Malta Diary Touches of sanity in today’s eyesore concrete jungle -archaeological sites and buildings now Scheduled and cannot be destroyed or altered in any way
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I have written it before and repeat, if my great grandparents and grandparents were to be resurrected today and placed anywhere in Malta and Gozo they would be speechlessly dumbfounded. “No, no, this is not Malta. I am Maltese so please place me in Malta or Gozo”.
Malta in particular over the last 30 years has become a concrete jungle of eyesores and sadly up to some years ago culture and heritage were totally disregarded and ignored, beautiful old buildings torn down to be replaced by ugly apartments where money has been placed before history and the national conscience. One typical example is along the Sliema Seafront along Tower Road where all the Edwardian buildings were mercilessly torn down and replaced by lumps of concrete.
Fortunately there was immediate awareness going back centuries to the value of the Neolithic Temples on both the islands, as well as the Catacombs and other features. Sadly however, it did not deter the then British Military Authorities during the 1950s from using the small island of Filfla off the south coast for aerial bombing practice, flattening and destroying it in the process, including the small chapel that existed there – until they were stopped by a Maltese outcry. Filfla was always regarded as being sacred, going back to Neolithic times.
This was tantamount to using Stonehenge or the remains of Hadrian’s Wall for bombing practice!
Fortunately, the country has always held in high pride and esteem the baroque richness of the capital city Valletta with its grand palace Auberges, residential buildings, churches and the St John’s Co-Cathedral and these are intact as originally stood and continually renovated and repaired. This also applies to the Inquisitor’s Palace at Vittoriosa, the Girgenti Palace and the San Anton Gardens Palace. All the Watch Towers dotted around the islands and built by the Knights of St John have all been highly preserved.
Sadly, two of the more disastrous losses were both in Valletta, the Chapel of Bones (actually decorated with bones!) and the Royal Theatre, both destroyed by enemy aerial bombing in WWII and never restored.
More fortunately, over the last two decades, awareness of the importance of architectural heritage increased by leaps and bounds and in came a Planning Authority to stop the rape and pillage by introducing various levels of Building Scheduling, the First Level notifying that not even a single stone can be removed without permission.
A number of archaeological sites were among the first to be placed on Scheduled priority and these included Calypso’s Cave in Gozo (a story in itself going back to the times of Homer, Ulysses and the Ancient Greeks), and the San Agostino Cemetery in Victoria, Gozo, as well as a number of dolmens and catacombs.
The list has thankfully continued to grow and grow and recently six medieval chapels, some stretching back 700 years, and a Garden have been placed on the Scheduled List.
Two of these are the St Domenica Chapel in Dingli and the Bir Miftuh Chapel in Gudja, both recorded in a list of buildings that was published in 1436 in a list that was ordered to be drawn up by Bishop de Mello and known as the Rollo de Mello List.
One of the more unique is the little chapel on the small island of Comino which lies between Malta and Gozo. Originally this was dedicated to the Return of the Holy Family from Egypt but today is known for the dedication to Our Lady. Records show this already existed in the 13th Century and has a unique feature in that it has an iconic wooden trellis partition that separates the sacred area from the congregation, very much in the Greek Orthodox rite – and this is somewhat strange.
In Cospicua a further unique chapel is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin under the title of ‘tas-Sokkors’ and differs from others in that it is rock-cut and located underground. Originally it was located on the side of the valley leading down to Cospicua’s inner harbour area. Although no documentation exists, it is believed that the chapel existed during the late Byzantine period (700-800 A.D) when it was originally dedicated to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin.
Another interesting chapel is that dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and located at Ħal Xluq in Siggiewi. The chapel was renovated and repaired in 1583, clearly retaining the original medieval fabric as evidenced by the decor of the main and lateral entrances. The chapel is characterised by finely dressed masonry and the refinement of the construction methodology and finishing is again testament to the high level reached in construction methodology during the latter Medieval Period.
Thankfully too, classical gardens have also been given a high Schedule priority, the latest being the Gardens at Villa Ciantar on the western flank of Pieta’ Creek. It now joins two other gardens in the area, that of Villa Frere and Villa Gwardamangia where Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip lived for many months shortly after their wedding.
These gardens were laid out on several terraces in a high baroque/neo-classical idiom. The formally laid out gardens were furnished with a variety of garden architecture such as raised walkways, an area for nymphs, triumphal gateways and a tower of four winds which was built on the higher reaches of the Ciantar Garden.
Fortuitously, all the legislation is now in place otherwise every single one of these would be in danger of being smashed and torn down to be replaced with monstrosities in an era where money comes before culture, heritage and history.
“Their mind is a downward slope”
Said of a person who forgets everything, recalls very little and retains poor memory (however, not as chronic as dementia).