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Pre-History to Byzantine Times | Zejtun Religious Heritage Trail
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Pre-History to Byzantine Times

Written by Anthony Bonanno

The aim of this study is to discover the Zejtun milieu and its historical heritage so that we and our visitors would be able to appreciate what belongs to us all, cherish it and look after it. To do this, we should not rush to invent what we presume to have happened, but we should base our past history on trustworthy evidence by poring over written documents (manuscripts and historical narrative as contemporaneous as possible with the subject of our writing, or notarial archives, baptism, matrimonial and death registrations. But there are long periods of time, as throughout all pre-history, when the inhabitants of our Islands had not learned how to write. And these are other epochs when the documents we process do not shed light on those aspects of life that interest us. Hence we must have recourse to material documentation provided for us only by archaeology, the science that researches and studies the material remains still visible or those that are hidden underground.

With these available means, I invite you to join me, so that together we give a brief glance at Zejtun and its environs in bygone years, starting with the first settles on the Maltese islands up to the time of the Byzantines. To do this, let’s embark upon a short tour of a few minutes that takes us back in time. We have to make full use of our internal eyes, that is our imagination, to denude the earth that surrounds us of all that man added since his arrival here (fields hemmed by rubble walls, buildings, streets) and notice them rising slowly as we approach present times.

We start by going back more than 7,000 years, when these islands were still in their natural state. A bird’s eye view presents to us a country side consisting of hills encircled by valleys guiding down to the sea the small amount of rain water not absorbed by the land.

As soon as the first humans started to inhabit our islands in the Early Neolithic Age (about 5,000 years B.C.), they lived in caves, as the Ghar Dalam one (Cave of Darkness), presently on the road leading down to Birzebbuga from Zejtun, or in unpretentious huts constructed by reeds and clay mud, huddled together into small hamlets occupied by a few families. So far no remains of such dwellings have been discovered in these neighbourhoods; in Malta, only one such hamlet has been lighted upon at Skorba in Zebbiegh. But this doesn’t mean that remains of such small villages did not exist in other localities. Such remains could have been destroyed by buildings or by later developments or maybe they are still hidden underground waiting for the unearthing by archaeologists.

When the people of the late Neolithic Age began erecting the first stone edifices, the megalithic temples between the years 3,600 and 2,500 B.C., they had spread all over Malta. In the neighbourhood of Zejtun they constructed at least three such temples. The greatest complex was the one erected on the low hill of Tas-Silg. In the past we used to think that this vast building consisted of a single temple enclosed on the outside by a horse shoe shaped wall and a concave façade, both constructed of upright boulders, and on the inside erected on a symmetrical plan of five semi circular rooms, like the of the temples of Hagar Qim, with two entrances, one at the front and another at the back. However, such a temple was not alone – close by were other structures as witnessed by the remains of huge stones spread all over the hill. Archaeologists have recently unearthed some of these buildings, so much so that presently we believe that there were no less than four separate temples. Hence nowadays we have more evidence to suggest that on Tas-Silg hill there existed a spacious sanctuary similar to the ones at Tarxien, Imnajdra and Hagar Qim.

Another temple of the same period, but a smaller one, was erected at Hal-Gilwi around five hundred metres from Tas-Silg, but nearer to Zejtun. This was discovered by Temi Zammit, but then it was concealed. Another one is presently located on the cliff’s edge on the Xrobb il-Ghagin headland. However a large section of it was lost when it tumbled down to the sea below, so that the remaining part is hardly visible as it is hidden beneath rubble. Its presence on the cliff’s edge is very strange and probably it was initially at a certain distance from the cliff. In all likelihood, when it was constructed around 4,000 years ago it was situated further inland on firm ground, but by the passing of time, the sea eroded the soft white rocks around it. The same process took place also on the Munxar promontory in just a person’s lifetime when a large part of it disappeared under the water. Just imagine what could have happened in 4,000 years!

After the temple builders, there appeared in Malta the Bronze Age people, who were warriors as copper swords and axes belonging to them were discovered in the Bronze Age Cemetery at Tarxien. We do not know why these people settled on Tas-Silg hill. Only earthenware fragments and a few structural remains belonging to them were found in archaeological investigations, but these are sufficient evidence to prove that Tas-Silg hill and the previous structure continued to be used. The same can be said about the people that followed them, namely the Borg in-Nadur race. These settled in uplands bordered by perpendicular rocks for security against invading marauders. Remains of their sheds were discovered across the Borg in-Nadur highland which was also defended by a rampart built of untrimmed huge stones on the side level with the rest of the surroundings. Also here these people built another temple and some families resided in its remains. A small cistern discovered in the grounds of the Girls’ Secondary School at Zejtun probably belonged to the same period for it greatly resembles the several cisterns found in the hamlets of the same period, as Imtarfa, the Qlejgha of Bahrija, Nuffara in Gozo and even on the coastal Qajjenza not far from Borg in-Nadur.

The race that followed were Phoenicians who preferred to build a city in the centre of Malta, where Mdina and Rabat are presently located and another one in the centre of Gozo, where today are situated the Citadel and Rabat. But as these people were mariners and merchants, they possessed vessels that needed harbours for shelter. It seems that their favourite port was Marsaxlokk for here they decided to erect a temple to their goddess Astarte on the Tas-Silg hill. Here they made use of what remained standing from the megalithic temple but they enlarged it. From that time this temple started to become widely known in all corners of the world. Even pirates that used to shelter in Malta in winter used to venerate it, as well as Massinissa, the barbarian sultan of Numidja (present day Algeria).

Several tombs belonging to the Phoenicians and the Punics, who followed them, were unearthed in the Zejtun environs one of which is in St Catherine Street. It is believed that another one was discovered when a World War II shelter was being dug in St Pius Street. Excavated in the rocks in the tomb in St Catherine Street there is a narrow trench whose side led to a small room, containing earthen ware vases filled with burnt human bones. The presence of such tombs indicates that in this locality there existed a dwelling or a farmhouse occupied by a family – for no relative of anyone residing in the city would have bothered to bury a corpse in such a distant place.

Tombs dug in the rocks dating back to Punic times were discovered in several other places in Zejtun itself, as those in St Gregory Street cemetery (the remains of some of them are displayed in the Parish Museum), and beneath the buildings in Rev. Lawrence Degabriele Street (close to the Roman Villa which will be referred to later on). Other tombs were brought to light also around Zejtun, with the largest concentrations to its West and North-West. Almost a complete necropolis was uncovered in Hal-Horba field, between Tal-Barrani Road and Bulebel. Here, besides around twenty tombs, a system of channels on the rock’s surface was discovered; probably they served an agricultural society. It could be that huge stone slabs close to these remains could have been part of some old buildings.

A similar discovery was made in the year 2012 during excavation works prior to the construction of foundations for a new factory to replace an older one that had been dismantled. This took place at Bur ta’ Wara l-Andar, facing Merhla Lane, around five hundred metres from the other one. Here were also unearthed huge ashlars, probably the remains of some old edifice, maybe of the same period.

At the time of the Romans, while the capital city remained the same and started to be called Melite, dwellings and small farmhouses began to be enlarged and grew in number in the country side; they were called ‘villas’. Often these included a section where the members of the family and the slaves resided, and another part reserved for the pressing of oil. This required a bulky stone apparatus with huge wooden beams. One of these villas was the Roman Villa discovered in the grounds of the Zejtun Girls’ Secondary School. A still larger one existed at Kaccatura near Ghar Dalam (Cave of Darkness). The larger one incorporated an enormous reservoir, to date an engineering masterpiece of olden times, cut in the rocks and vaulted over by large and thick slabs resting on massive stone beams, themselves resting on the side walls and, in the centre on six big upright pillars. It seems that also the Zejtun Villa had a similar cistern, maybe a bit smaller, but roofed over in the same way, the only difference being that the slabs rested on three flat arches with large voussoirs or arch-stones instead of the standing platform. In the year 1983, I wrote on a similar cistern that had been discovered at l-Iklin in 1976.

During an archaeological dig which I directed in 1976 at the Zejtun Villa, we came across a Punic inscription on an earthenware piece of a cooking pot dedicated to Astarte, the same goddess venerated at the Tas-Silg sanctuary; many similar inscriptions were found in the same sanctuary. It is probably that these bowls, plates and pots with the name of the same goddess inscribed on them, were baked purposely to be used in religious sites at the temple. However, sometimes one of them was pilfered to a neighbourhood dwelling.

Meanwhile the Tas-Silg sanctuary continued to grow in importance. A spacious yard surrounded with a colonnade was built in front of it. Astarte remained the goddess venerated there, but together with her name inscribed on the pottery, there began to appear also her Greek name – Hera. It was at that time Caius Verres, the Roman governor of Sicily that despatched slaves to burgle from time to time its precious offerings, including small ivory statues. Meanwhile, at that time, underground tombs continued to be dug, similar to those of former times, some of them were discovered during excavation works in building sites developments or when trenches were cut in the rocks in Tal-Barrani road, others at Hal-Gilwi, in St Gregory cemetery and in St Clement Street in Zejtun.

In 535 A.D. Malta fell under the Eastern Roman Empire, namely Byzantium. At that time the spacious yard at Tas-Silg was vaulted over to be used a Christian basilica with three naves separated by two rows of columns. Since the 4th century A.D. the subterranean rock cut tombs started to be given a new shape. Spaces for burials (often for two corpses in the same grave) on both sides of a corridor began to be excavated.

Symbols of the early Christians were carved on the rock wall. Some of these hypogeums contained a round table encircled on two thirds by sloping grounds, where relatives of the deceased used to lie down on their sides to partake in a funeral meal (agape) or in a memorial for the dead. The earthen lamp with Christian symbols discovered in a tomb in Luqa Briffa Street in Zejtun, inspired Rev.Carmelo Psaila, Malta’s national poet, to compose the poem entitled “il-Musbieh tal-Muzew” (the Earthen lamp at the Museum).

A beautiful sepulchre of this type was discovered at the Tal-Barrani road. It can be said that it is the only tomb of that time that has never been ransacked. Hence its importance. Archaeologists are still keenly waiting for its publication and a display of the objects found in it.

It seems that the Punic dwellings and the roman villas (with the tombs around them) were the first nuclei of habitation in the Middle Ages; they slowly grew in number to later form tiny hamlets. After the Arabs were expelled from the Maltese islands, and Christianity was re-introduced, there began to be constructed in these villages small churches, some of which became parishes through the passing of time. One of these churches was the parish of St Catherine at Zejtun, presently known as St Gregory’s. The village of Zejtun was formed when some of these hamlets were grouped under this parish.