Xewkija History

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Coat of Arms and Motto
coat of arms

The coat-of-arms of Xewkija is Or, a fess Gules between two thistles Vert in flower Argent;  that is, a golden shield with a broad horizontal red band across the centre, between two green thistle plants in flower.
     

This coat-of -arms was prepared by Captain Adrian Strickland (1993); however, in this case, he closely followed the first known coat-of-arms of the village prepared by Dr Nicolo Zammit (1876). The thistle in the coat-of-arms is not however the Clustered Carline-Thistle that abounded in the fields around Xewkija. It shows instead the more common Mediterranean thistle, scientifully the Galactites tomentosa, in Maltese xewk abjad. This is a white tomentose annual with stems lS60cmhigh.

 

The thistle has also inspired the motto of Xewkija: Nemo me impune lacessit, that is, No one shall attack me with impunity -Min jaghmel ghalija ma jghaddihiex lixxa. This is also the motto of Scotland, that is ultimately derived from that of the famous medieval Order of the Thistle.

 

Gozo's First Village (Rahal)
xewkija-history10

Ix-Xewkija was at that time the fastest growing countryside district with 403 inhabitants and 90 households, according to a door-to-door census taken by the ecclesiastical authorities in 1667 (ARCHIVUM EPISCOPALE GAUDISIENSE, Capitula [1663] 56r-59v; quoted infra as Census [1667]). The community formed part of the Matrice parish until 1678, when it was dismembered and made a separate parish and, as a result, it became Gozo's first rahal. Three factors must have determined the choice of the area by the people: it was a plain with an expanse of fertile fields; it was relatively well-guarded by two towers; and it stood under three kilometers from the Citadel, where one could recur for safety in less than an hour.

 

With corsairs and pirates a thing of the past and an increase in commerce, the population of Xewkija, as detailed further down, continued to grow.

 

The rule of the Knights of St John came to an end on 10 June 1798, when the French, under General Napoleon Bonaparte, occupied Malta and Gozo. The inhabitants of Xewkija rushed for safety inside Fort Chambray, a fort overlooking Mgarr harbour raised between 1749 and 1760. Yet to no avail, as the Knights offered no resistance to the invading army and the Xewkin and the other people within the Fort had to give themselves up. During the five months of hostilities, thirty four French soldiers and prisoners-of-war succumbed to the injuries suffered. As at that time Fort Chambray was part of the parish of Xewkija, these foreigners are recorded in the death registers of the parish and were buried in the burial grounds of the parish.
 

The French divided Malta and Gozo into ten municipalities, two of which were in Gozo. Xewkija formed part of the so called Municipality of the City of Gozo, that included also the Citadel and Rabat, Gharb, and Ta' Sannat.

 

The Maltese soon got fed up of the despotic rule of the French and on 2 September, they rose against them. A Congress of the people of Gozo met on 18 September 1798 to organise the resistance. Francesco Refalo and Francesco Zammit were appointed commanders of Xewkija. The resistance was successful and, on 28 October 1798, the French in Gozo surrendered.

 

From 29 October 1798 until 5 September 1800, Gozo enjoyed a period of autonomy. The island was governed by Saverio Cassar, Archpriest of the Gozo Collegiate Church, who had headed the Congress.
 

On 5 September 1800, the British took the Maltese islands under their protection. On 16 September 1864, not without British support, Gozo and Comino were established an autonomous diocese.

 

The British slowly transformed the islands into a fortress colony. The resistance of the British and the Maltese to the Axis bombardments during the second World War became a legend.  Between 1940 and 1942, eighteen shelters were excavated throughout Xewkija at a total cost of 10,900 pounds sterling and it was calculated that they could accommodate the whole village population calculated to be 2890 in 1942. The village suffered a direct hit on 23 January 1942, but no one was killed.  Nine Xewkin died as a result of enemy action during World War II; seven while working with the British Navy and two while traveling between Malta and Gozo.
 

Malta and Gozo became a sovereign Independent state within the Commonwealth on 21 September 1964 and were declared a Republic on 13 December 1974. Gozo is governed like any other part of the Maltese Islands. The executive functions of the central Government are carried out through the Ministry for Gozo, established on 14 May 1987.

 

The Population

It is calculated that the population of Gozo from prehistoric to medieval times stood from around 1 ,700 to 2,000. The prehistoric temple in Xewkija points to some activity in the area and it is possible that the place was inhabited since very early times.

         

The population of Gozo began growing steadily in 1127 with the beginning of the Norman rule due to a regular and constant importation of food supplies from nearby Sicily and other countries on the Mediterranean littoral. By 1530, when Malta and Gozo passed under the Knights, the population of the island had surpassed 5000. A few must have lived in farmsteads in the Tal-Hamrija area. The population growth suffered a great setback in 1551 when thousands were dragged into slavery and it was not before one hundred and thirty years later that it once again reached the 1530 level. By that time, that is by 1680, the population was scattered throughout the island.

        

The important 1667 census lists 4,168 persons. They lived in the Citadel and Rabat and in twenty settlements scattered throughout Gozo and in one on Comino. Of these, 403 or 9.67% lived in ninety households in Xewkija: 196 were males and 207 females.

       

The following table lists the number of males and females as well as the total population of Xewkija in 1667; in the Status Animarum, the surveys carried out by parish priests, between 1702 and 1797; and in the official censuses taken since 1842.

population

In the 175 years that passed between 1667 and 1842, the population of Xewkija had grown steadily without any great upheavals; the 1781 figure is probably imprecise.

 

Percentage-wise, the Xewkija population was also quite stable, having gone up from 9.67% to 9.70% of the Gozo population in 175 years. It continued growing in the following decade but suffered a setback by 1861. A number of Xewkin left in search of work in the Grand Harbour area in Malta, and in other ports on the North African coast. It is known that there was a sizable community in Algiers, a fact further attested by the still extant nickname Ta ' Xmundi. It is a corruption of chemin de fer, in reference to Xewkin who were labourers in the laying of the railway, chemin de fer, between Algiers and Tunes.

 

The number of Xewkin rose again in the following decade. This notwithstanding the fact that in mid-1865 ,a very malignant form of cholera killed 253 Gozitans. The cholera broke out at Xewkija on 21 July and the last infection was reported on 24 October. The population remained stable for another decade up to 1881. A number of men find employment in several public works initiated by the British Government in Gozo and the need of emigration was not as pressing as before.

 

From 1891 to 1957 ,there is a stable increase in the population, an increase that is more stable than that of Gozo. Between 1911 and 1921, when emigration to Australia was organized for the first time, the number of Xewkin who left was lower than that of other villages.

 

With the granting of self-government in 1921 ,the government launched several public works and more Xewkin found work in Gozo. The increase continued until the second World War (1939-45). In the post war years, there was a baby boom and the population of Xewkija reached an all-time record in 1957.

 

The population then begins to decline due to a wave of emigration to Australia, the United States of America, and Canada. This decline proceeded until the mid-1980s, when a considerable number of emigrants began returning home and several foreigners settled in the village. The 1995 figure includes 58 foreigners, 20 males and 38 females. For these two reasons, notwithstanding a drastic decrease in the birth-rate, the population began increasing again.

 

According to the census taken on 26 November 1995, the population of Xewkija had grown to 3128,ofwhich 1518 males and 1610 females, including the just mentioned foreigners. Divided by age groups, there were 754 between zero and fourteen years; 1303 between fifteen and forty-four; 632 between forty-five and sixty-four; and 439 over sixty-five years. Of the latter, six were more than ninety years old. The annual growth rate of Xewkija between 1985 and 1995 was 1.21%, almost equivalent to that of the whole of Gozo that was growing at a rate of 1.22%.

 

In 1667, the people of Xewkija made up 9.67% of the population of Gozo; this increased slightly to 9.70% in 1842, and to 10.78% in 1995. This means that percentage-wise, during the twentieth century, the village population continued to grow.

 

Ix-Xewkija u x-Xewkin
mini-Xewkija09

In 1678, ix-Xewkija became the first ħâra or district of Gozo to be elevated to the status of a raħal or village. This took place with the establishment of ix-Xewkija as the first parish outside Rabat, the suburb of the Gozo Citadel. In this regards, local patterns followed those established in Sicily and southern Italy, where a contrada was raised to the status of a casale with the establishment of a parish church. At that time, ix-Xewkija was the most populated district of Gozo.

 

Xewkija from Arabic and Maltese xewk, thistles, means simply a place where thistles abound. Just as bizbizija, fulija, and tillirija, to mention three other examples, mean the fields were sweet fennel, garden beans, and fleabane grow. There is a wide variety of thistles in Gozo. The most common on the wasteland around Xewkija is the Clustered Carline-Thistle, scientifically known as Carlina involucrata, in Maltese, sajtun, easily recognizable from its flower that in the sun glows like rays of gold. It was widely used by bakers throughout the island to heat their oven before-taking. In Gozo, it is also called xewk tal-griedel, thistles of the goldfinch, as it is used by bird-trappers to camouflage" their nets. By the passage of years, the place-name began to refer to the most populated district of Gozo.

 

The name is first recorded as xeukie in an act of 9 March 1487 ,registered by Notary Joannes Sabbara (NotarialArchives, Valletta,R494/1). The notary refers to the place as a territorium; this means that at that time the name already referred to an extensive area.

 

Its present territory extends from it-Taflija, on the south of Rabat, and, proceeds, in a clockwise direction, towards Tal-Hamrija, the site of the Gozo Industrial Estate; Ta' I-lmghajjen, on the Rabat-Mgarr harbour road; Ta' Hamet, on the Rabat - Nadur road;  tal-Barmi1,  dominated by the University of Malta Gozo Centre; Tal-Hniena, that got its name from a chapel; Tal-Lambert,  the area of the Gozo Heliport;  ta' Gorgun, the fields behind the parish church; and Ta' Tingi, where ix-Xewkija is separated from the village of Ta' Sannat by Wied Mgarr ix-Xini and Wied Hanzira. The area is roughly in the middle of the territory hemmed in by the ports of Mgarr ix-Xini and Mgarr.  The people of ix-Xewkija are known as Xewkin and collectively as Xwieki. A single male is a Xewki, a female a Xewkija, but the latter word is not colloquial.

 

A Historical Glimpse

The land that is now Malta and Gozo rose from beneath the seas around fifteen million years ago. At that time, this land was a southern extension of the Euro-Asian continental mass. The land bridge subsided some fifteen thousand years ago leaving Malta and Gozo as mid-Mediterranean islands. The Maltese archipelago was left uninhabited for thousands of years. Around 7000 years ago, a group of people crossed over from Sicily on some pretty reliable sea-craft and colonized the islands.

The people who first colonized Gozo probably lived in the caves known as Il-Mixta on Ghajn Ghabdun plateau to the north-west of Gozo. Shards unearthed on this site, reached through the village of Santa Lucija, are of a purer pedigree than any other pottery found elsewhere in the Maltese Islands. This group soon spread in search of agricultural land and the present area of Xewkija, with its fertile soils must have soon been inhabited. The prehistoric era of Malta and Gozo is divided into three periods. The earliest is known as the Neolithic Period (5000- 4100 BC), the second as the Temple Period (4100-2500 BC), and the third as the Bronze Age (2500-700 BC). The greatest undertaking of the Gozitans of these early times are the Ggantija Temples (3600-3000 BC) in Xaghra - a structure representing an important turning point in the cultural evolution of the prehistoric man in both Gozo and Malta. A megalithic temple was around the same period raised on the plain close to where the Xewkija parish church is built.

 

An Imposing Megalithic Temple

A trilithon in the vicinity of the church is first recorded by Gann-Frangisk Abela, one of the first Maltese historians, in a book published in 1647. It consisted of four huge upright megaliths with another megalith resting upon them horizontally. The uprights were high enough for a man to stand beneath. This was possibly the surviving entrance to a megalithic structure of the Temple Period.

 

The site of the trilithon, according to a constant tradition, ~was slightly to the east of the church. Unfortunately, it was broken up early in the-eighteenth century when the villagers began raising a new parish church to replace the old chapel. The tradition was proved partly correct in 1972. When the foundations of the present Sculpture Museum, to the east of the church, were being laid, parts of a prehistoric structure were actually unearthed.

 

Another historian, the Gozitan Gann Piet Frangisk Agius de Soldanis, noted in 1745 that the foundations of the church were raised on huge stones similar to those of the megalithic temples.

     

Trial excavations carried out in 1904 by the archaeologist Father Manwel Magri in the fields east of the parish church confirmed that the area was inhabited since Neolithic times. Fragments of pottery were scattered in great abundance and there were also animal bones. There was very little depth of soil and that little had been constantly disturbed by cultivation. The material found covers a long span of time, beginning with a few sherds from the early Neolithic period and a quantity from the Temple period. An item from the latter period, a footed bowl with deeply incised designs executed after firing, is on display at the Gozo Museum of Archaeology in the Citadel. The finds demonstrate the importance of the site at that time.

 

A Roman Settlement
Roman Settlement 2

The prehistoric era came to end around 700 BC, when Malta and Gozo were colonized by the Phoenicians. Around 550, the Phoenicians of Carthage or the Carthaginians took over and they remained masters unti12l8 BC. A Punic inscription indicates that the Carthaginians had a temple on the present Citadel hill, that was partly fortified.

 

In 1951, several Punic objects were discovered in the limits of Xewkija during the construction of a road at tal-Morob, close to Ta ' Mamet chapel. These included amulets, glass objects, and a stylised palmette with volutes. The amulets, on display at the Museum of Archaeology, represent the Egyptian divinities of Ptah, Bastet, and That as well as sacred symbols.

 

Roman Settlement 1

Roman Settlement 3

The Romans took over in 218 BC at the beginning of the second Punic War, creating Gozo a municipium independent of Malta with a republican sort of Government that minted its own coins. The Romans turned the Citadel into their acropolis and a town developed beneath its walls. The acropolis and its town were known simply as Gaulus Oppidum - the town of Gozo. Under the Romans, Christianity reached the shores of the island. In AD 60, St. Paul the Apostle, while journeying to Rome, was shipwrecked on Malta.

 

The Xewkija area was definitely inhabited in Roman times. The place was probably dominated by a rustic-type Roman villa, a villa intended for agricultural industrial activity ,especially oil-pressing. The fragmentary trapetum or olive-mill preserved at the Museum of Archaeology, discovered in the vicinity of Tas-Salvatur, close to Wied Ħanżira, probably came from that villa. A complete second trapetum, on display outside the same Museum, was unearthed at Tal-Ħamrija.

 

In 1978, an ancient storage pit for the storage of grain was discovered in the same Tal-Mamrija area. The pit, whose walls were lined with baked pottery, had an internal diameter of 1.20 m and a depth of 1.40 m. The pit was dated to the Roman period by the items found on the site. The most significant is a fine red-ware bowl of the terra sigillata type stamped with the potter's mark -the word HERM within the outline of a foot-print -on its bottom. Another item from the spot is a miniature earthenware column decorated with a Doric frieze, possibly the well-head of an impluvium, a cistern in the atrium or internal courtyard of a Roman house.

 

A Roman wall 6.85 meters long was discovered in 1951 in the already mentioned tal-Horob area during the construction of a new road. Numerous fragments of pottery usually met with on Roman ruins were found in the immediate vicinity. Around 455, the islands were occupied by the Vandals, and from 476 by the Ostrogoths. In 535, they passed under the dominion of the East Roman Empire, that is under the Byzantines (535-870).

 

Medieval Times

In 870, the Aghlabid Arabs besieged Malta, slayed most of the inhabitants, and left the archipelago in ruins. Around 1045, a group of Saracens came over from Sicily and recolonized the island. The roots of the Maltese language were laid by these Arab-speaking Muslims, who gave the name of Ghawdex to the island of Gozo and that of Mdina to the Gozo Citadel. The toponym Xewkija must have originated soon afterwards.

 

Another local toponym related to Arab times is Ta ' Mejmun, next to Gnien is-Sultan, between Xewkija and Ta' Sannat. It is first recorded in 1398 (Archivio di Stato, Palermo, Real Cancelleria, 30, 43v). Mejmun is a common Arab personal name. According to tradition, it was in this area that the magnificent marble tombstone of Mejmuna, preserved at the Museum of Archaeology within the Citadel, was unearthed. Mejmuna was a Muslim girl who died on 21 March 1174. The script on her tombstone is in Cufic, the primitive Arab characters , and it includes a quotation from the Koran.

 

In 1091, Count Roger the Norman established a nominal suzerainty over Malta, but the Saracens remained masters paying an annual tribute. In 1127, the islands were reconquered by the Normans, who were in turn followed by the Swabians (1194), the Angevins (1266), and the Aragonese (1282). The island was governed by a series of feudal lords whose sol interest was to exact the highest possible taxes from the inhabitants: The population of Gozo concentrated within the Citadel and Rabat - began rising steadily.

 

The rule of the lords began to be mitigated from around 1350, when Gozo and Malta were incorporated on and off in the, royal domain. A local government known as the Universitas Gaudisii was formed to defend local interests. It was headed b the Hakem or Captain of the Rod, who was appointed annually by the King of Sicily, helped by three or four giurati 0 a1dennen. The Universitas had to do its best to maintain the freedom and privileges of the Gozitans, to provide them with the necessary wheat and barley for bread, and to supervise the defences of the island. It was also responsible for public health and controlled commerce.

 

It was probably an increase in commerce between the islands that led to the foundation of a settlement in the Xewkija area, a settlement documented, as already pointed out, in 1487 However, during the summer months, it Was dangerous to live in the area. A constant flow of corsairs entered Mgarr and Mgarr ix-Xini harbours to replenish their cisterns with water and the ventured inland to plunder and to., drag people to slavery. II 1418, the Universitas petitioned the Aragonese rulers to hell them build a tower on the island of Comino as the passage between the islands was fraught with danger due to the many corsairs seeking refuge in the caves and coves on that island The project did not materialize due to lack of funds and it only became a reality two hundred years later.

 

The Palatial Gourgion Residence
Gourgion 1 On 23 March 1530, Emperor Charles V donated Malta and Gozo to the chivalrous religious order of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem. Initially the Knights made no improvements in Gozo and in 1551, the island suffered its worst siege in history. In July, the Citadel was besieged by the Turks under Sinan Pasha. The medieval walls without flanks and terreplein to resist gunpowder bombardment were easily breached. The entire population of about 5000 was taken into slavery. Grandmaster Juan d 'Homedes and his Council initially entertained the idea of abandoning Gozo. Yet sweet home soon attracted back the few hundreds who had escaped from slavery and the fewer who were redeemed.

The Citadel was slowly rebuilt and it flourished once again. Until 15 April 1637, Gozitans were bound by law to spend the night within. As the population had by then increased to just under 3000, many families must have shared a single room. When the law was repealed, residents began to abandon the Citadel to more spacious houses in Rabat and the countryside.

 

The fastest growing settlement was Xewkija. By 1607, when Garzes tower was built on the promontory overlooking Mgarr harbour , it had become more secure. This security was consolidated in 1661 when another tower was built at the entrance of Mgarr ix-Xini inlet.

 

This stepped-up security also led the noble knight Giovanni Gourgion to build a fortified country residence in the area. Gourgion served as private secretary to Grandmaster Adrien de Wignacourt(1690-1697). The Gourgion manor house, referred to by the people as Gourgion Tower, was completed by 1689 to become the most imposing building of Xewkija and a landmark for the next two and a half centuries. It was situated to the south of the parish church and reached from a lane in triq San Zakkarija, a lane now named Triq Tom Gorgun.

 

The building was an unspoilt example of a fortified rural country house. Stone drop-boxes alternated with escutcheons along the border of the flat roof, while a domed, tall staircase tower dominated the countryside. A number of Latin inscriptions clipped from the Bible were sculpted in stone in several parts of the building. A very large cistern provided water for the residence, raised in such a way as to be able to withstand a siege.

 

In June 1943, the residence was demolished to make way for a temporary military airstrip employed the following month for the invasion of Sicily. Some sculpted stone, several inscriptions, and some escutcheons of the residence are preserved at the Museum of Archaeology.

 

Wied Imgarr ix-Xini - Flora and Fauna

Wied Mgarr ix-Xini 1

Wied Mgarr ix-Xini 3

Wied Mgarr ix-Xini is the deep valley, wied in Maltese, that runs between the tableland upon which Xewkija is built and Ta' Cenc plateau and terminates at Mgarr ix-Xini bay. The wied can be approached from several directions; its upper section can be reached by following the route given above for Ta' Blankas 'dolmen' and megaliths.

 

Its first part, the segment closest to Xewkija, is sometimes referred to as Wied Hanzira (DOS 352, Series M898, Sheet 1, compiled by the Directorate of Overseas Surveys, London 1962). This name was however dropped from later maps. There was also a Triq Hanzira in the core of the village; on 24 December 1920 it was renamed Triq Sant'Indrija (Government Notice 453/1920).

 

In Maltese, a hanzira is a sow. The name was certainly derived from il-hanzira ta' l-Erwieh, the Holy Souls' sow. A sow, bought by the confraternity in charge of the Holy Souls altar within the parish church, used to be let free in the area that it might be fed by people in the vicinity. When it grew fat, the confraternity sold it for pork and the proceeds were given as mass offerings for the Holy Souls in purgatory.

 

Wied Mgarr ix-Xini 2

Wied Mgarr ix-Xini 4

The wied is one of the deepest on the island and the finest example in the Maltese islands of a classical, steep-sided creek or drowned valley in Lower Coralline Limestone. The valley is rich in biodiversity and supports ecologically significant plant communities. Its bed is a perfect macchia or maquis - a zone of shrubby, mostly evergreen plants of the Mediterranean region, transitional between steppe and forest growths; while karstic garigue and maquis vegetation flourish on its sides.

 

Worthy of special mention is the very rare Spanish Broom, Spartium junceum, in Maltese genista safra. This shrub can grow up to three metres and has a showy sweet-scented flower. Another extremely rare plant that grows in the valley is the Shrubby Champion, Silene fruticosa, in Maltese sabbara; a robust perennial with woody stock, from twenty to fifty centimetres high with large flowers with pink or red petals. The plant has given its name to a valley on Ta' Cenc  plateau.

 

The valley together with the coastal cliffs extending to Ta' Cenc support important bird nesting sites. It was one of the last breeding grounds of the Barn Owl, tyto alba, in Maltese barbagann; the species has been literally blown out of the area and the Maltese islands. The place was also a breeding ground of the jackdaw, corvus monedula, in Maltese Cawla, before it was literally shattered out of existence in Gozo and Malta. The valley is still however a stronghold of the Blue Rock-Thrush, monticola solitarius, in Maltese merill, the national bird of Malta, and other birds.

 

The Enigmatic Pans at Wied Mgarr ix-Xini

Imgarr ix-Xini Pans 1

Imgarr ix-Xini Pans 2

The wied conserves several rarities. To reach the three described in this section, the easiest route is by proceeding from the village square straight along triq San Bert and triq l-Imgarr , and then by turning right into triq Ta' Lambert, next to Santa Cilja Tower, signposted Gozo Heliport. At the roundabout beyond the Heliport, one is to proceed along triq Tal-Kanal, to one's right, past a T-junction up to a second T -junction, recognizable with an derelict room at one corner. From there, one is to proceed down this junction, triq is-Salvatur, without; making any turns, until the junction becomes a lane.

 

The lane leads down to the valley bed at the upper part of Wied Mgarr ix -Xini. At the end of the lane, at a distance of some fifty metres to one's left, there are a number of pans, with channels connecting one pan to another.

 

These enigmatic pans have baffled many a scholar. The location of the pans to water streams and their closeness to a clayey expanse has led archaeologist Gorg Azzopardi to presume that these probably served for the lavation of clay. Clay with all its impurities was placed in the uppermost pan and a stream of water was directed upon it. The dissolved clay passed into the second pan free from impurities, and sometimes to a third pan to render it purer. The stream was dried after some time and the purified clay was collected from the last pan. This clay was ideal for the making of earthenware, stoneware, or porcelain.

 

This system of lavation of clay for the production of pottery ware was diffused in the Arab world and so, it is possible, concludes Azzopardi, that these pans date to Arab times. If so, they are among the few remains of the Arab domination in Gozo.


In 1990, Adrian van der Blom and Veronica Veen, two Dutch archaeologists, found Punic sherds in the vicinity of some of the pans, leading them, naturally, to date the pans to Punic times. However the relationship of the sherds to the pans is disputable. They agreed with Azzopardi on the industrial purpose of the pans, but failed to suggest a specific use.

 

From the valley bed, proceeding up to the ridge, to one's left  there is a beautiful spectacle of the impressively deep Wied Mgarr ix-Xini. Proceeding along the edge, for about two hundred metres, il-Qniepen springs into view on one face of the valley's cliff. Il-Qniepen, literally the Bells, is an ancient cave with huge stalactites hanging from its roof like the clappers of bells. Part of the cave tumbled down into the valley, and the stalagmites must have been broken off ages ago when the cave served as a dwelling for troglodytes.

 

A third feature in this area is no more. This was a large stone known as Hagret l-Armi, and described in 1647 by historian Francesco Abela, as a large stone some nine palmi, that is 2.34 metres, in circumference. The interesting thing about it is that, when struck, it discharged a resonance like a bell and this could be heard from as far away as Comino. It was known as Hagret l-Armi, literally, the Stone of the Anus, as it might have been used to call the dejma, the local militia, to arms. It is possible that this was none other than a stalactite or a stalagmite of the just mentioned cave.

 

The area is very popular: for abseiling. From this spot, one can either retract one's steps or proceed along the edge of the valley up to a lane running parallel to a cows' pen. This' leads back into Triq is-Salvatur.

 

Mgarr ix-Xini - The Galley Port

Galley Port 1

Galley Port 2

Galley Port 3

The valley reaches the sea at the tiny port of Mgarr ix-Xini. From the village square, the port can be reached by proceeding straight along. triq San Bert and triq Mgarr, and then by turning right into triq Ta' Lambert, next to Santa Cilja Tower ,signposted Gozo Heliport. At the roundabout beyond the Heliport, one is to proceed along triq Tal-Kanal, to one's right, for a few metres and then turn down the first T-junction. From there, one is to proceed down the street on one's right, triq tal-Misrah, until a dead end, but where it is possible to reverse a car. A magnificent panorama unfolds itself at this spot. The port and beach are beyond the sloping fields.

 

It is possible to walk along a path down to the bay. However, the bay can also be reached by car. In this case, from the village square, one is to drive through a maze of streets to triq tal-Gruwa on the outskirts of the village, where the road to Mgarr ix-Xini is clearly signposted.

 

The port is first documented as the qala of Marsa Xini, literally the inlet of the port of the galley, in a portolan written in Venetian preserved at the Vatican Library (BIBL. VAT, Latini series, 5300, 66v), and published by Alessandro Pertusi (Byzantinische Forschungen 5 [1977] 303). This portulan, a book of sailing directions, describing harbours, sea-coasts, and other landmarks visible from the sea, is datable to. the fifteenth century, but it is based on an earlier Venetian version of around 1300. So the place-name Mgarrix-Xini, wrongly transcribed in the published version as Marsafumo, must have been existing for more than 700 years.

 

Mgarr ix-Xini derives its name from mgarr, a port, and xini, a galley ,and so it means literally a galley port. Lying to the south of the island, it is the finest example of a classical steep-sided creek at the mouth of a deep valley. It was a perfect haven for vessels in stormy seas and it was frequently visited by marauding Turks.

 

The story goes that one day a galley dropped anchor in the port and the Turks set out to sack Xewkija. Some farmers working in the nearby fields noticed the landing and shielded themselves so that they would not be seen. When the Turks passed by their hideout, they went down to the seaside. They noticed to their great surprise that the galley had been left unguarded. So they boarded the vessel, possessed themselves of whatever they could carry, and set it on fire.

 

In the meantime, the militia of the Xewkin had been alerted and, before long, they succeeded in chasing the Turks down the valley. As they approached the port, the Turks could not believe their eyes when they saw their galley ablaze. They ran as fast as their feet could carry them to find a hiding place. At that moment the farmers struck back, trapped the Turks in the deep valley, and took their revenge.

 

The Parish of St. John the Baptist
xewkija parish church 1

The original parish church of St. John had by the passage of years become too small for the growing population and so the villagers decided to raise a more spacious church. The building of !his church necessitated the breaking up of the trilithon, referred to above, possibly the surviving entrance to a megalithic structure of the Temple Period.

 

This second recorded church on the site was raised in the form of a Latin cross on a north-south axis, and not on a west-east axis as the first church. It was built through, the hard work of Dun Dumink Abela, third parish priest (1695-1734) by master mason Ferdinand Valletta on a plan by Guzepp Azzopardi. It was blessed by Dun Nikol Cassia-Magri, parish priest of the Matrice, on 17 March 1728. It had six side altars. A bell-tower was built in 1738 and the first bell was donated by Canon Adriano Gourgion, the Vicar General. The dome was raised in 1830.

The altar in the eastern transept, the gospel side, was dedicated to the Holy Trinity with St Gregory the Great interceding for the Souls in Purgatory. Two other altars on the same side in the nave were dedicated, from transept to entrance, to the Holy Crucifix and to the Immaculate Conception with St Paul the Apostle and St Ignatius of Loyola. The altar in the western transept, the epistle side, was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary of Rosary .Two other altars in the nave on the same side were dedicated to the Prophet Elias and to St Joseph.

 

Each altar had a skannell, a raised shelf for the candlesticks, as well as an oval recess between this shelf and the altarpiece. In this recess, beneath the Holy Trinity, there was an unidentified small statue; beneath the Holy Crucifix, a painting of St. John the Evangelist; beneath the Immaculate Conception, a painting of the Archangel Michael; beneath the Virgin of Rosary, a small statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Light; beneath the Prophet Elias, a painting of the Annunciation; and beneath St Joseph, a statue of the Child Jesus (AEG, VP [1760] 59v-63v).

 

Slowly but surely, the church was transformed into an architectural gem. The apse behind the high altar as well as those in the transepts were covered with an array of designs sculptured in the soft local limestone. The other four altars were also embellished with sculptures.

 

The church was consecrated by Bishop Paolo Alpheran de Bussan on 12 October 1755.

 

During the following decades, the village population continued to rise and the second church soon became small again. In 1838, a small chapel was built adjoining the eastern side of the choir -an ex-voto by the people of Xewkija for deliverance from the 1837 cholera outbreak that left 42 people dead in the village. It became known as the chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Sorrows, but was actually dedicated to the martyr St Theodora, whose mortal remains were brought from a Roman catacomb to Xewkija in 1836.

 

In 1865, a churchyard was built on eastern side of the church and a small chapel was built within it by mason Guzepp Farrugia in 1876. This was demolished in 1935, rebuilt on a larger scale by mason Salvu Xerri (ic-Ciklipens), and blessed on 21 May 1936. When this churchyard had to make way for the Rotunda, anew cemetery was built on the outskirts of Xewkija in an area known as Tal-Barmil. Work started on 17 October 1949 and it was blessed on 4 February 1951. In the early 1990s, its space was doubled, and it was blessed again on 10 June 1994.

 

The first major enlargement to the second church took place in the late 1880s, when it was lengthened from the front and enriched with an intricate baroque facade designed by Dun Guzepp Diacono (1892). Two side altars were added in the prolonged nave. Instead of an altarpiece, they had a niche with a statue: St Andrew the Apostle on the east, and St Anthony of Padua on the west. On 10 February 1893, the parish priest was granted the title of archpriest.

 

The second major enlargement took place when two aisles or lateral naves were added (2 September 1936-25 May 1938). The six side altars in the nave together with the sculpture surrounding them were relocated with great care inside the aisles. On 12 May 1945, the church was provided with electricity.

xewkija parish church 2

 

The Chapel of the Blessed Virgin of Mercy (tal-hniena)

Tal-hniena chapel 1

Tal-hniena chapel 2 

One chapel still stands. Popularly referred to as Tal-Madonna tal-Hniena, the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, it is actually dedicated to 8t Bartholomew, the apostle who was martyred by being flayed alive.
 

Situated midway on the very busy Rabat -Mgarr harbour road, it is first recorded in 1397. Little else is known on the chapel in early times. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Dun Salvatore Pontremoli, parish priest of the Matrice (1621-1655), became rector for the chapel and, on 24 August, he began to celebrate the feast of the saint with pomp. In 1643, Notary Paolo di Lorenzo provided money for its reconstruction.

 

The community in the vicinity nurtured great devotion to the apostle and his chapel; in fact, except for a short period after 1657, it is always documented in a relatively good state of repair. Originally the chapel had a very simple facade with a small parvis in front. In 1705, Felic Axiaq paid for the roofing of this parvis so that travelers to and from the harbour of Mgarr could find some shelter during storms.

 

Dun Guzepp Attard, who began looking after the chapel in 1933, built a new vestry and an adjoining hall for the teaching of catechism. On 13 December 1944, the running of the chapel was taken over by the Dominican sisters; they remained in charge until 12 December 1991. Between 1955 and 1956, the chapel was enlarged and the parvis incorporated in the extension. The enlarged chapel was blessed on 10 February 1957.

 Tal-hniena chapel 3

The facade is well proportioned with a pair of Doric pilasters carrying an entablature and a triangular pediment with the emblem of the Virgin Mary sculpted in its middle. The pediment is completed by a central bell-tower that is crowned with simple entablatures with small, triangular pediments. The chapel is long and narrow with a barrel vaulted ceiling carried on eight arches.

 

The present altarpiece was commissioned in 1735 by Dun Pietru Aquilina, parish priest of Xewkija. It is the work of Gian Nikola Buhagiar (1698-1752) and was paid for by Horatio Gilestri. It represents St Bartholomew interceding with the Virgin Mary of Mercy for the release of souls from the flames of purgatory, pictured in the lower left hand comer. Dun Pietru was a promoter of the devotion to the Virgin Mary of Mercy and due to this and to the fact that the altarpiece is dominated by the Virgin Mary, the people began referring to the chapel as tal-Hniena, the Virgin Mary of Mercy. This devotion was an extension of the veneration related to the Virgin Mary of Rosary interceding for the Holy Souls in purgatory. In 1752, Gammarl Magro provided an annual income for the celebration of a feast in honour of the Name of Mary. This was held on the Sunday following 8 September, feast of the Nativity.

 

The feast of St Bartholomew is celebrated on 24 August.

 

One story relates that a long time ago, a pious hermit used to live in a hut next to the chapel counseling all those who sought his help. One wintry night, he heard a sharp knock at the door. A young excited man begged the hermit to hurry to his father's bedside for he was feeling very ill.

 

Fixing his eyes on the excited fellow, the hermit rebuked his ill intention. He told him that his attempted trickery in the middle of the night was of no avail. It was too late to go to his father's bedside, he had been struck by a thunderbolt. Besides, the golden chalice that he had come to steal had recently been pawned to raise money for the chapel's leaking roof. The excited fellow sped home and, true to the holy man's words, he found his father burned to death by a thunderbolt. He lived a life of penance ever after.

 

Since February 1972, a mass was celebrated in a garage at Ta' Gokk housing estate. Eventually, a piece of property was donated to the church, and in December 1995, a hall-cum- chapel dedicated to the Holy Crucifix was built upon it. The place is used for the saying of mass on weekends and for meetings of a religious nature.

 

Old Niches at Xewkija

A walk through the village core provides the visitor with many other interesting' features. Foremost amongst them are the niches or tiny shrines that embellish the fronts of houses and corners. Some have very interesting stories.

 

A monumental niche known as "tar-Rummiena", of the Pomegranate, stands on the outskirts of the village at the Rabat-Nadur-Xewkija-Xaghra crossroads. It represents the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy interceding for the Holy Souls with the Child Jesus on her right hand holding a split pomegranate in his hand (early 1800). In Christian art, the pomegranate symbolises hope and resurrection after death. The niche is surmounted by a cross flanked by two souls in flames.

 

One of the earliest niches is in triq San Gwann. If has a statue of the Immaculate Conception (1820) sculpted from local stone. As already referred to, this part of the village was the first to be built and so no wonder that one of the oldest niches is in this spot. Years ago, on 8 December, feast of the Immaculate Conception, the teenagers and children in the vicinity organised a feast with a small procession.

 

In the vicinity, on one corner of triq Santa Katarina, there is a stone statue St Catherine (1839) that has in fact given its name to the street. The saint is invoked against the scourge of plagues! and, with all probability, the niche is an ex-voto by someone who was delivered from the plague.

 

Another old niche is that with a stone statue of St John (1839) in triq l-Indipendenza, formerly triq it-Tigrija, the racecourse. This statue was placed there by a devotee, Ganni Gauci. On 24 June, feast of St John, the overall winner of the horse races took the statue from the niche and carried it on horseback when he went to receive his prize.

 

Another niche with a statue of St John (1880) is in triq il- Knisja. There was a tradition that at twelve noon on the feast day , the many sailors of Xewkija took down the statue from the niche and carried it shoulder-high along the main street.

 

A big stone statue of St Joseph with the Child Jesus (1891) was raised by Mikiel Gauci, a devotee, on a plinth in Pjazza San Gwann Battista, on the left hand side of the Rotunda.  It had a tiny balustrated balcony from where a priest could deliver a sermon. When the comer where it stood was taken over by a house, the statue was incorporated in its facade.

 

At 71 triq Hamsin, there is a niche with a stone statue of St John (1929). It was raised by Ganni Camilleri, a policeman, in the year that the village band was formed. When he inaugurated the niche, he invited the band to play.

 

Another fairly large niche with a statue of St Joseph with Jesus standing at his side (1932) sculpted by Ganni Sammut (Balzan) is in triq l-Indipendenza. It was raised by a priest, Dun Guzepp Attard, to honour his patron saint.

 

A niche with a statue of St Publius (1946) is in a street named after that S~11;t,'triq San Pupulju. Sculpted by Wistin Camilleri, it was paid for by the residents in thanksgiving for delivering them from bombs during the second World War. There are a number of minor niches spread throughout the village.

 

book cover

All information is taken from the book:

Xewkija - The first village of Gozo

by Joseph Bezzina

This book can be purchased from the Xewkija Local Council.

 

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