Malta Diary From the gentle art of glass-blowing to the fatal or crippling effects of a “fougasse”
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.
This may sound like patriotic exaggeration – nevertheless – both facts are remarkably true and even more remarkable is that as a national entity, the two islands make up one of the smallest countries in the world with an identity and a heritage that is unique.
Here are just a few small examples. 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 certainly among the least number of people in the world is based on Phoenician and today in 2017 still contains a number of words of Phoenician origin.
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 Romans.
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.
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.
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.
My trend of thought was triggered off by a recent find of remains unearthed during the building of a new and modern road on Malta’s north eastern zone. These included a Punic tomb, some Roman remains and a fougasse. Well, more of the same, I thought.
But hang on, what the hell 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; it has no rivers, no oil, no gas, nor much of anything else – except rocks and stones and plenty of sunshine!
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.
The fougasse minder would then wait until the approaching enemy corp was 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.
Well, that’s another interesting piece of information added and just in case you’re wondering, there is no way I would have volunteered to be a minder!