Showcase of Malta’s scenic and archaeological sites

Showcase of Malta’s scenic and archaeological sites

Fomm ir-Riħ (Mouth of the Wind) and its environs in idyllic Baħrija are undoubtedly a ramblers’ paradise, synonymous with verdant valleys alternating with frighteningly sheer cliffs, rugged wilderness, strange geological formations and a decaying array of archaeological remains.

The recommendation that pathways should be opened up if they lead to areas of scenic beauty or archaeological sites is just a pipedream- Lino Bugeja

It is a world apart, an ideal location for the feel-good factor as depicted by the renowned English artist Edward Lear during his visits in the mid-19th century as “an environment to soothe the body, mind and spirit”; and I assure you this quotation is not culled from his immortal Book of Nonsense.

This remote location on the northwest coast of Malta includes the Bronze Age village of Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija, with an exciting panoramic view overlooking the historic site of Ras ir-Raħeb (the Hermit’s Promontory), the unspoilt bay of Fomm ir-Riħ, as well as the secluded mysterious Blata Steps.

After the first September rains I was overcome by an impulsive nostalgic feeling to revisit this site and to discover what has lured me to this natural gem that has captivated me throughout my life. I came, I saw and... I was conquered once again to sing the praises of this ‘promised land’ of my days of youth, and in the process remind all nature lovers to preserve it for future generations as part of our patrimony.

Undoubtedly no other site in the Maltese islands possesses such a combined richness of history and stunning scenic beauty as il-Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija. The eminent Cambridge archaeologist David Trump, in his latest book, Malta: Its Prehistory and Temples, describes the Qlejgħa as “the most dramatic site on the island”, not least for its stunning views.

This vast plateau, almost completely surrounded by majestic cliffs, honeycombed with caves, once home of the last phase of the Bronze Age people (900-700BC), is replete with archaeological remains of the period, including about 40 bell-shaped pits (silos) for the storage of grain and water as well as megaliths built into fieldwalls, cart ruts and the occasional girna (corbelled hut); some historians believe it is the ancient forerunner of the most glorious period in our history, the Temple Period.

It is indeed a fantastic experience to identify the myriads of pottery sherds still scattered along the promontory that dips steeply towards the fertile valley of Wied il-Baħrija, home of the Maltese freshwater crab.

The historiographer Gian Francesco Abela (1582-1655), reputedly the father of the Maltese medieval period, in 1647 recorded the name as Kalaa tal-Baħrija; the erudite historian Charles Dalli explains that in this case, Kalaa is an Arabic word for a hilltop fortification, which in those far-off days it surely was.

An extraordinarily impressive archaeological site characterises the vast plateau in the shadow of Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija, a remote promontory that has two significant Arabic names – Ras ir-Raħeb and Ras il-Knejjes (Headland of the Churches), suggesting that the ruins had some religious connotation in the Middle Ages. It has been known at least since the late 16th century; and G.F. Abela in his Della Descrittione di Malta (1647), refers to it as Ġebel el Raheb.

Other historians even subscribe to the thesis of second-century (AD) geographer Ptolemy that the Roman remains may relate to Hercules, a great hero in Greek and Roman mythology whose cult was so widespread on the Mediterranean littoral; in fact, one of the most intriguing finds elevated from this site is a minute ivory plaque showing a wild boar, the fourth ‘labour’ of Hercules’ 12 daunting feats.

To the seasoned rambler, Ras ir-Raħeb offers majestic scenery with panoramic views of the secluded beach below and a distant view of Gozo over the shimmering blue sea as well as the feeling of being among ancient ruins standing in solitary splendour. Unfortunately, accessibility to these two archaeological sites is strictly prohibited even to well-intentioned ramblers and visitors, as they are private property.

Thus, the much vaunted recommendation in the Sustainable Development Plan (2006-2016) that pathways should be opened up, whether private or government-owned, if they lead to areas of scenic beauty or archaeological sites, is just a pipe-dream that has wilted on the Baħrija garigue and gone with the wind on the plateau of Fomm ir-Riħ.

Fomm ir-Riħ Bay defies description; its remote location flanked by historic Ras ir-Raħeb and Ras il-Pellegrin, dominated by Kunċizzjoni Heights, makes it unique in many ways. The geological fault marking the end of the Victoria Lines is just one of the geological phenomena which include sedimentation, erosion, strange rock formations and spectacular cliffs. Its perennial spring leading to the virgin pebbly beach is an added attraction which makes it rich in biodiversity and scenic beauty.

Regrettably, the ancient path, used for centuries by fishermen and hunters from the Ras il-Pellegrin area in the vicinity of a military pillbox that once also marked the spot from where a young rambler fell to his death in the 1950s, was closed in the late 1960s; strong protests and parliamentary interventions were to no avail. Instead, a perilous narrow pathway was carved out of the cliffs on the Baħrija side in the 1980s which is extremely dangerous.

Proper access to this pristine bay is still demanded by the Ramblers Association, resulting in the Lands Department reclaiming vast areas of the foreshore; however, in spite of many meetings and the minister’s direct intervention, accessibility remains hazardous and very dangerous.

The government, through its agencies, fully acknowledges the historical and archaeological importance of these sites. In fact, on April 3, 1998, the Government Gazette reported that the Planning Authority was including in the list of scheduled property in terms of Section 46 of the Development Planning Act 1992, the land surrounding Il-Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija, designated as an area of archaeological importance in terms of Structure Plan policies. The authority has included “Ras ir-Raħeb Punico-Roman remains designated as Class A in terms of Structure Plan Policy ARC 2” as well as Il- Qlejgħa Bronze Age settlement and caves in terms of SPP ARC 2.

The Italian author Umberto Eco, in his seminal book The Name of the Rose (1980), points out that present-day Europe has its roots in the Middle Ages, and Malta is no exception, as we now witness the same scenario in our islands. The 15th century was characterised by the haughtiness and rapacity of a new breed of notables, mainly Spaniards and Sicilians, appointed by King Alphonse V, who utterly ignored his promises after the revolt against Gonsalvo Monroy in 1426 when the Maltese paid a hefty ransom to redeem the island.

Understandably, the Maltese countryside lobby, a motley crowd of starry-eyed idealists but honest citizens with a vision, are losing hope as they struggle in an uneven combat to take on the combined might of some property developers, backed by unlimited funds, resources and a host of guardian angels.

Sadly, an indifferent Parliament is impotently witnessing the rape of our island, with only the occasional cry in the wilderness.

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