Comino – A World Unto Itself

Comino – A World Unto Itself.

On the morning of Sunday 28th May, FAA members gathered at Cirkewwa to cross by boat ride to Santa Marija Bay in Comino, followed by a walking tour of the island led by experienced tour guide Vincent Zammit.  Places of interest visited included Santa Marija Chapel, Santa Marija Battery and Santa Marija Tower.

Mr. Zammit led the walking tour of Comino from Santa Marija Bay to the nearby tiny Roman Catholic Santa Marija Chapel dedicated to the “Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt”.  Here Mr. Zammit related its history by informing FAA members that the Chapel was built in 1618, enlarged in 1667 and again in 1716.  The earliest record of the Chapel dates back to 1296, and can be seen in a navigational map of the period, located in the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London.  The Chapel was also included on a Portolan, which is the oldest surviving nautical chart used by pirates and sailors which identified landmarks and showed a detailed survey of the coasts and many ports covering the whole of the Mediterranean.  

The Chapel marked by a cross on the map is unknown, but it may be the original site of the Santa Marija Chapel upon which the present chapel was built.  In the 1660’s the Santa Marija Chapel was deconsecrated when Comino was devoid of residents, then in 1716 was re-consecrated for public worship and dedicated to the “Return of the Holy Family from Egypt”.  Mr. Zammit described the Chapel, saying that there is no main door, only a side door above which were three bells.  (Normally church bells are situated on the front of the church, not on the side as seen here).  He added that unfortunately the Chapel was locked, but inside the Chapel there is an iconostasis separating the sanctuary from the main body of the Chapel.  The Chapel is part of the Parish of Ghajnsielem.

Furthermore, Mr. Zammit said that 17th century Roman lead pipes and ship’s anchors had been discovered nearby, the former maybe from a rural villa used for agriculture activities and the latter from shipwrecks, lending support to some sort of permanent human activity on Comino.  Some shards of pottery unearthed were dated 1630s.  He added that in 1912, farmers found split amphora and bones (now exhibited in the Archaeology Museum in the Gozo Citadel), thought to be used to cover bodies in an ancient burial site.  Mr. Zammit also talked about the Jewish hermit that lived on Comino.  There were two notable figures linked to the island, one a late 13th century exiled prophetic cabbalist, named Abraham Abulafia, who is thought to have spent the last days of his life as a hermit on Comino.  The other was a mystic hermit and holy man named Kerrew who would cross from Malta to Comino to meet the cabbalist Abulafia.

Mr. Zammit continued leading the group up the hill towards the Cemetery, stopping on the way to tell the group that Comino was used as a quarantine island and that those who died in quarantine were buried in the Cemetery.  The Cemetery is no longer used.  Behind the trees at this location were a cluster of abandoned small buildings, which were used as a bakery in the 20th century.  The bakery was run by one of the inhabitants, named Mary Said, who baked bread for the whole island once a week.  These buildings are soon to be taken over by BirdLife and used as an Interpretation Centre.  Continuing to the top of the hill the group observed several rubble walls which Mr. Zammit said surrounded areas formerly used as fields for growing potatoes and onions.

From here, the group walked downhill along the path across the garigue to the Santa Marija Battery, or Trunciera as its locally known, where Mr. Zammit related its history by informing the group that it was built between 1715 and 1716 by the Knights of the Order of St. John during the reign of Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful.  The gun battery, designed by French engineer Philippe de Vendome, located on the eastern side of Comino facing the sea, is semi-circular with a barrack area at the back.  It was armed with six iron cannons, of which two were 24-pounders with the other four being 6-pounders, used to defend the Malta-Comino channel in conjunction with the Wied Musa battery at Marfa on Malta.  The barrack housed ammunition and its garrison numbered up to 60 soldiers.  The Battery was abandoned in 1770.

After a short break, Mr. Zammit led FAA members to Santa Marija Tower, erected by the Knights of Malta in 1618 on the orders of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt.  It was designed by Maltese architect Vittorio Cassar.  Funds for its construction were raised primarily by means of the sale of Comino brushwood.  It formed part of a chain of defensive and warning towers, set up in the middle of the 17th century by Grand Masters Wignacourt, Lascaris, and De Redin, at vantage points around the coastline of the Maltese Islands, and greatly improved communications between the Islands of Malta and Gozo.  FAA members climbed up its steep staircase to the roof to take in the spectacular views of the island, and inside were left free to roam to view the video presentation and numerous information panels depicting the history of Comino including the Tower, a brief of which is outlined below:

 

  • 1645 – The Tower had 16 cannons and was defended by 30 soldiers.
  • 1647 – A priest petitioned the Grand Master asking to be given the responsibility of Comino.
  • 16th + 17th century – Comino served as a place of imprisonment or exile for errant Knights who were convicted of minor crimes.
  • 1791 – The Tower’s armament included two 12-pound iron cannons, a 10-pound bronze cannon, a 4- pound bronze cannon, and two 3-pound bronze cannons.
  • 1798-1800 – During the French period, St Mary’s Tower served as a prison for suspected spies.
  • 1829 – The British Military abandoned the Tower.
  • 1851 – Comino was leased out to the British.
  • 1897 – Malta Government Gazette stated that the islands of Comino and Cominotto shall be considered as places for the custody of persons subject to quarantine.
  • 1912 –The Tower at some point may have been used as an isolation hospital for cholera victims, while the basement was converted into a wintering pen for farm animals.
  • 1926 – Comino leased to farming with 65 workers.  Farms grew onions and potatoes destined for export to Glasgow.
  • 1958 – Comino was leased to build a hotel.
  • 1970s – A pig farm that was built to take advantage of Comino’s isolation in order to restock Malta’s pig population, which had been totally destroyed by a vicious outbreak of African Swine Fever.
  • 1975 – Government regained the whole island, but allowed hotels to continue.  Farms were abandoned.
  • 1982 – The Tower became the Property of the Armed Forces of Malta and served as a lookout and staging post to guard against contraband and the illegal hunting of migratory birds at sea.
  • 1996-1997 and 2002-2004 – Santa Marija Battery restored.
  • 2002-2004 – Tower underwent extensive restoration.

Derek Moss

FAA Volunteer