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MALTESE ARCHITECTURE AND BUILDINGS

Joseph Borg

 

 

STONE AGE

 

Around 3600 BC, a group of Stone Age people in the Maltese Archipelago were laboriously shifting huge stone blocks to erect the first of a series of unique constructions that to this day testify to the skill and ingenuity of the early Maltese inhabitants.

These constructions, the first free-standing monuments in the world, seem to have been temples or buildings associated with the worship of deities, sacrifice of animals, fertility rites, etc. Their form was cavernous, consisting of a central passage and two apsaidal chambers, one on each side and another at the opposite end to the entrance. In due course these were doubled or even tripled and some joined or merged into each other.

A limestone miniature model found at Ta’ Hagrat (Mgarr) illustrates the basic temple unit. It shows it to be roofed and shows it to be rounded. (Fig 1)     

Fig 1 Basic temple unit Ta Hagrat Mgarr 

Fig 1: Basic temple unit (Ta Hagrat, Mgarr).

Both at Ġgantija and in the later temples, the internal walls incline inwards, with the upper course corbelled, evidence that the interiors of these temples were designed to be roofed. Further evidence of this can be deduced from the absence of weathering of the decorated blocks when they were first uncovered, as also suggested by the Hypogeum. It is generally accepted that the roof consisted of wooden beams, brushwood and clay, but the small Mġarr model implies that, at least for small spans, the roof could have been stone.

At Ġgantija (c. 3500 BCE) the rocks are rough and were in fact covered in plaster to give a smooth finish. At Haġar Qim (c. 3200 BCE), the stone used was globigerina, softer than the rock used at Ġgantija. This stone was used because it is easier to work with, providing a smooth and expert finish. Thus joints were laboriously jointed together to give this a smooth finish.

 

The most splendidly decorated temples are at Tarxien. There are four distinct units at Tarxien. The last one to be built was the middle one, which was wedged between the other two spoiling their symmetry in the process. This unit provides the latest development of the temple plan with three pairs of apses symmetrically disposed about the central spine and a niche in the back. Aesthetically and technically it is also the most advanced, being the most refined, whilst a certain feature in one of the semicircular chambers seem to suggest that the ancient Maltese builders had even hit on the principle of the arch and true dome construction. These temples provided several very handsome relief carvings of spirals and animal friezes, including a colossal fat lady figure.

 Fig 2 Plan of Tarxien Temples

 

Fig 2: Plan of Tarxien Temples

In an island composed entirely of limestone, and therefore many natural caves, it is reasonable to assume/expect that the first inhabitants should have been cave dwellers. That they were so we know from the deposits at Għar Dalam. As the population grew and spread, huts and similar structures were constructed, but the cave remained the main house. Even today, there still exist examples of cave dwellings ( referred to as 'Ghar u Casa' – which may be translated as 'cave and house'. However, a pun is intended here because 'arucasa'  which sounds the same means something despicable! )

In the vicinity of Boschetto, near the so-called Clapham Junction where a large number of cart-ruts criss-cross each other, one finds ‘Għar il-Kbir’, a cave in which human habitation only ceased in 1835. Not far away, beneath the Dingli cliffs, one can see a number of farmhouses, which are partly troglodytic. Apart from this, huts made from wattle and daub, mud bricks, hides and from naturally occurring small stones (like the modern Girna) are comparatively easy to build. [ A map of Malta indicating these places would be useful for the non-Maltese reader] See map attached

In December 1984, whilst widening the road at Ghajnsielem, [Gozo]  the foundations of a structure dated to the Ġgantija phase was unearthed. From the remains it is thought that this could have been a mud brick structure, roofed over with a central column to hold the roof up.  It is thought that the roof would have been constructed from wood and clay. The room was elliptical in plan, being about 5 metres wide and 7 metres long.

 

 

BRONZE AGE, PUNIC PEOPLE AND ROMANS

 

The temple builders were succeeded by a people who, though they had simple metal tools and weapons, had a much cruder and less advanced culture. These people occupied the Tarxien temples, which they had destroyed or found abandoned, and turned them into a cremation cemetery.

Recent excavations suggest that these people built a single room structure, consisting of three pillars supporting a stone slab on top, the ‘Dolmen’.

Fig 3 Dolmen

 

Fig 3: Dolmen

These people were in turn replaced by another Bronze Age group, the ‘Borġ in-Nadur’ people. These newcomers were warlike and tended to settle on high flat-topped hills that were naturally defensible or made so by means of massive stone walls, as at Borġ in-Nadur.

Malta then came under the influence of the Phoenicians. It was colonised by them, eventually passing it on to their offsprings, the Carthaginians. Some evidence of Carthaginian architecture is found at Zurrieq, a square building with its characteristic ‘Egyptian Gorge’ cornice.

There were many buildings and temples in Malta during the Roman period. We know this from the pen of the historian Diodorus Siculus, - temples, theatres, town houses, baths and villas. Malta also had a very busy harbour where Marsa is today. Historical records exist of temples at Mtarfa (dedicated to the goddess Proserpina) and another at Dejr Limara (Tas-Silġ – dedicated to Juno).

 Fig 4 Roman Villa

 Fig 4:  Roman Villa

 

The capital of the island was a sprawling city (Mdina-Rabat). The so called Roman Villa outside Mdina, a town house, belonged to a wealthy Roman citizen and gives us a picture of a relaxed life surrounded by beautiful works of art. The baths at Għajn Tuffieha as well as other archaeological records attest to a good life.

The architecture and mosaic of the Roman Villa date it to the first quarter of the 1st century BC. Its main feature is the peristyle in the Doric order which surrounds a courtyard paved with an attractive mosaic.

Christianity became the main and common religion about this time. The pagan temples were probably derelict and the early Christian churches were built from columns and material salvaged from these temples, resulting in modest structures. For instance, at the end of the 4th or beginning of the 5th century, a paleo-christian basilica was built in the central area of the ancient and almost deserted sanctuary at Tas-Silġ. Similarly at Rabat, outside Tad-Dejr catacombs, there are the scanty remains of a church, traces of columns, a post Roman polychrome mosaic floor and other evidence of an early Christian basilica. There is also evidence that catacombs and caves, natural or man-made, were also used for public worship. This is understandable, for, like the rest of Western Europe, Malta was sinking into poverty and barbarity; the will to build and the skills to do so vanished rapidly.

This degradation is reflected in the rudeness of a few architectural forms which one can observe in the Maltese catacombs dating, at the earliest, to the 4th century. Considering the ease with which Maltese stone can be shaped, very little sculptural relief can be found.

This regression (i.e. loss of skills) should not be forgotten when we come to consider the state of the island in the post Muslim period. Craftsmanship and artistic expression had simply collapsed for there is no evidence of invasion by vandals before the Arab occupation.  

 

MIDDLE AGES

 

The Arab occupation of Malta was quite violent. Whilst all the powers that occupied Malta so far, with the exception of the Phoenicians, were passing through, the Arabs came as settlers, replacing a sizeable proportion of the islanders in the process. Those who had not fled the island prior to the invasion resisted the Arabs, resulting in a harsh and punitive occupation. The bishop of Malta was sent to Palermo in chains and Christian churches and other shrines destroyed. There is evidence that prior to 870 AD, decades of Arab raids resulted in destruction and rebuilding at Tas-Silġ and San Pawl Milqi sites.

An inscription on the walls of the castle at Habishi at Susa (Libya) reads – ‘all the hewn stone and marble columns in this castle were brought here from the conquest of Malta by Habishi, son of Omar’.

Nothing is known with certainty about this period. The Maltese came out of this era speaking an Arabic language and having Arabic ways. They seem to have lost the art of building and for a very long time after the expulsion of the Muslims, many Maltese continued to worship in catacombs and caves, evidence that few Maltese, if any, possessed the skill to build a freestanding place of worship.

 

 Fig 5 Muslim architecture

Fig 5: Muslim architecture

 

One of the earliest post-Muslim structures must be that at Tal-Baqqari in the limits of Zurrieq, of which only remnants survived. The plan of the church suggests that the nave was divided into three somewhat unequal bays, and showing  primitive workmanship. But the position of the pilasters was important – their closeness and thickness of the external walls tell us that the nave was spanned with transverse arches which in turn carried roofing slabs. This method of building quite likely came to Malta through the Arabs from Syria where such examples are plentiful.  But nothing is certain; except for the term ‘imterqa’, a name for a kind of axe used in stone dressing, all other tools used specifically by stone masons are described by non-Arabic terms, mainly of Sicilian origin. It was from Sicily in fact, that craftsmen and their tools and skills came to Malta. The system of roofing, however, was either copied from surviving Arab structures or  evolved by the islanders.

Not many churches dating from the 13th century are recorded. A church dedicated to St. Angelo outside the castle at Birgu is known to have existed in 1274, whilst another existed inside the castle, most probably the rock-cut church now dedicated to the Nativity of Our Lady. As early as 1296, we hear of a church dedicated to St. Mary on Comino. Many churches were troglodytic (ie, in caves).

Though there is no documentary proof that any of the cave churches can be given an early date, the loss of the art of building would have forced the Maltese to resort to this primitive practice.  Use was made of existing features like caves for living in or using them as churches. Apart from loss of the skill or art of building, it could have been a direct result of piratical attack and plunder.  Thus at Mellieha, where caves abound, there seem to have been many troglodytic churches, whilst at Rabat where the rock is soft, one finds quite a few man-made underground churches (eg.St. Agatha’s, St. Leonard, St. Vennera, St. Mary Magdalen, San Mikiel is-Sincier, St. Maria ta’ l-Isperanza, St. Maria tal-Ghar, St. Paul’s Grotto. In due course, troglodytic churches became a feature of the religious traditions of the island, and continued to be used, were enlarged and others built when the Maltese became prolific builders.

In 1575, the Apostolic Delegate, Mgr Duzzina recorded a total of 430 churches on the island, ‘most in a state of disrepair’. The church of the ‘Annunciation’ at Hal-Millieri has been described as the best-preserved example of a medieval church. From the style of its frescoed paintings and from coins found in the original pavement, it has been assigned to about 1480.C.E. In this church the plan and the structural technique of all medieval Maltese churches are already fully developed, the structure is fairly regular and the structural decorative parts are built with finely dressed masonry. As was the practice in many medieval buildings, the walls, which were intended to be plastered over, were built with irregular or rubble masonry.

The church is of moderate size, measuring 7.5 metres long, 4.5 metres wide and 3.6 metres high. Yet the church is not entirely free-standing, since to go into the church one has to go down three steps into the earth. The reason for this is that the cross arches exert an overturning moment, and for fear of stability of the structure, the builder decided to sink it into the ground. Hal-Millieri is thus an example of a church, which for structural reasons is still partly troglodytic

The church of Santa Maria at Bir-Miftuh (limits of Gudja) is said to be of the same period as Hal-Millieri, although this seems improbable. Structurally it is basically the same but is nearly twice as big as that at Hal-Millieri. It is also sitting on the ground, the piers are at 7 foot spacings and not 5 feet, suggesting that the builder of the church demonstrated great skill.

The church of St. Catherine (old St. Gregory) at Zejtun is said to date from 1492 C.E.. The novelty of this church was its roof, for the builder has laid the roofing slabs directly on the back of the transverse arches. In this way the roof appears to be barrel vaulted. The builder of this church was apparently thoroughly confident of the stability of his structure and directed his energy to aesthetics.

Thus we see three steps of development all dating from the 15th century; the first two were structural, i.e. balancing the side thrust produced by the arches. Having solved this problem the 3rd stage was concerned with refinement. The unsightly space above the arches was eliminated.

 

Fig 6  An old church 15th 16th century

 Fig 6:  An old church (15th-16th century.

Not many of the 15th and 16th century country churches have survived. Their external appearance does not vary much. They are severely cubical with a roof pitch of about 15 degrees, mellowing the hardness of the base-like form. The sides and the back are generally solid with few, if any, openings. The façade has an arched doorway which was originally pointed. Façades which were later than Hal-Millieri generally have an opening of some kind. This may be either a vertical slit or a deep eye – oval or circular (oculus).

 

 Fig 7 An old church

Fig 7: An old church

These churches usually had a number of stormwater spouts, the shadows of which broke the severity of the appearance. The bell–cots (the little arch from which the bell was hung like in the pic above)  all probably date from the 16th century on. The bare, sparsely ornamented exteriors of these medieval churches often hid brilliantly painted interiors.

The most important monument on the island, the conventual church of St. John, owes much to these little churches, for in may ways the architecture of St. John is nearer to them than any example of Renaissance or mannerist Rome. The ribbed vault of St. John, echoing the ribs of these churches, became the one constant feature of all Maltese vaults. (the only exception being that of St. Paul’s in Rabat). 

 

Fig 8 Hypogeum to show corbelled roof line

Fig 8: Hypogeum, to show corbelled roof line.

 

Fig 9 The entrance to St Mary Magdalens underground troglodytic church Rabat

 Fig 9: The entrance to St Mary Magdalen’s underground (troglodytic) church Rabat

 

 Fig 10 Ggantija Gozo

 Fig 10:  Ggantija Gozo

 

Ggantija Gozo: rear apse showing rough stones which were more than likely plastered over to give a smooth finish. Note how the walls are inclined inwards suggesting that the site was roofed over

 

Fig 11 Model of Hagar Qim Temple

Fig 11:  Model of Hagar Qim Temple. Archaeological Museum Valletta

 

 Fig 12  Model of possible roofing method used on temple apses    

  Fig 12:  Model of possible roofing method used on temple apses

 

 fig 13  map of malta showing major archaeological sites

Fig 13:  Map of Malta showing major Archaeological sites.

 

Fig 14 Cave dwellings of  yesteryear AFig 14 Cave dwellings of  yesteryear B

 Fig 14:  Cave dwellings of  yesteryear.

 

 Fig 15 Tarxien Temple details AFig 15 Tarxien Temple details B

Fig 15: Tarxien Temple: some details

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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