Erosion, subsidence, laying siege on Fort Chambray
Fissures snake along the walls while a good stretch of the stonework has been eroded by sea spray and wind pitting the stone
Guarding Gozo’s seaward side overlooking Mġarr Harbour, Fort Chambray is a military gem clasped by a series of bastions built in the 18th century to withstand the enemy and protect the inhabitants living nearby.
But today parts of the fort are under siege from the ravages of time, namely erosion and subsidence.
In 2005, Gozo entrepreneur Michael Caruana transformed the fort into a hub of luxury abodes and it has become a residential area.
When meandering on the westward side of the fort, one is gifted with a panoramic view of the channel separating the three islands, with Malta as a backdrop and ix-Xatt l-Aħmar just below the rampart. Looking up to the magnificent bastions, however, a different story unfolds with the realisation that these walls are crying out for restoration.
Fissures snake vertically along the walls while a good stretch of the stonework has been eroded by sea spray and wind pitting the stone. In an alarming state is that part of the garrison known as id-Dar tat-Tabib, the Doctor’s House. Vegetation, mostly the seemingly indestructible caper plants with their sinewy and tough roots, emerge triumphantly through the pointing as they dislodge the blocks forming the defensive walls.
People familiar with the area have spoken of a sense of disappointment and despair that no proper intervention has been undertaken, allowing things to get worse.
“Whenever I go for a stroll in this particular area, I tell myself what a pity so little has been done to safeguard the historic value of this majestic fort,” one said. Another said that this and other forts “have been in such a forlorn state that we have become insensitive to the harrowing situation they are in”.
On May 22, 2014, Dr Caruana filed an application with the Planning Authority for a “restoration of the fortifications and remedial works of the old buildings”. Since then, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and the Environmental Resources Authority have found no objection to the application and have filed their recommendations and conditions that would be linked to the restoration once the permit is issued.
The Sunday Times of Malta made several requests to sit down with Dr Caruana to understand the current situation but the attempts have so far proved fruitless.
An expert in the field of conservation said it was a shame, to say the least, that no immediate or emergency intervention has been undertaken.
On January 3, 2010, The Sunday Times of Malta published a story headlined: ‘Fort Chambray far from abandoned – architect’. It quoted architect Alex Torpiano replying to a comment made by a reader who had argued that the fortifications at Fort Chambray were in a sorrowful state. Prof. Torpiano had explained that the fissures in the fortifications were caused by complex geological factors.
The Sunday Times of Malta contacted Giovanni Zammit, secretary of the Gozo heritage organisation Wirt Għawdex, who said the NGO was “certainly aware of the state (the fort is in) and has been monitoring the situation”. Discussions, he added, were being held.
History of the fort
In May 1654, Grand Master Lascaris visited Gozo and confirmed the need for a new fortified city for the protection of the population. It was first meant to be built in Marsalforn but was abandoned for some unknown reason.
The project was revived in1715 during the reign of Grand Master Perellos when a French military mission led by Tigné suggested the site known as Ras-et-Tafal at Mġarr, Għajnsielem. The location was chosen because it was practically the only ‘gate’ to the rest of the island and it was also the place where all the commerce between the two islands was conducted. Additionally, it had its own source of water.
The project was approved on September 25, 1722. The French military engineer François de Mondion was to prepare a scheme for the new fortress based on Tigné’s designs. In 1749, Bali Fra Jacques François de Chambrai offered to finance the whole venture himself.
As the fear of corsair raids on Gozo subsided, people felt secure enough in their farmhouses and the city failed to take root. By 1798, when French troops led by Napoleon Bonaparte took over the islands, some of the ramparts had deteriorated enough to call for major reconstruction. Although the fort was armed with 18 cannons, mostly 8-pounders, it was manned by only eight soldiers. Most of the inhabitants had sought refuge inside the fort but they surrendered after a token show of resistance.”
Source: Fortresses of the Knights by Stephen C. Spiteri. First published 2001.