Marsaxlokk: Discover The Unique History & Culture Of This Colourful Fishing Village In Southeast Malta
by Tiziana Micallef
From all the beautiful villages Malta has to offer, Marsaxlokk, once part of Zejtun, is a must-visit destination for both locals and tourists. Located in the southeastern part of Malta, this quaint fishermen's village is a definite charm characterised by endless rows of colourful luzzus, churches and chapels, megalithic remains and magnificent fortifications. Being so close to the sea, Marsaxlokk is also known for its abundance of idyllic swimming spots and variety of seafood restaurants presenting the freshest catches you can find on the island.
When The Name Says It All
Marsaxlokk takes its name from the Arabic word 'marsa' – meaning 'port', and 'xlokk' – the Maltese word for 'south-east'. Hence, the name and location of Marsaxlokk are a reflection of the dry sirocco Mediterranean wind that blows from the Sahara. This type of wind can reach hurricane speeds in North Africa and Southern Europe, mainly during the summer months. Marsaxlokk is a harbour village that is fed by a valley draining the Marnisi and Hal Ginwi areas and has one of the smaller floodplains on the island. A small marsh at the head of Marsaxlokk Bay known as Tal-Maghluq survives today, and may have been larger a long time ago to serve as a closed artificial lagoon for fish.
Over the years the outer part of Tal-Maghluq was cleared and widened to serve as a menqa (a docking basin) for fishing vessels. The stretch of the Nature Reserve of Tal-Maghluq includes a protected saline marshland known as Il-Ballut ta' Marsaxlokk. This rare natural habitat is a Natura 2000 site and one can find a beach and a small port for fishing vessels nearby.
The peninsula of Xrobb l-Ghagin is evidence of human civilisation from the Tarxien Phase. The once-built megalithic temple that stood on Xrobb l-Ghagin dates back to 4000 BC according to remains mostly found on the deteriorating cliffside. Its structure followed other typical temples found in Malta – a paved court with a passage leading to four apices. In 1659, the area of Xrobb l-Ghagin was also where the eighth coastal watchtower of the thirteen De Redin Towers once stood.
Today, the area, which covers over 155,000 square metres of land, is home to Xrobb l-Ghagin Nature Park and Sustainable Development Centre. The Centre's aim is to educate and carry out research in sustainable environment solutions to increase renewable energy and wastewater management use, plus safeguard biodiversity.
Within walking distance from Xrobb l-Ghagin, there is the Tas-Silg Megalithic Complex with remains from the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Roman eras. This popular site is situated in the north-east part of Marsaxlokk and it's where you can experience going back in time through remains covering from the Neolithic to the 4th century AD. The site of Tas-Silg features megalithic remains and scattered parts of what might have been a large complex with at least three temples. As Phoenicians disembarked at Marsaxlokk's port they settled in the Tas-Silg area where they built the temple dedicated to the goddess Astarte by incorporating it with the remains of a previous temple. Numerous significant remains of pottery were discovered on-site during excavations that took place in the 1960s. These suggested that both local and imported ceramic ware and other goods were exchanged here.
Marsaxlokk Towards Christianisation
As the Roman Empire took power over the Phoenicians, the Punic temple was converted into a sanctuary dedicated to Juno, an ancient Roman goddess who was the equivalent figure to Astarte. In 70 BC, orator Cicero made a descriptive reference to this temple in his 'In Verrem' – a series of speeches by him. Remains of Roman-era origins were discovered around a well in the lower terrace of Tas-Silg. To this day, red Roman flooring made from crushed pottery, lime and white marble tiles is still visible!
The temple at Tas-Silg saw yet another evolution during the Byzantine era, in which it was transformed into a Christian basilica and monastery. The prehistoric megalithic temple was changed into a baptistery, with the font placed in the centre of the ancient structure. During this period a fortified wall with at least one tower was added to the site, perhaps as protection against a possible Arab invasion. Eventually, the basilica at Tas-Silg was enlarged and modified to include a fortified settlement south of it that links to Marsaxlokk harbour. The remains uncovered at Tas-Silg are considered important as these show that both Marsaxlokk harbour and settlement had links with various parts of the Mediterranean.
The Middle Ages In Marsaxlokk
There is little known about Marsaxlokk in the Middle Ages, except for the fact that houses in rural settings experienced frequent raids and attacks by Saracen pirates and later, raiders from the Barbary coast (North Africa coastal region). Modern studies show also that the area between Zejtun and Marsaxlokk was covered in vegetation and pasture land. In three medieval sailing instructions dating back to the 13th century, Marsaxlokk is mentioned in nautical charts marking sailing distances from the village harbour to other ports in the Mediterranean. These include Tunis, Tripoli and Cephalonia, evidencing the port of Marsaxlokk's connectivity with other parts of the Mediterranean during the Medieval period.
A Vulnerable Harbour
As the Ottoman Empire gained power in the Mediterranean region, Marsaxlokk was the main port where Ottomans anchored their ships during the Great Siege of 1565 before heading on to attack Fort Saint Elmo in Valletta. Because of episodes like these, the vulnerable harbour of Marsaxlokk was reinforced with a chain of fortifications strategically placed along for the best defence against invaders. Towers, batteries and fortresses that are synonymous with Marsaxlokk include Vendome Tower, Fort Delimara, Delimara Tower, Ta' Bettina Tower and Fort Tas-Silg in the Delimara area. Fort San Lucian protected the middle of the bay, whereas Pinto and Ferretti batteries served as fortifications on the north arm of Marsaxlokk Bay towards Birzebbuga.
Fort San Lucian – A Little Too Late
Referred to also as the Tower of Saint Lucian or Fort Rohan, this bastioned watchtower is the most popular one in Marsaxlokk. It is built in a polygonal shape and was built between 1610 and 1611 during the Order of St John period when Grandmaster Wignacourt was at the helm. Fort San Lucian is the second-largest watchtower in Malta and was built on the peninsula called Marnisi which protrudes into the harbour of Marsaxlokk. In around 1715, the tower was added with an artillery battery and then upgraded to a fort in the 1790s. Under the British colony the fort was rebuilt, maintaining the polygonal style and until a few years ago it was used by the Malta Aquaculture Research Centre.
The legend behind Fort San Lucian narrates that a woman slave from Tunisia who lived in Malta and became a Christian had a dream in which St John advised her to tell the Grand Master to fortify the Marsaxlokk area due to an Ottoman attack coming. This woman, Katrin is-Sewda, relayed the message to her trusted priest, who in turn informed his superior, Bishop Gargallo. When Bishop Gargallo relayed the message about the woman's dream to Grandmaster Wignacourt the latter ignored it. But, that summer, an Ottoman attack happened. Realising the mistake he had made, Grandmaster Wignacourt then ordered the construction of Fort San Lucian.
A Peace-Making Landmark
Under British rule, Marsaxlokk Bay was used for four-engined Short C-Class flying boats by Imperial Airways. During the Second World War, Kalafrana was used as a base for the Fleet Air Arm. But it was in 1989 when Marsaxlokk Bay gained an important spotlight during The Malta Summit.
Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and US President George H.W. Bush held a meeting on board the TS Maxim Gorkiy ship anchored in Marsaxlokk Bay. The meeting was held between the 2nd and 3rd December 1989, a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and discussions revolved around ending the Cold War and lessening the tensions.
Marsaxlokk Upgraded To A Parish
Just like any other village in Malta, you can't ignore the churches and chapels present in it. In the tiny village of Marsaxlokk, you'll find multiple chapels and churches, including St Nicholas Chapel, Our Lady of Tas-Silg Church, St Dominic Chapel, St Paul's Church, St Peter's Church and The Sacred Heart Chapel.
Nonetheless, the most important one linked to the village is the Parish Church dedicated to Our Lady of Pompeii. As Marsaxlokk Bay was constantly being used as a port of anchoring by Ottomans, Marsaxlokk had no fixed families living there. Most of the fishermen used to commute back and forth between Zejtun and Marsaxlokk to stay out of harm's way. It was only around 1846 that the first houses started settling in Marsaxlokk, as fishermen from Zejtun permanently stayed there. With the growth in population, the spiritual demands needed also to be addressed. So, in 1890, Archbishop Pace issued a decree to build a new church and eventually Marsaxlokk was forever separated from Zejtun. One of the greatest benefactors of the parish church's building was Marquess Rosalia Apap Viani Testaferrata, who after surviving a violent storm at sea made a promise to build a church.
Marsaxlokk was declared as a separate parish on 11th January 1897 with Dun Salv Delia as the parish priest. The first stone of the parish church dedicated to Our Lady of Pompeii was laid on 7th December 1890 and the stonework was completed in two years. Over the years, the choir and the two upper naves were added, and changes to the facade were made. A variety of paintings by local artists are present in the parish church too. The statue of Our Lady of Pompeii was brought from Lecce in Italy when Salv Delia was parish priest. And what about the festa you might be thinking? Well, that is obviously a calendar staple year after year marking the last Sunday of July with great celebrations.
A Fisherman's Land
Marsaxlokk has been the fishermen's village for as long as one can remember. The majority of fish caught in Malta comes from this village where the largest population of fishermen is based. Whether you're visiting the fishing village on weekends or during the week, you immediately notice the traditional luzzus and larger fishing boats at bay either docked for shelter or being prepared by fishermen before setting sail for a hopefully good catch. Fish like swordfish, tuna and the famous lampuki are typically caught between the months of spring and late autumn.
So, if you happen to be in Marsaxlokk during this period make sure to watch out for a fish hawker or else enjoy one of these fresh fish in one of the restaurants facing the port. If you want to go bigger, you definitely do not want to miss the Sunday fish market along the seafront for a wider selection of fresh fish and a myriad of other items, food, clothes and souvenirs at a good price.
Swimming Spots In Marsaxlokk
Four spectacular swimming spots embellish the peninsula at the southeast tip of Malta's fish-shaped mouth with crystal clear waters: Il-Hofra z-Zghira, il-Hofra l-Kbira, Kalanka and St Peter's Pool. The latter two are easier to access than the other two through the road leading to the Delimara power station. All four coves provide swimmers with an amazing experience, particularly if you're into snorkelling or diving to discover the natural beauty underneath.
Found at the tip of Delimara Point, St Peter's Pool is perhaps the most visited beach by locals and tourists in Marsaxlokk. Surrounded by a large flat slab, this natural pool is the ideal place to sunbathe and free dive off high cliffs.
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