Prof. J. Galea

TOPOGRAPHY OF MALTA IN ABELA'S TIMES

[p.38]

We who are living in twentieth century Malta have an inadequate idea of what our Island looked like three hundred years ago when Gio. Francesco Abela wrote his famous book.[1] The population was then less than one sixth of what it is now, the hinterland was almost deserted, hamlets occupied the sites where modern towns now flourish, the means of communication were primitive, the sanitary conditions were rudimentary and the commercial undertakings and industrial developments were very limited. At that time the face of Malta was unlike its modern appearance and its contour had a different shape. There were out of the way coves and bays that were deserted and unfrequented except by pirates and corsairs who often raided these Islands and made forays into the countryside. Large areas were left uncultivated and the hilly ridge on the North West of the Island remained wild.

Most of the inhabitants were engaged in agricultural pursuits and led a precarious life around their farms or villages. They were tied to the good earth from which they derived their living; they hardly bothered to venture away from their parish; their occasional trips to Mdina or Birgu were adventurous journeys which afforded scope for much story-telling during the long winter evenings or hot summer nights. There were even those who throughout their life had never been to the Capital of the Island.

Under such conditions of detached existence the people's knowledge of their country was limited to the area in which they lived and they had no idea about the rest of the Island. In fact the few extant descriptions of Malta are very sketchy [p.39] Of equal interest are place-names connected with old owners whose families are now extinct, if not forgotten. Some of those families had taken a prominent part in the affairs of our country and we owe it to Abela that their names have not been lost in the march of time; the more so since nowadays some of those place-names have been forgotten or changed. Ta' Callus, Ta' Mazzara, Ta' Cilia, in the Rabat area; Ġnien ta' Rapa, Ġnien ta' Cassia near Dingli; Ta' Angarao at St. Paul's Bay; Bir Ebever, Bir Buħaġar, Ta' Formaġi on the outskirts of Qormi, Ta' Prolli near Zeitun, Għadira ta' Xara near Siġġiewi, are all localities not indicated in modern maps of Malta, and were it not for Abela the names of the illustrious families which they commemorate would have been lost.

Another consideration worth mentioning is Abela's explanation of certain archaic terms which today are hardly ever used. Such terms have been supplanted by modern words or expressions, but they have their value in the study of the Maltese vocabulary. The words Rum (Christian) Għul (serpent) Għliem (servant) Buha (father) Ġiabrun (giant) LaIigiar (stony) are today obsolete but were apparently in current use by our forefathers.

Another feature in Abela's list of localities is the number of place-names of Arabic or Saracenic origin. For instance Djar Handul, Ġebel Omar, Qala ta' Abid, Busewdien, Marsa, Ta' Dejr, Għajn Ħammem, Għajn Qajjed, Ħal Qadi, Wied Amer, Għajn Għliem Alla, Ben Isa recall the Arabic domination of Malta.

Abela had an analytical mind and possessed keen powers of observation. It is evident that he took great pains to check the information recorded in his book and it is reasonable to believe that he had visited the areas and localities described in his book and that he collected the lore from the local folk.

Our historian gives pride of place to Notabile or Mdina the old capital of Malta, a city steeped in history and tradition. He describes it as a centre of administration with a self-contained municipal authority having its garrison and fortifications. In time of danger the defence of Mdina was reinforced by the [p.40] and no record is available of the topography prior to Abela's history of Malta. Abela has the merit of having recorded and described several sites, localities and areas and his descriptions throw much light not only on the geographical features of the Island but also on the social aspects of his times. In fact many of the names and places are related to particular occupations or produce, others refer to characteristic peculiarities and still more names are derived from some distinguishing mark in their district or region.

Abela reserved no fewer than three chapters in the first part of his book to detailed descriptions of the inhabited and the uninhabited areas of the Island. These descriptions of towns and villages are informative and interesting because they are not limited to mere localities but touch on the social and political aspects.

Abela's plan was to divide the Island into counties or "terra," named after the chief inhabited centres in the localities such as Terra Curmi, Terra Zorrico, Terra Nasciaro, etc. He described all the villages and hamlets and covered the main landmarks in each area including estates, gardens, springs, fountains, chapels, coves and bays. He even gave the origin of certain names although his etymology was not always correct. For instance he derived the designation of the village Gharghour from the Christian name Gregorio, which is not the case. Some of his derivations, however, are important because they throw light on trades and occupations as well as on social aspects of the inhabitants of a particular village or district. Ġnien Is-Sultan (the Sultan's garden) Ġnien il-Fieres (the Knight's garden) Għajn Qajjed (the Judge's fountain) Wied tal-Isqof (the Bishop's valley) Ġebel il-Raħeb (the Monk's hill), all in the neighbourhood of Mdina, the old Capital of Malta, indicate landlords belonging to well-known grades in the social structure of the times, whilst Wied in-Naħal (the valley of the bees), Rdum il-Bies (the cliff of the falcon), Għamieri (the wheat sheaves), Mrieħel (herds), Ta' Arram (grain heaps), Forn il-ġir (limekiln), Il-Maħsel (the laundry) are all names related to particular produce, crops or trades.

[p.41] [some text is missing here] militia at Naxxar and Siggiewi, about 2,000 strong; they were allocated special posts on the bastions. One of those posts facing North was called Lanzet Baccari and was probably so named after an old noble family, the Vaccaros, who maintained their own corps of halberdiers, or "Lanez" in Maltese.

Mdina had wide areas under its jurisdiction. Within those limits rises Verdala Hill, so called after Grand Master Verdala who built the noble castle on top of it. On the South the hill slopes gently to a fertile valley rich with fresh springs, running streams and playing fountains. Both sides of the valley were covered by a wood of fir trees so dense as to be almost impenetrable and there were also extensive orange groves and other fruit trees imported from France.

On the West of Verdala stood Ħal Għul an estate that belonged to Santo Spirito Hospital, one of the oldest hospitals in Europe. It was administered by the municipality of Mdina. This old name of the estate is today forgotten but the romantic designation of a nearby property has luckily survived. It is called Għar Barka which according to some historians commemorates the surname, Barka, of a powerful Carthaginian family from whom sprang Hannibal, that famous General who had almost vanquished Rome. Further West there is Mtaħleb famed for its natural beauty and favoured by hikers. It has an abundant water supply. Some springs mentioned in Abela's book still exist such as Għajn San Ġwann, Għajn il-Kbira, but the names of others have been forgotten and today it is impossible to identify the springs then known as Għajn Cor and Għajn Andria. In the vicinity there was also a valley with a curious name: Wied il-Qasab Ħelu, the valley of the sugar canes, which ac-cording to Abela grew abundantly there.

Bearing North of Mtaħeb there is Baħrija. Our historian makes some interesting comments on the origin of the name Qala tal-Bakrija and compares it with other localities in Sicily and in Spain bearing also the prefix Qala, such as Qala ta' Ġinun or Caltagirone in Sicily and Qala de Henares in Spain. He also mentions certain archaeological remains including the foundations of primitive habitations which today have disappeared. In the neighbourhood of Baħrija lies Wied Gerżuma [p.42] meaning the valley of the vine-shoots. This property was donated by Grand Master De Paule to endow the fund for the maintenance of the galleys of the Order and Abela himself in his capacity of Knight Commander of the Order was a beneficiary of that estate.

To the North of Mdina near Falka hill were two localities named Ħal Dimech and Ħal Pessa indicating the existence of two small villages which even in Abela's time had disappeared. Now also their names are lost. The area is marked by several hillocks a few of which had names which today are forgotten such as Ġebel Omar, Ġebel Mayn. Further North is Tarġa Gap which at the time of our historian was called Tarġa ta' San Żakkari, St. Zachary's steps. Towards St. Paul's Bay is a hill which had the curious name of Ġebel il-Għażara. Abela believed that Għażara means an outburst of joy uttered by soldiers after a victory and according to him that term was given to perpetuate the last battle of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 which was fought at the foot of that hill and at which the relieving force of Christians routed the Turkish army. West of the hill was a cultivated plot of land called San Brankato, a name which today is hardly remembered.

Having described the old capital and its limits, Abela deals with various areas or "terre" grouped around the principal inhabited centres or large villages. He does not limit his descriptions to topographical information but mentions facts and circumstances relating to occupational, social and administrative matters. Thus in describing Naxxar he takes good care not only to mention that the village lies on top of a hill from which a good view of the North and West parts of the Island may be taken, but he also refers to the fact that in that village was the residence and headquarters of a Knight of the Order who commanded the militia of those parts of the Island. On approaching Naxxar one had to cross a common called the Xagħra tal-Bieb tan-Naxxar, Naxxar Gate esplanade, where a guard was always posted. Abela derives the term Naxxar from the Maltese verb "to saw" but this view is not shared by modern philologists.

[p.43] North of Naxxar is another hill which was then called Ġebel ta' San Pietru. Within the limits of Naxxar stood two smaller villages called Ħal Manna and Ħal Bordi of both of which no vestiges remain. Another village, Ħal Bordi was incorporated with the parish of Attard, a section of the latter village was known as Ħal Warda, the Rose, because of the many rose shrubs cultivated there.

Within the borders of Naxxar were various marshes containing ponds (Għadira) of stagnant water. One of the ponds called Għadira tal-Bordi was on the outskirts of the village Ħal Bordi, another called Għadira ta' Torbet Għarfagna, was near Ħal Manna and a third one named Ta' Sirina stood mid-way between Attard and Rabat.

In the neighbourhood of Attard were two estates, one of them called Ta' Trapani the other Ta' Seguna, both presumably so named after two prominent families who owned the lands. Speaking of family estates it is not generally known that the Barony of Tabria, which is still extant, owes its name to a fief called Tabria Tiberiade.

The limits of the parish of Żebbuġ were dealt with very summarily. A few landmarks were mentioned which today cannot be localised. One of them was Raba' ta' Szaarura, a field which according to Abela was so called after the family Azzarolo that today is extinct. There were also Wied il-Berbri, the valley of the Berbers, and Għar Ilma, water cave, standing near each other, the whereabouts of which are today unknown. Żebbuġ was surrounded by smaller villages, Ħal Muxi, Ħal Dwin and Ħal Mula, all of which have since been absorbed by the larger one.

In his description of Birkirkara Abela refers to the Collegiate Church and its canonries both of which have retained paramount importance in the affairs of that town. He mentions another church, St. George of Makta, which has long since disappeared. Between Birkirkara and Qormi stood Ħal Kaprat, a small village which today has been engulfed within the sprawling limits of Ħamrun. Northeast of Birkirkara is a place still called Għargħar: it earned its name from a wood of juniper trees. Għargħar is the Maltese name for juniper.

[p.44] It appears that Abela was familiar with the town of Curmi, or Qormi as it is now called, and he knew its environs well. He possessed a country house at Jesuit Hill which in his time was within the parish limits of Qormi and he must have often gone there for a walk or to meet his friends and cronies. Fie described in detail the principal buildings, the inhabitants and the industries. One of the principal industries, that of breadmaking, has survived up to this day. He derived the name Curmi from an Arabic word meaning vine, and mentioned that near Messina in Sicily there was a place called Raselcurmi.

The inner reaches of the Grand Harbour extended deeply into the low-lying plain between Marsa and Qormi rendering that area marshy and malarious. The sea reached to the outskirts of Qormi so much so that ships and galleys of the Order used to draw fresh water from a spring called Għajn Filip.

Qormi was richly provided with springs, wells and fountains such as Bir (Well) Yaħlef, Bir Ebeyer, Bir il-Meru, Bir Buħagiar, Bir il-Vasa. Some of these wells must have been lost beneath the expanding periphery of the town, others must have lost their old name.

The main road from Qormi to Valletta first went uphill passing through a meadow called Ta' Formagi situated between the Church of Our Ladv of Atocia at Samra and the inner basin of Marsa, then before reaching the city the road crossed Wardija which was the name of the area surrounding the modern Church of Sarria. The creek known today as Pieta was within the limits of Qormi and was called Daħlet il-Qasab, the inlet of the canes.

To the South of Qormi past the valley called Wied il-Kbir stood Hal Farruġ, a small hamlet which is now covered by the aerodrome.

Within the limits of Siġġiewi and to the West of it lies Girgenti, a fertile valley planted with fruit trees. Abela recorded the existence of archaeological remains in the locality which according to him owes its name to Fallari, Lord of Giorgenti in Sicily, who was a friend of the Maltese. Further West near Ġebel Ċiantar stood a fountain graced with the romantic name [p.45] of Għajn Għliem Alla meaning the fountain of the servant of God. Other fantastic names were Wied ta' Bir Abd Alla, the valley of the well of the minister of God, an Arabic appellation, and Bir Giabrun, the well of the giants. Another name which today is also forgotten was that of an estate called San Tawdar, Saint Theodore. A chapel of that Saint was in ruins when Abela wrote his book.

Surrounding Siġġiewi were several smaller villages which today are either forgotten or have disappeared or have been absorbed by the parent township. They were Ħal Tus, Ħal Niklusi, Ħal Tabuni, Ħal Xiluk and Ħal Kbir.

The limits of the Parish of Zurrieq covered the greater part of the South of the Island. The chief centre was of course Zurrieq and clustered around it and dependent on it for administrative purposes, were several small villages and hamlets. The names of some of those villages survive but a few other names fell in oblivion. The villages Ħal Sejjieh, Ħal Spital, Ħal Qadi, Ħal Ġiawhar (the pearl village) have lost their identity with the passage of time. Near Ħal Ġiawhar there stood a tower likewise called Tal Ġiawhar, which according to Abela was erected by the Arabs. Other villages are still remembered be-cause their names have survived although the villages them-selves have disappeared such as Ħal Far, Ħal Arrig, Ħal Milleri. Other villages have been absorbed into larger ones. Thus Ħal Lew and Ħal Manin were embodied with Qrendi; Ħal Bubaqra was incorporated with Zurrieq.

When describing Maqluba, the deep gorge South of Qrendi, Abela relates the legends and traditions connected with the place and he gives particulars of the popular festivities which used to be celebrated every year at the nearby church of St. Matthew.

The village of Gudja had another name, Bir Miftuħ, and South of Gudja towards the sea there stood a stronghold which even in Abela's time was in ruins. It was called Torri tal-Għassiewi or tower of the coast-guards; it was planned like a donjon and was built of very huge blocks of stone. Its purpose was to protect the entrance into bays of the South coast of the Island.

[p.46] Between Gudja and Kirkop were two fields one named after Saint Paul the other after Saint Luke, Għieliegi ta' San Paul u ta' San Luqa. The names perhaps commemorate the event so graphically related in Chapter 28 Verse I - II of the Acts, when Saint Paul and Saint Luke were shipwrecked on the shores of our Island which they converted to Christianity.

The chief inhabited centre in the Southeast of the Island was Bisqallin or Bisbut, now known by its modern name of Zejtun, its limits were widely scattered and covered an extensive area. Many small villages were included in that area which was exposed to frequent raids and forays by the Barbary Corsairs. As a result of that danger the inhabitants sought refuge in larger villages or in towns. Many of the small hamlets were abbandoned and fell into rapid decay so much so that not only their names but also their whereabouts have been forgotten. Ħal Said, Ħal Charrat, Ħal Tmin are today obliterated from the map of Malta, but once they were the hive of busy and industrious inhabitants.

West of Zejtun is Tarxien, which in Abela's time was also called Ħal Ġwan. Pawla which today is a thriving town was described as a small struggling village, its Maltese name Ranal Ġdid being then unknown. Between Tarxien and Burmola was a locality called Ta' Dosa which today must have lost its name or changed it.

Żabbar was embodied for military purposes with the areas under the command of the Captain of Bisqallin. In the neighbourhood of the two villages were some localities with quaint names such as Għassieli, rich in honey; Wied iz-Ziju, the valley of the uncle; Forn il-ġir, the limekiln.

On the South coast of the Island within the limits of Żejtun were some localities which today have changed or lost their name. Near Birżebbuġa, Għar Dalam was called Għar Dalman. Għadira ta' San Ġorġ, St. George's pool, was a favourite place for housewives wherein to wash their laundry. Ta' Longobardi, the name of a property near Birżebbuġa, was linked with the name of the owners, a noble family residing at Messina. Ta' Sflaski was the name of another property so called after the nickname of an old Maltese family.

[p.47] At Marsaxlokk were the remains of an old keep called Ta' Kasar, which name Abela compares with the Spanish word Alcazar having the same meaning. The author writes that he himself had seen some huge foundations belonging to the old fort and he also mentions that old coins, medals and broken statues and idols were discovered by indifferent excavators.

The city of Valletta was built less than a century before Abela's book was published and was therefore comparatively new at the time. It had not yet assumed the imposing appearance and the political importance which it enjoyed towards the close of the eighteenth century when the Grand Masters of the Order held Court as Sovereigns of the Principality of Malta and Gozo. In Abela's time new fortifications were being added to older ones and private and public buildings and establishments were still being erected. A system of water supply had been lately introduced by Grand Master Wignacourt but other-wise there were very few municipal services. The town depended for its bread supplies and market produce on Qormi, with which it maintained a brisk trade and cordial relations.

The population of Valletta was estimated to be 10,744 which was not inconsiderable when compared with the density of the population of the rest of the Island. Most of the streets were named after Saints but only few of them have retained their original name.

The wharves on the Valletta side of the Grand Harbour were not yet constructed. The seashore beneath Capuchin convent was called Dokkara, and further inland towards Marsa was a sea wall erected by the Romans. The inner basin of the Harbour known as the Menqa extended inwards as far as the present Marsa Road. It was called Xatt-il-Qwabar, the shore of crabs, a name which today is almost forgotten.

We have listed here a few localities and landmarks the names of which are today lost, forgotten or changed. Some others have fallen in ruins or disappeared leaving no trace of their existence. Our list is in no way complete and perhaps some of the names mentioned are still occasionally remembered. Our aim was to present some topographical features of our [p.48] Island three hundred years ago. A comparison between the old and the new place-names will throw light on the ever-changing face of our Island. This process is linked with the forces of evolution which never failed to maintain a steady progress in the life of our country. Many of the localities now forgotten were in the heyday of their existence teeming with life and industry, but then some particular circumstance or event must have supervened and shifted the centre of activity to other areas. What were those circumstances and events, how they developed, what were their effects, form a fascinating study on the social, political and industrial development of our country.


[1] Della Descrittione di Malta del Commendatore Gio. Francesco Abela. In Malta. Per Paolo Bonacota. MDCXLVII.