tombs and catacombs have also been found.


Malta glass - internationally famed

Malta glass – internationally famed

There was however, an even more interesting discovery. The Phoenicians brought the art of glass-blowing to Malta and it still has an extremely strong tradition and presence in the islands today.


Famed for their marketing of coloured dyes and cloths, the Phoenicians discovered glass by noting the effect of lightning when it struck a patch of sand. The sand fused into a solid and almost transparent mass. Experiments with sand were carried out in vast kilns maintained at high heat and sure enough, the effect was the same. Later, coloured dyes were added and later, the art of blowing. Thus came the silicon which in contemporary times has been instrumental in the manufacture of computers and hence famed Silicon Valley. Later, the Romans copied the technique and thus originated the famed glass industry in Murano, Venice with its closely guarded secrets.


The fougasse minder

The fougasse minder

In fact most Punic tombs found contained remarkable numbers of coloured beads used as necklaces, coloured glass figurines normally representing female fertility and quantities of vases and urns.


Last year extensive work on the newly refurbished Coast Road linking Sliema to St Paul’s Bay was delayed because “ancient” remains had been unearthed during the process (no surprise). These included a Punic tomb, some Roman remains and a fougasse. Well, more of the same, I thought.


The inside of a fougasse loaded with stones

The inside of a fougasse loaded with stones

However, what is a fougasse – something I had never heard of before? So I dug into an extensive investigation and discovered something that was new to me and once more emphasised the capacity of human beings to invent weapons and structures solely aimed at hurting, injuring, maiming and killing fellow human beings.


The Greeks and the Romans had invented the art of massive catapults that flung massive rocks into walled bastions or concentrations of enemy troops. Malta has no natural resources because it has no rivers, no oil, no gas, nor much of anything else – except rocks and stones.


The most recent fougasse discovery at Salina Bay

The most recent fougasse discovery at Salina Bay

The Knights did not invent the fougasse (a French invention as the name suggests) but they certainly adapted and used it between the 16th and 18th centuries.


An intensive research work and subsequent publication in 2014 by Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri Ph.D. revealed all, accompanied by some interesting illustrations and photographs reproduced here. Basically, the fougasse is a stone mortar bomb.


The art of the fougasse (fougazza in Italian) was that of excavating a fairly large hole in a rock hillside with a plateau. A slow-burning gunpowder fuse would be placed at the bottom with the fuse extending above ground. The hole would then be filled with an assortment of various sized stones and rocks.


Another fougasse at Pembroke, site of former British military barracks

Another fougasse at Pembroke, site of former British military barracks

The fougasse minder would then wait until the approaching enemy troops were within striking distance. He would then light the slow-burning fuse and sharply leg it to a safe distance. The subsequent gunpowder explosion would then spew out as much as a hundredweight of rock and stone into the ranks of the advancing enemy.


However, the minder suffered disadvantages in that the plateau would be exposed to enemy vision and he could only light the fuse when the enemy was near enough to be struck by the volcanic explosion of rocks spewed. This would of course expose him to gunshot and the task was obviously fraught with danger and only an idiot would volunteer for it.


Thus was the nature of the fougasse unearthed along the Salina Coast Road, with many other fougasses found dotted around Malta and Gozo and hence another piece of interesting military architecture.


Many of them are situated along the islands’ coasts where they were used against invading sea vessels.


The Pembroke fougasse

The Pembroke fougasse

By the way, just in case you’re wondering, there is no way I would have volunteered to be a fougasse minder!





About Albert Fenech

Born in 1946, Albert Fenech’s family took up UK residence in 1954 where he spent his boyhood and youth before temporarily returning to Malta between 1957 and 1959 and then coming back to Malta permanently in 1965. He spent eight years as a full-time journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking up a career in HR Management but still retained his roots by actively pursuing freelance journalism and broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel.