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Comunicare la memoria del Mediterraneo

Francesco Gravina

Progetti di valorizzazione

A walk through the port: a proposed heritage trail through the maritime landscape of Burmarrad

Timothy Gambin

Texte intégral


1As suggested by the title, this paper consists of a proposal to set up a heritage trail around one of the ancient ports of the island of Malta. The idea of such a trail came about through my participation in the ANSER project. This project was not aimed solely at researching ancient remains (and their functions) related to maritime activity but also at the valorisation of such remains for present and future generations. Setting up such a trail will not simply valorise the port itself but also contribute to the understanding of human activity that went on around it.

2Both locals and tourists alike will benefit from this heritage trail. The port in question lies close to one of the tourist areas of the island; in an area often considered as cut off from cultural activities and heritage centres. The setting up of the trail will offer the tourists the possibility to visit a ‘living’ museum. This is especially important for the off-peak season when tourists in Qawra, who make up a substantial amount of the total visitors to the island, seek out alternative activities to swimming and other water sports. If implemented, this trail would be the first of its kind on the island. The final part of the presentation will deal with the potential partners that may be brought together to realise this project.

3The Malta Tourism Authority has started to promote Malta as a destination for walkers and walking itineraries suggested by the marketing people of this authority include a number of heritage sites. However, these sites lack any descriptions and information in the form of panels. Many sites are not even open to the public. Ideas suggested in this paper would help consolidate this facet of Malta’s tourism product.

  • 1 For the full report see the MEPA website

4In 2004, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) published its detailed report on the Maltese Landscape as part of ongoing reform of the Structure Plan for the Maltese Islands and within the framework of the European Landscape Convention. MEPA has identified the landscape as one of the nation’s primary resources which, amongst other things, is: “an experience with immense recreational, inspirational and educational potential-landscape being the result of a wide range of natural and anthropogenic forces which instil a sense of awe and wonder especially in individuals with considerable appetite for knowledge”.1 I believe that the introduction of heritage trails throughout Malta and Gozo would contribute to the valorisation and exploitation of both the recreational and educational aspects of the island’s landscape.

The Area

  • 2 This has been discussed in the ANSER seminar held at Alicante. See Gambin 2004.

5Burmarrad is a floodplain at the head of Salina Bay, on the north coast of Malta (fig 1). Before the end of the last ice age, the area formed part of a tributary system that fed a large river to the north. The end of the ice age brought about dramatic rises in sea-levels and flooded many areas that were once dry land. In the case of Burmarrad, this evolved into a large lagoon-like bay that subsequently silted up over the centuries.2

Fig. 1. Map of the Maltese Islands showing the area of Burmarrad (T. Gambin).

Fig. 2. A detail of the Burmarrad area with the proposed trail marked in red. The blue dotted line represents the ancient coastline (T. Gambin).

6Today, Burmarrad consists of a floodplain that is intensively cultivated with a field system dating back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To the north and south, the flat and lowlying floodplain is surrounded by a number of hills, which in turn are divided by a series of valleys that drain large tracts of the island. Flash floods still carry large amounts of fresh water, sediment and other debris to the area. Salina Bay is all that is left of the once large harbour of Burmarrad.

The Trail

7The proposed trail would start at Ghallis Point from where one would proceed to follow the coast road towards the plain. In essence, the trail skirts around the periphery of the ancient bay (fig. 2) and would measure approximately 7.5 kilometres in length along predominantly flat ground. It is envisaged that information panels would be placed outside all the sites of interest situated on the trail.

The Sites

8I shall now describe the various sites that are located in the landscape surrounding the Burmarrad plain. The order in which these are described corresponds to the sequence one would experience when walking along the trail. Therefore, the description of a Paleochristian burial complex may be followed by that of a seventeenth century chapel. The proposal described in this paper is for an outdoor experience; aimed at creating an understanding of the archaeological remains in the landscape. The accompanying maps and photographs are intended to help readers orient themselves better with the area.

1) The Ghallis Tower

9This is one of the many lookout towers built around the coast of the Maltese islands during the seventeenth century. The purpose of these towers was twofold:

10To provide an early warning system for approaching enemy ships

11To guard the entrance to anchorages and landing places that dot the Maltese coast

12Ghallis tower was the second tower constructed by Grandmaster Fra Martin de Redin in 1659. It is located on a rocky outcrop at the head of Salina Bay. Together with Qawra Point tower (constructed by Grandmaster Lascaris in 1638), it dominates the entrance to the bay. Recently, the tower underwent extensive renovations but it is not yet open to the public. This tower, along with the other fortifications in the area shed light on Salina Bay as a favoured landing place for enemy corsairs.

2) The Ximenes Redoubt

13As the name implies, this redoubt was built by Grandmaster Ximenes in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The redoubts constructed around the coasts of Malta and Gozo were integrated into the above-mentioned coastal defence system and were designed to prevent enemy troops from landing. Unlike the gun batteries and towers, the redoubts were strategically placed towards the middle of the bay; from where troops and artillery fire would stop the advancing enemy. This particular example is interesting for it is built right next to an old warehouse used for the storage of salt. It also has a built-in fougasse, a form of early mortar that was excavated in the rock and used to shower the approaching enemy with stones and shrapnel. Both the redoubt and the warehouse are not accessible to the public.

3) The Saltpans

14The very name Salina originates from the magnificent saltpans situated at the bay. These were built in the latter half of the sixteenth century although it is not certain exactly which Grandmaster initiated the project. Due to the presence of marshes in the area, the saltpans are built over reclaimed land and their floors are paved with limestone tiles. The saltpans are filled with seawater during the winter and by August the salt is ready for harvesting. A navigable channel known as the soccorso surrounds the complex, ensuring that the harvested salt could be loaded directly onto vessels so as to be transported to the main harbours of Birgu and Valletta.

15Nowadays the structures are in a dilapidated state but despite this situation salt is still harvested today. This presents an opportunity to observe the process of traditional salt harvesting. Access to the saltpans could be provided by the construction of two small bridges across the old channels. These bridges would also provide access to the heritage trail for people living or staying in Qawra. It would be imperative to ensure that the channels remain navigable for the small boats that moor there.

Fig. 3. Reconstruction of fougasse by S. Spiteri: 1. Solid rock; 2. Fougasse (rock-cut chamber); 3. Rocks and other materials as projectiles; 4. Barrel of gunpowder; 5. Fuse.

4) The Hypogea

16The next site on the heritage trail consists of a Paleochristian burial complex. It consists of five small catacombs, about a score of floor-tombs and several rock-tombs. Construction works in the 1960s destroyed some of the tombs but others have survived and are still visible today. Some of the tombs are well decorated with a series of spiral designs. The site was recently cleaned and the public is able to visit the various tombs on the site. Some of the tombs are decorated with elaborate reliefs.

5) The Chapel of the Annunciation

17This is one of the many chapels that dot the Maltese landscape. It dates back to the early sixteenth century although its exact origins are unclear. It contains a titular painting by local artist Emvin Cremona. This rural chapel is not open to the public, however an information panel just outside the building would help the visitor understand its history.

Fig. 4. The Salina Hypogea (photo T. Gambin).

Fig. 5. The façade of St. Michael’s chapel (photo T. Gambin).

6) The Chapel of St Michael

18After leaving the coast road, the walker will take a small country road that runs along the periphery of the plain. The first site on this country road is another rural chapel, that of St Michael. Built in 1652 it has a simple façade with a belfry at the centre. The chapel is not open to the public and visitors will have to look into the building from the outside.

7) Tal-Qadi

19This site is one of the less well-known monuments that date back to the late Neolithic period and provides evidence for human activity in the area over four thousand years ago. Presently, there are no signs informing the public on the location of the site and it is quite difficult to find. It is a so-called four-apse temple although the remains have been badly damaged over time. The orientation of the site strongly suggests that it must have overlooked the ancient bay. This site is currently accessible to the public but is in dire need of a clean up and other general maintenance.

8) The Cart Ruts

20All along the hillock, on the northern border of the plain, one comes across stretches of what are referred to locally as cart ruts. Their exact function is not known and they pose one of the unanswered questions of Maltese archaeology. Most archaeologists working in Malta are of the opinion that the cart ruts date to the Bronze Age. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean these features are associated with quarrying although we cannot be sure that those in Malta had the same function. Those in Burmarrad seem to skirt the edge of what would have been the ancient bay. Significant stretches of cart ruts exist in the area and are still visible today.

Fig. 6. Steps leading to the Neolithic temple of Tal-Qadi (photo T. Gambin).

9) The Water System

21As already stated, the British modified the plain’s agricultural landscape in the eighteenth century. Part of this modification entailed the management of the storm water that flows through the plain. A series of watercourses and walkways were built to facilitate both the flow of water and the movement of people through the flooded plain. Much of this system still exists today; although parts of it have been buried under recently deposited sediment. The government has plans to restore long tracts of the waterway. Should such a project be undertaken, it would not only ease the problem of flooding in the area but would also expose these historical features.

10) The Field System

22The transformation of the agricultural landscape entailed the construction of a number of traditional farmhouses, the division of the fields with a series of straight stone walls was accompanied by the installation of a series of markings that show the extent of government owned land. Many of the farmhouses still exist and though some are private residences, these can be observed from the outside. Likewise, many of the rubble walls datable to this transformation can still be observed dividing fields that do not follow the contours of the surrounding landscape. Some of the original boundary markers are still visible today complete with the inscription GR (for George Rex).

11) The Chapel of St Margaret

23This a medieval church that was rebuilt in the 16th or 17th century with the front added in the mid-nineteenth century. On the façade one notes the presence of the plaque that can be found on many rural chapels which reads “non gode l’immunita’ ecclesiastica”. These plaques were put up to inform people that they could no longer seek refuge from the law within the walls of the chapel. Once again, the chapel is not open to the public but the interior can be viewed through a small window in the front door.

Fig. 7. A stretch of cart ruts just off the Burmarrad floodplain (photo T. Gambin).

Fig. 8. Part of the British-built water management system currently choked with a build up of mud and debris (photo T. Gambin).

Fig. 9. The modern field system of the Burmarrad flood-plain (photo T. Gambin).

12) The Chapel of San Pawl Milqi

24This is thought to be one of the earliest rural chapels to be built on Malta. However, the first written records date back to the middle of the fourteenth century. Archaeological remains under the church confirm the existence of earlier structures (see below) but it has not yet been ascertained whether these remains form part of an older sanctuary. Tradition has it that after his shipwreck St Paul was welcomed by the governor of the island, Publius, who owned the agricultural estate. One may enter the chapel but due to archaeological excavations carried out inside, the interior is bare. From the church one enjoys an excellent view of the archaeological remains situated in front of it.

13) The Roman Villa

25An Italian team excavated the Roman farmstead at San Pawl Milqi over a period of time during the 1960s. It consists of a large agricultural complex with numerous remains related to the large-scale production of olive oil. The complex evolved over the centuries and was already in existence in the Punic period, prior to the arrival of the Romans in 218 BC, although we are not certain as to its exact function in its earlier phases. Adjacent to the industrial part, one finds the remains of domestic dwellings that were well adorned with stuccoed walls and decorated floors. To date, this is the largest Roman villa in Malta to be fully excavated.

Concluding Remarks

26The proposed heritage trail takes one through a varied landscape and brings one in contact with monuments and sites from a range of chronological periods. However, the majority of these were built at a time when the area around Burmarrad was a large harbour. Today it is easy to forget this fact, and it is important to remind visitors to the area about the ancient maritime landscape that was once extant. This is because a monument such as the Neolithic temple was built facing the sea and the Roman villa was situated in an area that enjoyed easy access to the harbour. These factors are not easily discernible and should be explained and made clear to the visitor.

27For this and other reasons I propose the production of literature and a map that will accompany visitors on their trail around the ancient harbour. In this way, visitors will be aware of this phenomenon from the outset. Ideally, a visitor centre would also be set up to house informative and educational displays on the history of the area. Perhaps a few artefacts found in the Burmarrad area could be housed and displayed in this centre. The ideal location for such a centre would be the chapel (and sacristy) of San Pawl Milqi. Situated as it is at the end of the proposed trail it would serve to bring together all that the walkers would have seen in the preceding hours.

28The organisation of such a maritime trail would entail the co-operation of a number of public, ecclesiastical and private entities. Heritage Malta is responsible for three of the sites mentioned above: The Salina Hypogea, Tal-Qadi temple and San Pawl Milqi. On the other hand, the church curates three of the four rural chapels included in the trail: The Annunciation, St Michael’s and St Margaret’s. The Lands Department is responsible for the various fortifications listed above, as well as for the saltpans. However, the latter are leased out to private individuals for the production and harvesting of salt. An agreement would have to be reached with the present operators so as to allow persons to visit part of the complex. In return, government could finance much needed restoration works for the saltpans. Furthermore, bridges would have to be built to enable visitors to the trail to cross over from Qawra and Bugibba.

29The management of the trail could be entrusted to a non-profit organisation that would in turn co-ordinate with the abovementioned entities to ensure that all necessary standards and procedures are adhered to. Sponsors for the setting up and maintenance of the trail should be sought from the various stakeholders including hotel owners, local councils and other public/private entities with a direct interest in the general area.

30Although some heritage trails have been organised in other parts of Malta, one on such a scale and with such a varied number of sites has yet to be set up, a situation that increases the importance of developing such a project. Firstly, because many of the sites have been forgotten and unappreciated for too long; secondly, because this particular trail could act as a working model for similar proposals in the future. It therefore becomes imperative to ensure that the right standards are planned and achieved. Besides giving value to the island’s maritime past, such a project could serve to secure at least part of Malta’s vast heritage.

Fig. 10. The façade of the chapel at San Pawl Milqi with the remains of the Roman villa below (photo T. Gambin).



Buhagiar 1984: BUHAGIAR (M.), The Salina Hypogea at St. Paul’s Bay. Melita Historica, 9, 1984, p. 1-18.

Ferris 1866: FERRIS (A.) Descrizione Storica delle Chiese di Malta e Gozo, Malta, 1866 (1985 facsimile edition).

Gambin 2004: GAMBIN (T.), Islands of the Middle Sea: An Archaeology of a Coastline in: De Maria (L.), Turchetti (R.) (ed.), Evolución paleoambiental de los puertos y fondeaderos antiguos en el Mediterráneo Occidental (Proceedings of the first ANSER seminar, Alicante 2003), Soveria Mannelli, 2004, p. 127-146

Locatelli 2001: LOCATELLI (D.), The Roman Villa at San Pawl Milqi: History and Perspectives of Archaeological Site. Treasures of Malta, 7, n. 2, p. 73-78.

Grima 2000: GRIMA (R.), Naxxar - An Archaeological Profile, in: Catania (P.), Scerri (L. S.) (ed.), Naxxar: A village and its people, Malta, 2000, p. 27-64

Spiteri 1989: SPITERI (S.), The knights’ fortifications: an illustrated guide of the fortifications built by the Knights of St John in Malta, Malta, 1989.

Spiteri 2000: SPITERI (M.), A Hundred Wayside Chapels of Malta and Gozo, Malta, 2002.

Trump 2002: TRUMP (D.), Malta: Prehistory and Temples, Malta, 2002.


1 For the full report see the MEPA website

2 This has been discussed in the ANSER seminar held at Alicante. See Gambin 2004.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1. Map of the Maltese Islands showing the area of Burmarrad (T. Gambin).
Fichier image/jpeg, 47k
Légende Fig. 2. A detail of the Burmarrad area with the proposed trail marked in red. The blue dotted line represents the ancient coastline (T. Gambin).
Fichier image/jpeg, 411k
Légende Fig. 3. Reconstruction of fougasse by S. Spiteri: 1. Solid rock; 2. Fougasse (rock-cut chamber); 3. Rocks and other materials as projectiles; 4. Barrel of gunpowder; 5. Fuse.
Fichier image/jpeg, 493k
Légende Fig. 4. The Salina Hypogea (photo T. Gambin).
Fichier image/jpeg, 199k
Légende Fig. 5. The façade of St. Michael’s chapel (photo T. Gambin).
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Légende Fig. 6. Steps leading to the Neolithic temple of Tal-Qadi (photo T. Gambin).
Fichier image/jpeg, 202k
Légende Fig. 7. A stretch of cart ruts just off the Burmarrad floodplain (photo T. Gambin).
Fichier image/jpeg, 434k
Légende Fig. 8. Part of the British-built water management system currently choked with a build up of mud and debris (photo T. Gambin).
Fichier image/jpeg, 235k
Légende Fig. 9. The modern field system of the Burmarrad flood-plain (photo T. Gambin).
Fichier image/jpeg, 165k
Légende Fig. 10. The façade of the chapel at San Pawl Milqi with the remains of the Roman villa below (photo T. Gambin).
Fichier image/jpeg, 363k


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