Malta Diary Xlendi Bay in Gozo – the most archaeologically rich in the Mediterranean?
The island of Gozo is one of the smallest inhabited islands in the Mediterranean and its Xlendi Bay is probably one of the smallest in the Mediterranean, but according to Professor John Woods it is indubitably the most archaeologically historic bay throughout the whole of the Mediterranean.
Woods is a Professor of Oceanography (Southampton, Kiel and London) and former UK Director of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and in 2007 shared in the Nobel Peace Prize Award for Climate Research.
His researches at Xlendi and other Mediterranean bays is very extensive and led in 2014 to the publication of his book “Xlendi and its ancient shipwrecks” going into meticulously researched details of the bay’s invasions and piracy, the enormous earthquake and tsunami it suffered in the latter part of the 17th Century and the discoveries there of shipwrecks that span eras of recorded history, including Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantium, Arab-Muslim, Crusaders, Napoleonic era and then the British presence in Malta – thus spanning the recorded history of Europe.
The book also relates his 1961 survey of wrecks found in the bay at a time when he was a Physics undergraduate and President of the Underwater Club at London’s Imperial College after which he spent ten summers combining science and diving for the Royal Navy in Malta.
Before going any further, the Maltese pronunciation of “X” is “sh” and thus in phonetic Maltese and English it is pronounced as “Schlendi Bay”. The name is of Byzantine origins named after a sea galley of the period which was named “Shilandi” and which was shipwrecked on rocks near the bay, the name later being adapted to the Maltese Xlendi.
This is a very small village in the south west of Gozo, surrounded by the larger villages of Munxar, Fontana and Kercem, an outlet at the mouth of a valley and dried river bed amidst hills, at the mouth of what was a river that spilt out into the blue Mediterranean into what was once a larger sandy bay but is now a much smaller pebble-beached bay. A small stone bridge across the valley a little way inland links the village to the surrounding hills.
Initially a safe haven for ships during storms, Xlendi was first developed by the Romans as a port. HOWEVER, in the middle of the bay there is a large reef which proved to be the downfall of many a ship seeking shelter in the bay to founder on the reef and sink. This ‘hidden’ feature has proved to be the source of the sea’s enormous archaeology in this bay.
The Romans using Xlendi as a port were aware of the reef and naturally avoided it. Those sea captains who were not aware of it were prone to disaster and over the centuries the bay became littered by a number of wrecks starting from the Phoenician period down through the ages.
These are the wrecks that Professor Woods was able to locate and investigate, bringing to the surface considerable quantities of jars, amphora and many other containers, as well as coins, jewellery, chains, anchors and anything else worth saving.
Then, in January 1693, tragedy struck. A powerful earthquake devastated Sicily and Malta, accompanied by a gigantic tidal tsunami. The earthquake destroyed and damaged most buildings in Malta and Gozo and caused considerable damage to a number of churches whose domes collapsed.
The tidal tsunami that swept into Xlendi roared in with what Professor Woods described as “the speed of a fighter jet”. It completely swamped the bay and all its surrounding areas and then swept out again with equally fierce force. In its torrential outflow it swept a number of wrecks off the reef and the sea bottom and dragged them out to sea beyond the reef where they probably still lie today waiting to be discovered.
The spot has become highly popular with divers looking for spoils and Heritage Malta recently announced the discovery of one such wreck but is keeping its location as a very close secret because of looters.
Additionally, the ‘quake and tsunami changed the bay’s typography, bringing down cliffs, soil and stones with the ultimate result the bay ended up much smaller than it originally was and as it stands today, still overlooked by a majestic tower built by the Knights of Malta as an observer point to warn of impending pirate or Ottoman invasions.
Naturally, areas like these always attract local characters who eventually become a legend. One such legend was a man known as Gianni ta’ Berta (Gianni the son of Berta). He was a villager and member of the Gozo constabulary and spent most of his life in the area. In great storms Gianni always mounted guard on the lookout for ships in trouble as well as keeping an eye on flood waters sweeping into the valley.
In addition he assisted the non-residential parish priest by looking after the village’s small chapel which he would open very early daily, ringing the early morning bell for good measure.