The Malta Independent 21 October 2019, Monday

Wirt Għawdex and Gozo’s Heritage sites – Part II

Malta Independent Thursday, 12 September 2013, 10:30 Last update: about 6 years ago

The non-governmental organization Wirt Ghawdex today manages historical sites in the Citadel, the Tower of Mgarr ix-Xini, and a unique medieval chapel, all in Gozo.

The society has roots dating back to the late sixties of the last century when Mr Anthony Spiteri – an energetic and keen Gozitan Primary School teacher – and a group of young eager Gozitans set up Il-Belt il-Qadima (‘The Old City’). Their aim was to arouse a conscience about the state the Gozo Citadel was in, and help in the restorations needed. Five years later, with a marble plaque commemorating the event and restorations carried out under the leadership of Fr Tony Mercieca, the old chapel dedicated to St Joseph within the Citadel was reopened in time for the saint’s feast in March 1974.  

The organisation also helped cleaning the old clock, the cannons, and the old prison – all within the Citadel, and removing weeds from the fortification walls.

It also contributed towards the setting up of the Folklore Museum in the Citadel by donating a set of traditional fishing equipment which had belonged to founder member Anton Spiteri’s father.


The heritage sites

The heritage sites managed by Wirt Ghawdex are: the Gun Powder Room, World War II shelters, and Silos in the Gran Castello alias the Citadel, Mgarr ix-Xini Tower, and the Medieval Church of St Cecilia.


Mgarr ix-Xini Tower

The Mgarr ix-Xini Tower was built in 1661. It was one of fourteen coastal watch-towers constructed during the reign of Grand Master Martin de Redin (1579–1660). Sited on the left-hand side of the mouth of Mgarr ix-Xini Port, its position was particularly ideal for controlling traffic in and out of the creek, especially after the siege of 1551, when Dragut is said to have chosen this sheltered harbour to transfer the captured Gozitans onto the Turkish galleys. The tower was also occupied by the French in 1798, only to be re-taken soon after by a Gozitan battalion led by Francesco Zammit of Xewkija (Gozo).

This tower has been embraced by Wirt Ghawdex as one of the Gozitan historical heritage sites in her care. The society has been responsible – with funds coming in as donations towards this aim and the help of Ministry for Gozo – for its restoration, and today offers guided tours to this architectural gem. About this tower, Dr Stephen C. Spiteri, Superintendent of Fortifications at the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs, wrote a long researched essay which has been published in a handsomely produced, illustrated book, Mgarr ix-Xini Tower, with a wonderful reproduction of a watercolour painting attributed to Salvatore Busuttil, on its cover.


Santa Cecilja medieval chapel

The St Cecilia chapel is the only medieval chapel in Gozo. It is dedicated to Santa Cecilja, patron saint of musicians and church music. When the chapel was fully functional her feast used to be celebrated on 22 November. The chapel served, amongst others, the family of a certain Manduca Piscopo who was commandant of the near-by tower – the Santa Cecilja Tower. Nothing is known about the chapel’s origins. However, it is definitely very old and may have been built about 1540. The oldest reference to the chapel is found in the Pastoral Visit of 1615. It was completely restored by 1630 and continued to function until 1644 when it was declared unfit for the celebration of Holy Mass and, as a consequence, was deconsecrated. It was lately restored by Wirt Ghawdex with sponsorship forthcoming from the Ministry of Gozo and the Baron Group.

The restoration is recognition of the fine work our people can take up and execute with professional precision. The place has been cleaned, restored with the right material, had much of the sooth of the internal fire that took place some years ago removed, and was adjusted with wooden floors which allow glimpses of the original terrain. The interior and exterior sides of the building have been fitted with eco-friendly lighting.

A study by Dr David Mallia – The Church of St Cecilia on the island of Gozo – has been published in a book, by the society. In it the author gives a comprehensive historical background placing the church in its proper perspective, and a detailed description of the building – a task none other than a professional and meticulous architect like Dr Mallia could have done. The design of the book was profusely illustrated with professional photography by Daniel Cilia.


Gunpowder Magazine and Low Battery

The old Cittadella was reconstructed between 1599 and 1622, so as to be able to survive the cannon era. However, it appears that the new enceinte did not include sufficient defences since, later in the seventeenth century two cavaliers were erected, together with the low Battery on the north-eastern side of the Cittadella. The small, low Battery’s main aim was to protect the northern flank of St John’s demibastion and to provide a gun platform to deliver the necessary enfilading fire. Apart from the Gunpowder Magazine and the Low Battery, this site includes Grain Silos built by the Knights of Malta, and World War II Shelters. All of these are managed by Wirt Ghawdex, today.

In an effort to provide the visitor with information about the Citadel and these sites Godwin Vella – ex-secretary of the association and an established writer and researcher on the history of Gozo – wrote a two long papers which were eventually published in separate books: The Gran Castello at Rabat – Gozo: an appreciation of the civil architectural legacy and A brief guide to the Old Gunpowder Magazine, Grain Silos, Battery, & World War Two Shelter at the Gran Castello, Victoria – Gozo. In the latter publication, the author gives a short history of the Gran Castello – more popularly known with the inhabitants as Ic-Cittadella (The Citadel) perched on the hill in the centre of Malta’s largest sister island, Gozo – and its architectural attractions. This fortress ‘played a leading act in the Island’s affairs from at least the mid-second millennium BC’, and went on helping in the defense of the inhabitants until it was decommissioned by the War Department, under British rule, in 1868.

 ‘The Old Gunpowder Magazine’ – in Maltese Il-Polvrista – is a chapter dedicated to this site, one of four within the walls of the Castello being taken care of and offered for viewing by whoever is interested, Maltese and foreigners alike, by Wirt Ghawdex.

Another site is that with the enormous grain silos erected on the site of the late medieval Hebrew Ghetto, next to St John’s Cavalier. These are in the shape of a flask. The largest of the three is almost 11 metres deep and measures around 3.6 metres at the widest part. In the days of the Knights, together these silos could hold about 100 cubic meters of grain, from which bread, the staple diet of the inhabitants, could be made.

While still in use as granaries the present interlinking tunnel had not been crafted as yet. Access was through the respective portholes dug into the floor of the overlying paved terrace. During the nineteenth century, the British Colonial Government embarked upon a comprehensive project to enhance the quality of life of the ever growing population by providing a better sanitary infrastructure, including clean water. Between 1839 and 1843 the abundant fresh water springs at the Ghar Ilma and il-Mixta plateaux were channelled to Rabat. In February 1877 three reservoirs with a combined capacity of 6000 tonnes along the Gran Castello’s main front were erected. In the meantime, a second pipeline from the Ghajn Luqin spring at Xaghra was channelled across Marsalforn valley into these grain silos, thereby supplementing Rabat with a further 3000 gallons of fresh water in winter and 600 gallons in summer. The spacious rock-hewn room leading into said granaries and the interlinking passage at their base date from this phase.  Also, an impermeable lime-based layer was applied throughout to seal effectively the porous rock.


The publications

Any of Wirt Ghawdex’s publications – Voyage Pittoresque Des Isles de Sicile, de Lipari et de Malte (€5); The Gozo Boat (€5); Mgarr ix-Xini Tower (€5); The Gran Castello at Rabat, Gozo (€10); The Church of St Cecilia on the Island of Gozo (€10), and A brief guide to the Old Gunpowder Magazine, Grain Silos, Battery, & World War Two Shelter at the Gran Castello, Victoria – Gozo, and the print of an original painting of Garzes Tower by Salvatore Busuttil (€5) – may be obtained via an e-mail to [email protected] or via regular mail to ‘Wirt Ghawdex’, Dar il-Gvernatur, Rabat VCT 9010, Ghawdex.


Website and contacts

The society has a website: – a means of international communication – and a contact electronic address: [email protected]. Wirt Ghawdex is also on Facebook.

For more information one may phone 7977 1981.

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