Ghar il-Kbir Talk at Hilltop Gardens

Start Date & Time: 22/11/2016 - 12:00 am

End Date & Time: 22/11/2016 - 12:00 am

Clapham Junction Series

The Mysterious Inheritance

Ghar il-Kbir:  Its Place in Maltese History


As part of the ‘Clapham Junction’ Series of events, FAA members assembled at Hilltop Gardens, Naxxar on Tuesday 22nd November 2016 to hear an evening lecture by Gordon E. Weston entitled “Ghar il-Kbir (The Great Cave):  Its Place In Maltese History”.  The cave was occupied for millennia, due in large part to the natural shelter and protection it offered.  The talk covered both its prehistoric use and the early modern community that lived there.

Gordon began his talk by stating that Ghar il-Kbir is the best known of the existing caves in Malta.  Even so, not all is known of its history as this cave has never had an archaeological survey, which Gordon considers should be done.  Despite this, there has been great academic interest in the cave and several publications were made by such authors as the German Jesuit scholar, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) in his voluminous book ‘Mundus Subterraneus”, and more recently the Maltese genealogist, Joseph Borg.  The former gave an account of his visit to the cave in 1637 where he met the inhabitants and saw how they lived, and the latter whose book tells about the cave dwellers of 1588 to 1733, using evidence researched from marriage contracts drawn up by notaries during that period, in which couples gave their address as “The Cave”.

Gordon then talked about the cave itself describing (with pictures) its features as it is seen today.  He stated that, in earlier times, the cave was twice the size of what can be seen today, but is now much smaller due to partial collapse of the roof.  Entrance to the main cave today is by walking down some badly eroded steps.  Inside, one piece of rock remains in situ supporting the roof and some interior walls have been rebuilt by the Tourist Board.  Otherwise some historical features can be seen as walled areas where families had their own space to live with their animals, the remains of a central cooking hearth, and steps going up into a small sleeping chamber.  Outside the main cave is a smaller cave with a low roof which is difficult to enter.  It has a beautifully cut channel running round its wall; a water basin, so water passes through then exits the cave.  Also there are loops cut into the walls for the tethering of small animals.

Gordon then displayed a map of the interior of the main cave, showing its division into three different areas.  The main area, which Gordon terms as a ‘formal’ area, has a central hearth in which the inhabitants burnt cow dung to provide heat for cooking; partitioned rubble walled living/sleeping areas for families and their animals; and loops in the roof where the inhabitants may have hung their garlic and onions or tethered their animals.  To the left, separated by a rubble wall, is an ‘exposed’ area with a collapsed roof.  To the right of the main area, separated by a rubble wall, is a completely different area referred to by Gordon as the ‘pagan’ area as he believes it was used for ritual purposes in very early times maybe as early as Bronze Age, but the exact date is unknown as no archaeological survey has been carried out.  This he says is similar to caves found in Syracuse, Sicily and in North Africa.  Inside the entrance to the ‘pagan’ area there is a narrow walkway cut into the rock.  On the right are niches cut into the wall possibly having served as seats or bunks and one larger niche which could have been a seat with a cut out headrest above.  On the left of the cut out alleyway is a table or altar, where animals such as sheep, birds, pigeons, etc could have been slaughtered.  Adjacent to this were two boxes / tombs cut into the floor of the rock as it was the ritual that bones of the sacrificed victims must not leave the place of sacrifice.

Gordon then talked about the known history of the cave inhabitants from Medieval to Modern times.  He said that, how early the cave had been used as a dwelling remains unknown, as the cave was never scientifically investigated.  The earliest recording of cave inhabitants appears in a late medieval deed dated 18th November 1467 in the acts of Notary Luca Sillato, which mentions “the large caves at Rabat situated in a large open space”.  The next recording of people living in the cave is in the already-mentioned account of Athanasius Kircher’s visit to the cave in the company of Grand Master Lascaris in 1637, where he was greeted by tall well built, robust, healthy and simply dressed children and adults of both sexes, with some adults living to the ripe old age of 80+.  He also noted that the women were remarkable for their good looks.  In addition, he also found these people to have a good wholesome diet of beans, chick peas, Mediterranean herbs, garlic, onions, wild honey, bread, cheese, and edible snails.

During the 16th Century it is noted within a number of deeds that some inhabitants used to reside in the cave during difficult times such as drought and in the surrounding areas when conditions improved.  In a publication in 1647, the Maltese historian Giovanni Francesco Abela, states that the caves at that time were inhabited by 27 families, amounting to about 117 people living together with their many animals.  It was noted that over time the cave population fluctuated and for example could decrease, through marriage to those living in nearby villages.  A text from 1696 stated that 1 family resided in the cave, another in 1702 said 3 families resided there.

Gordon ended his talk by saying that the cave remained inhabited until 1835 when the British Colonial Government issued an order to use force to resettle the residents in nearby villages (Dingli, Rabat, Zebbug, Siggiewi) as for various reasons the cave was considered to be unsafe.  This was followed by discussion as to why anyone would live in a cave, was this from choice or due to economic hardship, while at the time the noble and rich lived in palaces, the ordinary people lived in stone houses.

FAA members thoroughly enjoyed the interesting and informative talk.  Once again a well deserved thank you to Gordon Weston.  Members were then treated to light refreshments.

Derek Moss

FAA Member

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