The Malta Independent 20 June 2021, Sunday

Written in stone

Noel Grima Tuesday, 4 May 2021, 11:06 Last update: about 2 months ago

Maltese-English Dictionary of Architecture and Building in Malta. Author: Michael Ellul. Publisher: Midsea Books / 2009. Pages: 182pp

Ever since the primitive Maltese began to build the astonishing prehistoric temples, there has always been an intimate link between the Maltese and stone. In our days of construction frenzy, we might think this an aberrant feature of our times, but in reality our people has been dabbling in stone for thousands of years. In reality this is the story of our people.

The author of this slim book died in March 2018, aged 92 years.

I distinctly remember him at some Mepa meeting or other, always conservatively dressed, with a sober bearing, yet hiding behind that sobriety a wealth of experience and steadfast integrity.


He took me aside one day and promised to send me his recently published book for review. Too late perhaps, this is my attempt to review the book.

He has also written other books, one with photos by Daniel Cilia, one on the marble inscriptions at the three presidential palaces - Valletta, San Anton and Verdala and two other slim books on Malta's heritage in stone. But this slim book is unfortunately missing out from the list of books he wrote.

He graduated BE&A from the Royal University of Malta in 1952 and joined the Government service in the Public Works Department in 1955. In 1967 he set up the Antiquities Section, which he headed until his retirement in 1985, when he was appointed advisor to the Prime Minister on conservation and national archives. He was awarded the Midalja ghall-Qadi tar-Repubblika in 1995.

He lists no less than eight closely typed pages of bibliography ranging from published books to unpublished theses at the university or similar institutions as well as articles from magazines.

He says that the book came as a result of a half-promise he made to Professor Guze' Aquilina; not to let the terms of building practice he had collected in his more than 50 years of close contact with fellow architects, students, masons and workers in the building trade be forgotten by the new generation of architects and builders.

So he gives us, for example, akkuda (through-stone, dressed on both sides), biga, boma, brama, camplu, camura, cnetta and so on.

And the following variations of baqqun (pick-axe): baqqun tal-horoz, baqqun tal-qawwi, baqqun tat-trinek. Or the following variations on bieb: bieba, bieb arzella, bieb flaxx, bieb il-falz, bieb intavlat, bieb langliza, bieb librett, bieb bl-gharqub, bieb mitbuq, bieb sokkjuz. Or: gebel imsaqqaf, gebel tax-xaghri, gebel wieqaf, gebla bajda, gebla tal-gidra, gebla bil-vina, gebla bl-inglott, gebla friska, gebla gungliena, gebla haddiema, gebla haffiefa, gebla kontra l-vina, gebla laxka, gebla mahsula, gebla mfarfra, gebla mielha, gebla mingura, gebla mitbuqa, gebla mnahhla, gebla mtebbgha, gebla qalliegha, gebla qarghija, gebla ramlija, gebla taflija, gebla tal-kuda, gebla tal-kwiener, gebla tan-nar, gebla tal-ordni, gebla tal-prima, gebla tas-sekonda, gebla tat-terha, gebla tax-xewka, gebla tqalla and gebla ubbidjenti. So also hnejja, injam, and so on.

The book includes many names from all the centuries from the 14th, not just of architects but also of obscure master masons. Looking at the names, one finds not only Maltese but also Sicilians, various experts under the Knights and also many British experts.

Many times the people mentioned are remembered for their opinions on particularly difficult decisions, such as to estimate the damage caused by the 1693 earthquake or problems of stability regarding the Mosta dome or that of St Dominic's church (Porto Salvo) in Valletta.

Other controversies regarded the development of Floriana and the wider circle of fortifications around Cottonera. And the rebuilding of the Royal Opera House in Valletta after it was badly damaged by fire just a few years after its inauguration.





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