NEW BOOK: Lines of Defence
A new, beautifully-produced book containing eighteenth-century plans and elevations of the fortifications built and projected by the Hospitaller Knights of St. John in the Maltese islands has recent...
An article in the Sunday Times of Malta by Cynthia Busuttil entitled ‘Crumbling unique tower dates back to the Knights’ (Sunday Times 19.04.2010) claims that a tower-like structure at Ghajn Znuber near Manikata, was a Hospitaller-period militia coastal ‘turret’.The author, however, fails to explain the basis on which this claim by Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna is being made. Indeed, the historical and architectural evidence indicates otherwise.
To begin with, Prof. Stanley Fiorini’s masterful study of the Mahras watchposts for the years 1417 and 1647 (see Sacra Militia, 2, 2003, pp.16-28) does not list Ghajn Znuber near Ghajn Tuffieha as one of the Universitas’ militia coastal watch positions. As a matter of fact, there were only three militia stations along this north-western stretch of the Island’s coastline, located at Blat Moghza, Lippija, and Ghajn Tuffieha, and all were fortified with towers by Grand Master Jean de Lascaris-Castellar (reigned 1636-1657). The Blat Moghza tower, Torre Capra, fell in the early 1700s as a result of the subsidence of the cliff face.
The only recorded ‘Znuber’ position, as mentioned by both Prof. Stanley Fiorini , and even earlier, by Mons. A. Mifsud in La Milizia e Le Torre Antiche in Malta ( published in 1920), was actually situated on the other south-eastern side of the island at Hal Far -the ‘torricella’ of Wied Znuber.
Ghajn Znuber, near Manikata, therefore, was not one of the designated militia watch posts. But there are other factors which question the newspaper’s claim as to the ‘uniqueness’ and dating of this structure. Firstly, there is the manner of its construction. The structures’ thin walls, especially on the south face, large ground-floor openings, irregular stone courses, and internal iron beams all imply a relatively late rural building, possibly dating from the early 1800s. The structure also shows signs of having been very heavily rebuilt before 1902, when it first features in the cartographic record, acquiring in the process an external staircase.
Secondly, the structure is located too far inland to have been of any use as a coastal watch position. All the watch-towers and militia open-air look out posts on this side of the Island’s coastline were perched at the very edge of the cliff-face for maximum visual command over the seaward approaches. The inland positions of Mandra, Ghajn Targa, Gnien il-Borg and Ghajn Razul, on the other hand, were located further south on the strategic towering heights of the Ras-il-Gebel-to-Wardija ridge.
It is interesting to note that the article describes the structure as a ‘turret’ rather than a tower, acknowledging the ambiguity presented by its non-military architectural configuration. The Order’s records do mention the fact that prior to the building of coastal watch towers in the seventeenth century, some of the militia coastal watch posts (dating back to the medieval period) had simple huts to shelter the sentinels on duty , the ‘capanne all’anticha’, but these, as the term implies, were not towers but plain rustic shacks. Typologically, therefore, the Ghajn Znuber building does not even fall within this category of militia outposts.
Rather than a militia watch-post dating to the Hospitaller period, therefore, it would appear that the Ghajn Znuber structure could have served as a nineteenth-century hunting lodge. The Maltese rural landscape is rich in domestic tower-like structures – farm buildings, barumbari, ect. Simple cubic and tower-like structures were (and in some places still are) a characteristic feature of our local building typology up until the early twentieth century. This does not automatically make all of them militia watch posts!