Zejtun: Mediaeval Chapels, Secret Passages & Wondrous Traditions
by Chiara Micallef
Land of olives, beauty and tradition, Zejtun as a settlement goes back to the Phoenician and Roman times. This charming town is made up of narrow streets, mediaeval chapels, ancient walls and multiple hamlets such as Hal Bisbut and Bisqallin.
Naturally, this culturally-abundant village retains innumerable historical sites such as the Zejtun Roman Villa, the megaliths of Hal Ginwi and a stone circle in Bir id-Deheb.
Frott Iz-Zebbug Ismi
The town's motto translates to 'My Name is the Fruit of the Olive Tree'. Zejtun got its name from the Phoenicians and Arabs — zaytun, christened after the golden-green coloured nectar produced by the olive tree, predominant in this village.
The cultivation of olive trees was prevalent in Malta, and several archaeological discoveries in and around the area undoubtedly indicate that such activity was also dominant throughout the Punic era.
Zejtun Under Arab Rule
When the Arab incursion took place, the Christian and Byzantine civilisations residing in Zejtun moved to Tas-Silg, where they constructed a Basilica atop the pagan temple dedicated to the deity Astarte.
It is believed that during the Arab Invasion of 870 AD, the Maltese Islands were depopulated however, modern scholars debate whether this invasion was more akin to a religious and cultural switch, rather than an obliteration of the Maltese population or an ethnic break.
While little is known about Zejtun during the Arab rule, numerous places in the area show that the town was undoubtedly in use throughout this time — this can be seen through the presence of architectural features such as the muxrabija (one of 36 remaining in Malta) found on an old farmhouse between Zejtun and Marsascala.
Further proof of this, is the names given to regions of the town, such as Tal-Hotba, Bulebel, Hajt il-Wied, Bisqallin and il-Minzel. It is interesting to note that the name Minzel is derived from the Arabic word manzil, meaning settlement or resting place — implying that Zejtun was heavily used as an agricultural or leisurely basis during the Arab rule.
The Norman Occupation
When the Normans led by King Roger II of Sicily re-established Latin rule and re-Christianised the country in 1127, a habit of monks from Pantelleria made their way to Malta. As followers of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the monks built and devoted several chapels to the saint all over the island.
The origins of Saint Catherine's Old Church (nowadays known as St Gregory's Church) in the Bisqallin area are unclear, however, it may have been constructed right around this time. Saint Catherine's Old Church was already a parish by 1436 — one of eight in Malta at the time.
An ancestral legend in both Zejtun and Celano claims that when Emperor Fredrick II exiled the entire male population of the town in 1223 for siding with the Pope during a power struggle, most of these Celanesi settled in Terra Santa Caterina — Zejtun.
In 1473, the inhabitants of and around Zejtun formed a coalition to claim independence from Mdina. It was argued that they fell under the jurisdiction of Castrum Maris (later known as Fort St Angelo) thus, the inhabitants of the area refused to pay any taxes to Mdina.
While this may have been viewed as rightful at the time, it is important to note that as late as 1494, two years after St Catherine's Old Church was enlarged, the inhabitants of Zejtun were still requested to take shelter in Mdina during corsair raids.
The church was rebuilt on the footprint of the old chapel and was enlarged again in 1593 and 1603.
St Gregory's Procession
One of the most famous feasts in Malta at the time was that of St Gregory. This procession was made up of clergy from all over Malta, including the bishop and canons from St Paul's Cathedral. It started off at Mdina, where the company was joined in litany by clergy from all over the island as they made their way to Zejtun. Along the way, the clergy was joined by hordes of people, upon arrival the participants indulged in festivities and dined on local delicacies.
Traditionally, it was customary for the bridegrooms to take their spouses to St Gregory's Procession as part of their marriage contract — similar to L-Imnarja.
Pirates, Corsairs And Secret Passages
Zejtun was the first inland point of call for North African corsairs when they anchored in the Marsaxlokk harbour area, meaning that it frequently took the brunt of their attacks. The residents were seen as guardians against these invasions — they were also located quite far away from Mdina, meaning that they couldn't always seek refuge against these attacks. The people of Zejtun quickly developed a resilient, independent and courageous spirit, frequently celebrated in ghana — a style of rhymed folksong which is still prevalent in Zejtun to this day.
The last raid on Zejtun took place in 1614, this incursion was carried out by a substantial Turkish force of sixty ships — 52 of which were galleys — pillaged the village in a horrendous manner, even damaging St Catherine's Old Church extensively.
The Ottoman corsairs were eventually forced back to their vessels by the local Dejma, with one of the members being Clemente Tabone. Tabone is renowned to this day for his courage during this raid, and for building the chapel and tower of St Clement in Zejtun. The tower no longer exists, however, the chapel still stands to this day.
According to an old tale from Zejtun, it was right around this time that secret passages found within the dome of St Catherine's Old Church were used by locals to flee the invading Ottoman forces. It was said that the corsairs discovered and barricaded the entryway to trap the fugitives, who were forever trapped, starving and awaiting a sluggish death within the church walls. However, recent studies showed that the human remains found in these secret passages were originally exhumed from a now non-existent cemetery in the area.
These secret passageways were long rumoured by locals, yet, they were only uncovered in 1969 by a team of workmen carrying out restorative works on the church's dome.
The Parish Church Of St Catherine Of Alexandria
Zejtun was split into different hamlets known as Bisqallin, Hal Gwann and Hal Bisbut up until the 17th century. Development in the area meant that a new parish church uniting these areas was needed to form one large community. This is when local nobleman Gregorio Bonnici bought a tract of land to construct the grandiose Church of St Catherine of Alexandria. The foundation stone was laid in 1692 by Bishop Davide Cocco Palmier.
Illustrious and regal, it is no surprise that this church was designed by none other than the celebrated Maltese Baroque architect Lorenzo Gafa. The frescoes and paintings adorning the walls of this newly constructed beauty were created by outstanding artists Gio Nicola Buhagiar, Francesco Zahra and Enrico Regnaud, while the stone carvings embellishing them were created by Petro Paolo Zahra. The church was eventually completed in 1778. The Old Church of St Catherine was now rechristened St Gregory's Church.
Zejtun Becomes A City
In 1797, the parishioners of Zejtun invited Grandmaster Hompesch to the feast of St Catherine, where they petitioned him to raise the village to the status of a city due to its habitual trade interests, military contributions and population size. Hompesch accepted this request and officially named Zejtun after his mother's maiden name – it was christened Citta Bylandt (Beland in Maltese) on the 30th of December 1797.
The inhabitants of Zejtun enjoyed a period of peace and calm after Valletta and several coastal towers were constructed along the south coast of Malta. However, these towers were of no use when Napoleon's forces made it to Malta in 1798, as Zejtun was the first town to fall to the French invaders.
However, the people of Zejtun were exceptionally resistant to the new occupiers and quickly constructed a string of artillery batteries during the French Blockade (The Siege of Valletta). These batteries, entrenchments and redoubts were built in a manner that encircled the French-occupied port. While none of these batteries survives today, one of the cannons employed at the time can still be found on the side of St Catherine's Church.
Numerous buildings in Zejtun, such as St Gregory's Church (St Catherine's Old Church), Vincenzo Labini's villa and Palazzo Fremaux were used as infirmaries for those maimed during the insurgency.
When the British arrived in Malta, Captain Alexander Ball stayed at Zejtun to meet the commander in charge of the local rebels, Vincenzo 'Brared' Borg — a meeting which never took place due to Borg's ill health.
In honour of Zejtun's participation in the Blockade, Ball, who was the British High Commissioner at the time, authorised the construction of Gnien il-Kmand (Luqa Briffa Garden), designed by Michele Cachia in 1802.
The British in Zejtun
Zejtun flourished and grew under British rule and in 1826 a venture led by the Bengal, British, Irish & Colonial Silk Company to introduce the production of silk to the Maltese islands was born. The first step of this never-materialised venture was the planting of several mulberry trees along Triq l-Ahhar Hbit mit-Torok — known among locals as Triq ic-Cawsli.
In 1845 the town was linked to Fawwara in Siggiewi through the construction of an aqueduct — a devastating project which ultimately brought forth a cholera outbreak in the city.
The town's police station and public school were built by the British government in the early 20th century using the Neo-Classical style synonymous with British buildings in Malta.
In the early 1930s people used to pay ¾ pence to rent out church-owned chairs, however, there was a shortage of money across the island when the cost of living increased. This is when the Zejtun parish minted 6,000 token coins to be used during church-organised functions. Soon, the locals started using them as currency to purchase foodstuffs and groceries. The authorities were forced to seize and ban these coins, which were stashed away in the parish treasury, forgotten for decades — only to be rediscovered in 2011, and used to fund restoration projects within the church.
The parishioners of Zejtun were actively involved in the war effort against the Fascists, and parts of the town's school were used to house the Dorsetshire Regiment's war victims. Zejtun suffered multiple air raid attacks due to its proximity to the dockyards and tragedy struck the town on the 2nd of May 1942 when a German anti-personnel bomb fell on the town centre, killing 27 people.
Nowadays recognised for its beauty and fondness for folk festivities such as Zejt iz-Zejtun, a visit to this captivating town will quickly have you feel a profound fascination for its architecture, history and warmth.