Development of Zejtun Hamlets

Written by Rev. Joe Abela

The industry of the pressing of olives has been in existence in the Zejtun neighbourhood for a considerable number of years.  Proof of this is the olive pressing complex for the production of oil recently brought to light in the grounds of the Zejtun Secondary School.  The word “zejtuna” means the olive fruit. In fact the name Zejtun and the various derivations from the word “zejtuna” are scattered over numerous places, especially in African countries.  Besides Zejtun, the name of several other localities in Malta and Gozo are associated with the pressing of olives.

But when we speak of our parish in years gone by and use the name ‘Zejtun’ we do not refer to our parish with its present limits, but we mean almost the whole of the Eastern and South Eastern sector of Malta because in the past Zejtun consisted of diverse tiny villages, most of which no longer form part of present day Zejtun. Thus the following hamlets, some of whose names have been long forgotten, all in the past were situated inside the territory of Zejtun.

Bisqallin Hamlet The part of Zejtun nowadays known as ‘Lower Zejtun’, from the word ‘Pasqualino’.
Giovanni Hamlet Today known as ‘Ta’ Tablin’, at the back of the chapel of the martyr St Angelo, because of a church dedicated to St John the Baptist, no longer in existence.
Bisbud Hamlet The part of Zejtun today referred to as ‘Upper Zejtun’ the word ‘bisbud’ being a type of reed.
Bajda Hamlet Includes Bir id-Deheb; so called because of the whitish colour of its soil rich in clay.
Ghaxaq Hamlet Today an independent parish; the farmhouse of Ghaxaq, a family name to date popular in the island.
Harrat Hamlet Close to St Gaetan’s chapel’ the farmhouse of harrat – the Maltese word for wood turner.
Tmin Harrat Also known as Ghadieri, the present day Hal-tmin; the farmhouse of Temin Assant.
Bidni Overlooking Marsaskala; the field of the well built farmer.
Sajd Hamlet Between Marsaskala and Zabbar; the fisherman’s locality.
Zabbar Hamlet The present day town of Zabbar; mostly the sold called ‘misrah’ area or St James Square.

Through the passing of years these small villages, in which a small number of people resided, either joined together to form larger villages, as in the case of Bisqallin, Giovanni, Bisbud and Bajda, which combined to form modern Zejtun; or because of their being to close to the coast, had to be abandoned by their inhabitants fearful of the frequent landings of the Muslim corsairs.  As in the case of Harrat Hamlet which was situated too close to St Thomas Bay and thus quite vulnerable to hostile invaders. We should keep in mind that before the arrival of the Knights of St John in Malta, the South Eastern part of Malta was completely bereft of any sort of protection.  There existed only the Maltese Standing Army, whose main purpose was to give the alert when the enemy approached the island and not to offer any resistance to the enemy.

Thus before the coming of the Knights in 1530, Zejtun consisted of a few hamlets, separated but not very distant from each other.  The population of Zejtun did not exceed 2,000 residents.  Life for them was very arduous. The main source of living was agriculture and the cultivation of cotton was the commonest livelihood, as it provided employment for the male folk in the fields and for females at home.  But even the males of Zejtun were pirates on the high seas. Hence poverty and disease were terrifyingly widespread and extremely frequent.  When rainfall was scant and insufficient or when wheat did not arrive from Sicily because of stormy seas or because of hostile pirates, several inhabitants of Zejtun used to actually die of hunger.  This is why there is a saying: ‘Malta has never refused wheat”.  And what about the innumerable number of men and women from Zejtun that spent long years of slavery in North Africa?  And the large number of wives and mothers that spent the rest of their lives in widowhood?

The Zejtun residents did not have enough time to seek refuge in the Castle by the Sea, besides the fact that in the same castle there was not enough room for them.  Most probably as happened to the rest of the population, the people of Zejtun became Muslims during the Arab occupation of the Maltese Islands. This occupation lasted from the 9th to the 12th century, when Malta fell into the hands of the Christian Normans.  Thus, with the slow passing of time, the inhabitants of Zejtun were again converted into the Christian religion.  In the late Middle Ages Small churches began to be built in the countryside outside Mdina and Birgu which had been established as the second parish of Malta with Zejtun included within its boundaries.  One of these small country side chapels was at Zejtun. It consisted of a small rectangular edifice with its main entrance facing the statue of St Gregory presently lies, with a flag stone floor and vaulted by slabs resting on slightly pointed arches.  A small apsidal cap closed the altar side of the chapel. This small chapel, which presently is integrated in the more spacious church known as St Gregory’s was dedicated to St Catherine V.M.  The devotion to Saint Catherine was introduced in the Maltese islands by the returning crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries. In the year 1436, Monsignor Senatore de Mello listed the chapels in existence in these islands.  The list included ten that were certainly already parishes at the time. One of these parish churches was St Catherine’s at Zejtun. Thus in the year 1436 Zejtun was already a parish and the parish church must have been the small chapel we have already mentioned.  Don Paolo Branchel was its parish priest.

This small church served a parish church for all the South East of Malta for numerous years, that is from before 1436 till 1492 when the church was enlarged according to a script in Gothic characters.  The new church of the year 1492 which was erected where today stands the present day’s nave also had a rectangular shape but its vault was much more elaborate and it was much large than the earlier chapel.  The vault’s stone slabs encircle the pointed arches thus hiding the upper sections of the arches that could give a disappointingly ugly view of the vaulted ceiling.

After the coming of the Knights in Malta in 1530, the Maltese began slowly to enjoy the prosperity these wealthy noblemen brought with them from continent Europe.  The Zejtun men folk found employment in the Order’s galleys and the construction of the fortifications, palaces and churches.  The Knights also brought security that had been so missing in these islands particularly in the South Eastern Malta.  A high level of hygiene was introduced as the Knights were also hospitalliers. The people of Zejtun reaped the benefits of all this and this progress obviously was the cause of the increase in the number of residents at Zejtun.

But not everything was so rosy from the very outset. So much so the Turks again attacked Malta in the year 1565 in what is commonly known as the Great Siege of Malta.  After landing their huge forces at Marsaxlokk bay, the first skirmish between their solders and a number of Knights took place at Zejtun.  It did not take long for the enemy to occupy the church of St Gregory. After a long battle that lasted for a period of around three months, the Knights and the Maltese succeeded to drive away the enemy from our islands but the Turks had left behind them a terrible devastation of the church and residences of the Maltese in the country side.  In the year 1575, Mgr Pietro Dusina was despatched by the Vatican Authorities to pay a pastoral visit to the Maltese islands and he left us a detailed report of what he came across in our parishes including Zejtun. He said that at Zejtun he inspected 19 churches but he noted that the parish church, the one presently known as St Gregory’s, was too distant from the people’s residences and directed that the Holy Sacraments be administered in a small church in Zejtun’s core, where people actually lived.

On the same pastoral visit, the Apostolic Visitor also set up at Zejtun the Fraternity of the Blessed Sacrament.  After the lapse of some years, the need to enlarge again the parish church was gradually being felt. Between the years 1593 and 1603 the two transepts were built, the North one dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary and the South one dedicated to Pope St Gregory the Great to commemorate the annual pilgrimage held from all over Malta to this church on March 12th, fulfilling the vow made by Bishop Cubelles, praying for peace among Christian rulers.  Though this pilgrimage is still held every year, its importance has so much been diminished and the Maltese prefer nowadays to go down to the maritime village of Marsaxlokk on St Gregory’s day to refresh themselves and have some fun by the seaside.  In St Gregory’s church there hangs a canvas depicting Pope St Gregory painted by Guilio Cassarino.  The titular altarpiece represents the martyrdom of St Catherine by the spiked wheel, while the altarpiece in the North transept, a canvas donated by Grandmaster Perellos depicts Our lady of Carmel.  This picture has replaced another depicting Our lady of the Rosary.  The two stone statues on the chancel were brought from the Chapel of St Catherine in the Co-Cathedral of St John in Valletta.  The dome crowning the crossing is one of the earliest cupolas in Malta.  Some years ago a number of secret passageways were discovered around the south transept.  From these secret passageways the people of Zejtun spied on the landings of the enemy in the nearby bays of Marsaxlokk, St Thomas and Marsaskala. With the passing of years the population of Zejtun continued to increase. In the year 1614, a hostile force consisting of 6,000 soldiers landed at Marsaskala and inflicted a great damage to the church of St Gregory at Zejtun.  After the enemy was driven away from the neighbourhood by the Knights of St John and by the people of Zejtun, they landed at Mellieha and laid waste the sanctuary of the virgin mary there.  A certain Clement Tabone of Zejtun displayed great heroism in this battle and as fulfilment of a vow he made he erected a small chapel in honour of St Clement which still stands in Lowe Zejtun. The population of Zejtun had, by now, so expanded that Zabbar was in 1616 separated from Zejtun and declared as an independent parish. Just ten years later, Ghaxaq followed.

By the 17th century, the people of Zejtun were already enjoying the benefits brought by the prosperity and security the Knights had conveyed with them, particularly the several means of defence they constructed along the South Eastern coast of Malta, especially the massive towers of St Lucian at Marsaxlokk and St Thomas at Marsaskala.  The number of residents at Zejtun, in spite of the fact that two parishes were hived off from it in earlier years of the 17th century, had swollen to more than 3,000.  the old parish church of St Gregory had considerable disadvantages.  Firstly it was not big enough to accommodate a sizeable congregation, secondly it was too distant from the core of the residences of the inhabitants, and thirdly, in spite of the defences in the South Easter part of Malta, fear of possible Muslim invasions still haunted the minds of the people of Zejtun.

Moreover, Malta of the 17th century was enjoying a pleasant artistic awakening. Several parish churches were being built in the refreshing baroque style.  The people of Zejtun realized that old St Gregory’s was not as artistically satisfying as the recently constructed parish churches.  Consequently they desired to build a new parish church that would be bigger than St Gregory’s and nearer to the small hamlets which made Zejtun of the 17th century these being Bisqallin, Gwiedi, Bisbut and Gwann.  Luckily Gregorio Bonici, a prosperous nobleman and major of Mdina, possessed a palace, Aedes Danielis at Zejtun.  However, though happily married, he had no children. Being the most munificent sponsor of the present Zejtun Parish church, Bonici bequeathed all the revenue derived from his widespread estate in favour o the erection of a new parish church in Zejtun.  Fortunately, the parish priest at that time was Don Ugolino Bonici, a relative of Gregorio Bonici.  The most distinguished architect of the time Lorenzo Gafa was commissioned to draw the plans of the new church, the first stone of which was laid by Mons. Davide Cocco-Palmieri, Bishop of malta on Novembere 25th of the year 1692, feast of St Catherine.