Malta Diary Hassan the Barbary Pirate – romance, myths and legends
The Maltese archipelago, that is the main islands of Malta and Gozo, as well as half a dozen other smaller islands is mostly composed of Globigerina Limestone and is considered to be relatively young when compared to the geographical time-scale. This type of limestone is marine sedimentary rock which has been compiled under sea water for millions of years as a result of the fragmentary deposits of billions of deteriorating sea shells which eventually filtered to the sea bottom and created five basic layers atop each other.
Obviously, for millions of years the islands were sea bottom until an enormous earthquake or volcanic eruption perhaps between 30 and 35 million years ago thrust the sea bottom above sea level and deteriorated the surrounding areas to create the islands.
Today they still abound with marine reptile and shell fossils which can be found almost everywhere, particularly in the Dwejra area of north Gozo – or what has escaped the chipping of thousands of curious geologists over the years.
Understandably, the human inhabitants who came much later made utility of the limestone which when quarried is almost equivalent to soft cheese but which gradually hardens with exposure to air. Almost every palace, villa, house or tenement of any kind is made of limestone.
Further understandably, much of Malta’s and Gozo’s folklore is centred around rocks, caves and underground caverns which have given rise to myths and legends and some inexplicable developments such as the Dingli Cart Ruts mentioned in a previous contribution.
One such myth is centred around the small village of Qrendi in the south west region of Malta, more than probably the area that was first inhabited by the Phoenicians when they first landed in Malta from the Lebanon about 3,000 years ago. The Phoenicians are known to have dug a number of water wells in the region in a Mediterranean area that is often arid and sometimes can have as little rainfall as 30 to 40 centimetres per annum.
The geographical formation of this area is known as secondary limestone, which is softer than the normal limestone and is therefore unsuitable for construction – despite the fact that most of Qrendi, Zurrieq, Mqabba, Kirkop and Siggiewi are pockmarked by scores of hard limestone quarries.
Hence the curiosity of “Il-Maqluba”, which in Maltese means “the upside down one” or alternatively as “the one that is upside down”. Just outside the Qrendi village there is a sizeable crater that seems to have been scooped out of the surface as if a spoon had taken a scoop of ice cream. Its origins have given rise to a number of myths.
The main one has biblical Sodom and Gomorrah implications although dated in the 12th century. Myth has it that the crater area was inhabited by a number of “evil” persons who drew God’s wrath and in a fit of anger He tore the ground from under them, turning the village upside down and sending the inhabitants straight to hell – except for a goodly woman who was spared and as a result built the nearby chapel dedicated to St Matthew, one of the oldest in the Maltese islands. A second chapel also dedicated to St Matthew was built some years later.
A further development of the myth is that He then “sent angels” to scoop off a sizeable volume over the upturned village which was then transported to sea and deposited to form what is now the minute island of Filfla just off the south west of Malta.
Charming as that may sound, the probable reason for the crater is that huge volumes of water which had accumulated in various pot holes and wells suddenly burst their seams, flooded the layers of soft limestone and caused a massive subsidence.
In geological terms this is known as a doline which later became a sinkhole and collects water from a three-mile radius and keeps the surrounding area fertile even in arid summer.
Another popular myth is that of Ghar Hassan, a natural cave formed by the sea and which is now 70 metres above sea level to form a rock window with wonderful views of the blue Mediterranean Sea below. It is two kilometres away from the seaside village of Birzebbuga (which means “the well of olives”).
The legend has it that in the 11th century a Barbary pirate called Hassan lived there with a Maltese woman. Stories differ of whether she was kept there against her will or the more romantic version that they were in love and lived there together away from prying eyes because it was strictly forbidden that a Christian woman should consort with a Muslim of her own free will.
However, Christian soldiers had wind of this and hunted Hassan down. When they came close, to avoid capture he either (a) threw the woman into the sea and then plunged himself, or (b) the two lovers bound themselves together and jumped into the sea.
One further curious myth extension is that the cave is the mouth of a vast underground channel which runs all the way inland into Valletta and myth has it that a goat that was once released in the cave surfaced some hours later in Valletta!
Despite the beautiful sea views, over the years, the area became a magnet for suicides as well as proving to be perilous and the cause of various accidents and it has now been fenced off and is less popular.