The Malta Independent 20 June 2019, Thursday

Our Heritage saved... Santa Marija Tower and Battery in Comino

Malta Independent Sunday, 25 February 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

Until the 17th century, Comino was the defenceless Achilles heel of the Maltese Islands. This unprotected small island between Gozo and Malta provided an ideal hideout for pirates and invaders. In 1618, Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt decided to build a tower to protect the Gozo channel. The works were financed by the Grand Master, through the sale of the brushwood on the island and from profits made by farmers who had resettled there.

The strategic position of this new tower reinforced and completed a line of defences intended to guard the channel, a line running from Fort Chambray in Gozo to St Agatha’s Tower (the Red Tower) on Marfa ridge and the White Tower in Armier. It also formed part of an early system of towers which the Order set up to facilitate defence and communication between the Cittadella in Gozo and Mdina. It later became a key location for the system of towers built along the coast.

The site chosen was some 80m above sea level. The design of the tower is square in plan with four corner turrets. The bulk of the edifice is 12m high and stands on a plinth some 8m high. A 3m wide strip was laid along the top surface of the plinth to enable the defenders to move easily to any point endangered by invaders.

The walls of the tower are about 6m thick and the four corner turrets extend perpendicularly and are crowned with a battlement top. The offset entrance leads to the main floor and down into the dungeon. The upper levels are reached through an inclined tunnel built into the wall, and then up to the roof by an internal staircase.

The tower is surrounded by a thick, high rubble wall made of loose stones, which gave the impression that the tower was surrounded by a ditch. It is accessed from a flight of steps separated from the main entrance by a wooden construction which served as a drawbridge. Inside the tower was a chapel dedicated to St Mary, hence its name.

The building of the tower lessened the risk of Turkish fleets seeking refuge on the island, which encouraged farmers to work the land in Comino. It also served as a hunting lodge for the Grand Masters. In 1722 the Congregation of War reported that the tower was armed with three bronze and two iron cannons. Its armaments and garrison were increased whenever the safety of the islands was threatened.

Following the French invasion in 1798, the tower was used by the Maltese resistance and also served as a prison for some Maltese who were thought to be collaborating with the French.

During the British period the tower was considered important for the protection of the anchorage, as well as for communication between Gozo and Malta, together with Fort St Agatha in Mellieha and Fort Chambray in Gozo.

It was during this period that the internal fabric of the tower was significantly changed. It seems likely that it was used as an isolation hospital at some stage, while the lower chamber was converted into a stable for animals. Towards the end of the 19th century the tower was used by the Royal Malta Artillery but was later abandoned, until the Armed Forces of Malta later used it as a watchtower. In 1927 a small doorway leading to the basement was opened at one end of the main entrance.

Santa Marija Tower has been exposed to the sea and winds for almost three centuries, and the stone work had greatly deteriorated before its restoration was begun by Din l-Art Helwa. The roof waterproofing had cracked in many places and had been crudely covered to stop water leakage. Vegetation had taken root in crevices and in the roof, further dislodging stone blocks. In recent years vandalism had taken its toll and there was an almost complete absence of the parapet wall on the roof and turrets. A great number of large stone blocks had been taken from the plinth wall for other uses.

Din l-Art Helwa was greatly concerned about this continuous deterioration of the tower. When it was entrusted to the association under a Deed of Guardianship, Din l-Art Helwa embarked on an ambitious restoration project to save this landmark. Restoration work commenced in July 2001, was generously sponsored by Malta Maritime Authority.

Work on the exterior was completed in 2004, which consisted of the rebuilding of the four corner turrets and the battlements on the roof. Missing stones were replaced around the four walls, which also required widespread pointing. The ditch surrounding the tower was cleared of rubble and debris that had accumulated over the years.

Work carried out internally to repair structural damage and to tidy up the area was completed in 2006. The tower is now open to visitors on a regular basis during the summer months by Din l-Art Helwa volunteers forming part of the association’s Gozo committee.

Just a 10-minute walk away from Comino Tower lies the Santa Marija Battery. This was built in 1715 to further protect the South Comino Channel and in support of the Marfa defences. It is one of three surviving coastal batteries and was equipped with two 24-pounder and four 6-pounder iron cannon. This type of coastal battery was built to resist the disembarkation of troops from an enemy fleet. It was fitted with a semi-circular enceinte facing the entrance to the bay and contained eight

embrasures as well as being enclosed by a wall that protected it from a landward attack. A blockhouse housed the garrison and was also used to store ammunition and supplies.

Din l-Art Helwa started restoration on this battery in 1996 and the work was partly sponsored by the Comino Hotel which provided invaluable help in transport as the project proved to be particularly challenging. The stone in the embrasures and main entrance was badly deteriorated and the original pointing had suffered severe weathering. The roofs of the blockhouse were in need of urgent repair and the entrance was about to collapse. Flagstones were laid in the three smaller rooms and the entire enceinte was repointed.

The project was completed with the installation of an iron gate to the main entrance, the blocking of six of the eight embrasures with an iron grill and the mounting of a 6-pounder cannon that was transferred from its location about 400m away by helicopter in a joint operation between the Armed Forces of Malta and the Royal Navy. The original 24-pounder cannon, manufactured in a French factory, were still lying on the island and have been mounted in the Battery on reproduction gun carriages sponsored by P. Cutajar & Co.

A trip to Comino for a walkabout is enjoyable and rewarding, especially in spring before the summer heat sets in. A visit to the website is also recommended.

Mr Rizzo is a council member of Din l-Art Helwa

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