A study carried out by marine geologist Dr Aaron Micallef (‘Malta’s submerged landscape’, Times of Malta, January 4, 2013), found that the archipelago was two-and-a-half times larger and the sea level 130 metres lower during the last Ice Age. The subsequent rise in sea levels created bays and harbours, mainly in a south-southeast to northeast direction, including Grand Harbour, the Marsa l-Kbira (Mers el Kebir) and its innermost creek, Ix-Xatt tal-Marsa, the stretch of water beyond an imaginary line drawn between Ras ?an?ir and the spur below the Capuchin convent at Floriana. Ancient toponyms offer windows on history, being mainly derived from Arabic, in this instance, for ‘harbour’ or ‘anchorage’, and is thus found elsewhere in the archipelago, namely Marsalforn, Marsa ta’ ?al Saflieni, Marsamxett, Marsascala, Marsa Xini, Marsa Xlendi, Marsaxlokk, (Wettinger, 2000).
The lime kiln below the musketry gallery.
While the Muslim period between the ninth and 11th centuries yields extant toponyms, it is archaeology that offers insights into the first inhabitants. Marsa has been an archaeologist’s paradise, with tombs and artefacts turning up regularly over the centuries. Late Bronze Age remains were found as recently as 2016 during excavation works at Tal-Istabal.
By that time the sea had receded sufficiently for Marsa to become a delta for the confluence of Wied il-Kbir and Wied is-Sewda (river) systems, the limit for navigation being Qormi, which has long been considered a former Roman river port (Haslam/Borg, 1998); pebbles in the subsoil at Ta?-?ag?qi at Qormi (Galea, 1968) confirm this. Winter flooding and heavy silting turned Marsa into an unhealthy, uninhabitable marsh; this may have led the Byzantines to move closer to the sea at Marsa after AD 535.
There is a dearth of information until 1440 when Alfonso, King of Naples and Sicily, granted the lands at Marsa to Pietro Busco in recognition of his service to the crown. They were passed on to Giovanni de Nava, castellan of Fort St Angelo in 1469 after being held by Gonzalves La Rua and Didacus Grayera. In 1530, the family sold the rights to the Duke of Monteleone Pignatelli, who was styled as the Baron of Marsa. The land devolved to the Order of St John under Grand Master Jean l’Evesque de la Cassière (1572-1781).
Captain Smythe’s 1823 map showing the island, causeway and timber lake at Marsa.
When Grand Master Philippe de Villiers de L’Isle Adam died at Mdina on August 26, 1534, his corpse laid overnight at the medieval chapel of Ta’ ?eppuna before being transferred to Vittoriosa the next morning. Ta’ ?eppuna (meaning: an enclosure for runaway farm animals) must have been situated close to where the Marsa plain (described as Marsa Hortus in the 1536 Malta map of Jean Quintin d’Autun) met the sea; in 1575, Inquisitor Mgr Pietro Dusina visited the chapel, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin; the altarpiece portrayed the Assumption and saints Paul, John and Publius (Blanche Lintorn Simmons, 1895).
Marsa has been an archaeologist’s paradise, with tombs and artefacts turning up regularly over the centuries
The Ottoman forces set up camp on the Marsa plain on May 24, 1565. It was flat, irrigated and excellent for pincer attacks on the defenders at Fort St Elmo, Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua. After the fall of Fort St Elmo, the Ottomans besieged the Three Cities. A massive attack was launched in the middle of August after several boats were carried from Marsamxett to Marsa, at the shortest point between the harbours. On August 17, a small force from Mdina attacked the unguarded Marsa encampment while the main army was about to overwhelm Senglea. The Turks retreated after believing (erroneously) that a Christian relief force had arrived from Sicily. The encampment was vacated on September 7. Disease from the Marsa marsh, the brackish water supply, poisoned wells and the surprise foray from Mdina may have contributed to the victory.
Byzantine remains at Xatt il-Qwabar in 1993. Photo: Nathaniel Cutajar, Programm G?aqda tal-Mu?ika Trinità Mqaddsa, 2001
After the Great Siege, Grand Masters Giovanni Paolo Lascaris and Nicolás Cotoner constructed dykes to reclaim the land for agricultural purposes and control recurring malaria. Before Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt’s aqueduct, galleys used to draw water from G?ajn Filep (Philip’s Spring) in the Gran Marza. When parish boundaries were redrawn in 1592, Marsa was incorporated with Qormi and a cross was erected on the border with Tarxien. The toponyms of the area were by now firmly established.
Between Qormi and the sea were the marshes. Heavy silting marked the two distinct areas consisting of the larger, Il-Marsa l-Kbira – La Gran Marza and its Gezira, a large island, later much reduced, created by the delta, and Xatt il-Kwabar (Il-Marsa ?-?g?ira). The latter took its name either from the tombs, qobra, or from the qobru, the freshwater crab that thrived in the estuary. Straddling them was the headland or Qortin ta’ San ?or?, named after a small chapel overlooking the harbour.
Human remains at the former Muslim Cemetery: Xatt il-Qwabar, 2016.
Gian Fran?isk Abela built his country house, the Cabinetto San Giacomo here in 1631. The villa was built on an archaeological site and it was inevitable that Abela amassed a sizeable collection which even drew visitors from abroad. The villa was built in the Roman style with gardens, grottoes, springs and statues. Over the door was inscribed Haec Nobis Ocia Fecit. In the garden, a dedication to Grand Master Antoine de Paule: Generalibus Comitis Sub Eminentiss. Magno Magistro De Paula Feliciter Locus Porta Tramiti Structuris Adauctus Anno MDXXXI. Abela bequeathed his collection to the Jesuits, and the headland continues to be known as Giardino Gezuiti/Jesuits’ Hill. The fate of the collection is beyond the scope of this article; what remained after transport, pilferage and damage formed the nucleus of Malta’s first archaeological museum.
In 1768, Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca commissioned work on Jesuits’ Hill: a new road for better access from Xatt il-Kwabar to Gran Marsa, which was linked to Casal Nouvo (Paola) by a causeway. The works unearthed remains close to Abela’s Cabinetto. These were described in 1794 by Carlo Antonio Barbaro, Marquis of St George, after he visited the place in 1786. Barbaro commissioned Sebastiano Ittar to draw a plan. There was a portico with five rooms on either side; a corridor led to another five oblong rooms and a separate, smaller building. Barbaro found a treasure trove of statues, coins and amphorae.
On this side of the peninsula, Antonio Maurizio Valperga’s crownworks ended in a diamond-shaped musketry gallery whose spur overlooked Marsa. Below the fortification, there was a lime kiln; both gallery and kiln are extant. In 1675, the fortifications displaced a Muslim cemetery and burials were transferred to a new site near Xatt il-Kwabar. Following the construction of the Portu Novu, the site was forgotten, albeit marked on maps as Cimiterio dei Turki/Turkish Cemetery. The remains were discovered in 2016 during works on a new road to Grand Harbour.
Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu, later immortalised for discovering (he was not the first) dolomite, and for whom the Dolomites and a volcanic crater in Reunion were later named, spent most of his life in the service of the Order of St John, pursuing interests in mineralogy, volcanoes and mountains. Dolomieu studied the fossils of Malta. He surveyed Marsa around 1780 and reported that it was “formerly almost entirely sea” and that “the tide came up as far as Casal Fornaro”. Silting and the force of the northeast wind had filled up the creek. He averred that nature could be assisted by constructing dykes to drain the marsh.
Dolomieu was trapped in Valletta during the French blockade; his collection was sent to France on the Triton after the capitulation in 1800. The insurgents bombarded the city from batteries erected at key points, including one on Jesuits’ Hill. The foul air from the marsh led to the abandonment of Paola, wood from the houses being used for the batteries.
Enter the British. Captain Frederick Hunn, the King’s Harbour Master at Malta during the time of Civil Commissioner Sir Hildebrand Oakes, implemented Dolomieu’s plan by constructing a dyke “by which much valuable land has been reclaimed from a state of marsh at the head of the harbour”. The work was started under his predecessor, Sir Alexander Ball.
Dr John Hennen, Inspector of Military Hospitals of the Mediterranean, arrived in 1821. His Sketches of the Medical Topography of the Mediterranean was published posthumously by his son in 1830. The plague of 1813 had divided medical opinion for or against the contagion theory. Hennen favoured contagion, but attributed fevers to the marshes, notably Marsa, whose deleterious miasma affected Floriana and Paola, the “deserted village”.
The musketry gallery.
Using Captain Smythe’s map, Hennen visited Marsa by boat; he noted the reeds, the central island, the “mass of fetid mud, the difficulty of navigation in the shallows… whenever the boatmen struck the mud with their oars”. Nevertheless, he hoped the “entire ‘cul-de-sac’ at the top of the harbour will become land capable of bearing the richest crops”. Smythe’s map shows a timber lake at the Piccola Marsa or Menqa (meaning an artificial pool) which devolved to the government in 1818 and, in 1780, was “already choked up” (Dolomieu).
In 1851, Admiral Sir William Parker divided the Grand Harbour for naval and mercantile purposes. The Marsa was dredged in 1858 with a view to move the mercantile community from French Creek to a new harbour to be constructed there. The ball was set rolling in the following year.
(To be concluded)
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