Town at a Crossroad

"Marsa was a museum before it was a town"

During colonial days, the Maltese resented the way the British requisitioned the best parts of their country. A case in point is an area still referred to as il-Marsa ta’ L-Inglizi (English Malta). In 1869, the British set up a country club with facilities for horseback riding, rugby and polo. The rugby field has now been converted to a full stadium and Maltese-style horse races compete with the national soccer league for Sunday crowds. Names of streets in the area attest to the importance of horse racing – Tigrija (Race), Gerrejja (Jockeys), Serkin (Sulky), Haddied (Blacksmith), Stalel (Stables).

The English made a good choice. The alluvial plain catches the drains of some of Malta’s major wadis. Having been mountain tops in a past geologic epoch, the Maltese Islands have a multitude of these wadis, or widien (plural of wied). A few descend from the highlands to form Wied il-Kbir (big) and Wied is-Sewda (Blanck) in their march towards the Grand Harbour at Marsa Creek. This magnificent harbour was the fact carved by these watercourses when they flowed towards a distant sea.

With a name that means “The Harbour”, il-Marsa has had port facilities since the time of the Phoenicians, when it was already a commercial centre. The Romans also built houses, baths and catacombs near Triq l-Istalel. Other finds suggest that the Order of St. John, whose waterfront storages underneath the bastions are still in use, may have had a foundry at Marsa. A recent discovery of a medieval church near the power station promises to shed more light on Marsa’s long history.

Indeed, Marsa was a national museum before it was a town. In the first half of the 17th century Gian Francesco Abela, “Father of Maltese historiography” turned his fiveroom country house at Marsa into Malta’s first historical museum. Called Museo di San Giacomo, it was considered a collection of hidden monuments of ancient Malta. Abela’s house is gone now, a power station occupying the site. But, despite damage and looting, the treasure that he left forms the basis of the National Archaeological Museum now located in Valletta.

The west arm of Marsa Creek used to be called Big Creek, as opposed to Little Creek in the east. The name was justified, since Big Creek in the east. The name was justified, since Big Creek was much bigger than it is now and included the whole Marsa ta’ L-Ingizi area. Marsa was then a very scenic place as well as a prime hunting area, with lakes, marches and fresh water springs. People living in Valletta prior to the construction of Aqueducts in the 17th century rowed three miles to Marsa when their wells ran dry.

Aqueducts proved very useful to Malta and in the 19th century Marsa itself was the beneficiary of one. An arched remnant of an aqueduct survives over a canal that drains the converged wadis into the Grand Harbour. It abuts a building that once served as depot for the Malta Tramway.

When the Turkish forces invaded the islands in 1565 they camped at Marsa to take advantage of the water. Anticipating this, Grand Master De la Valette has directed the Order’s doctor to poison Marsa’s wells. This action turned the enemy quarters into an ill-equipped hospital, as dysentery threatened more Turkish live than Christian guns did. Ironically, part of the area where so many Turks died was later purchased by the Turkish government to build an Islamic Cemetery (1874). This burial compound also includes a Jewish section.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Marsa was a barony with vineyards belonging to the Navas, Montaltos, and other wealthy fiefholders. Such fiefdoms were then a matter of great pride. A grand master dressed in full regalia bestowed titles upon kneeling recipients who kissed the ruler’s hand and promised to pay an annual tribute. Marsa’s fresh water springs made it one of the more coveted fiefs of Malta, itself a fief of the grand master who paid an annual tribute in the form of a live falcon to the king of Aragon.

As new towns closed in on the marches, mosquitoes were blamed for the spread of malaria. Due partly to this danger and partly to the increased port business after the opening of the Suez Canal, the lakes and marshes were filled in (1861 -1866) and port facilities were constructed under the name of Portu Novu (New Port). Ta’ Cejlu Church was built as part of the project.

In an effort to organize a community of port workers, it was decided to establish a full-fledged town. A name was picked – Albert Town (after Queen Victoria’s husband). A banner was designed – three feathers borrowed from Prince Albert’s coat of arms. And the foundation stone was laid in 1875 amid great pomp. Albert Town, or Belt il-Gdida (New Town), grew to 620 people by 1890, but the fizzled out. Now Albert Town is making a comeback as a borough between Marsa and Rahal Gdid.

For most of the British era, “The Marsa” was just an extension of the Grand Harbour but, eventually, a full-fledged town did emerge. When this happened, it was one with great aspirations. Marsa uses a new coat of arms with a symbol of the harbour that it always was.

The second parish church built in 1958-61 was originally named for the Weeping Madonna. This title reflected belief in the 1953 miracle in Syracuse, Sicily, where an image of Our Lady is said to have wept. Since tears and fireworks don’t mix, the name was changed to Marija Regina (St Mary the Queen). This tearless title allows il-Marsin to indulge in feverish revelry and tumultuous parades like other traditional communities.

Like other traditions communities, the town has also preserved its old stone cross, which, after being moved many times due to road works, finds itself in one of the busiest intersections of the country. Dissected by limited-access roads, Marsa itself is at a crossroads these days. After growing to over 8,000, its population has dropped below 6,000 is Marsa a victim of its own progress or is it going to remain a vibrant town? The next few years may provide a definitive answer but, in the meantime, Marsa is showing a remarkable sense of diversification. Surely, it is not about to abdicate its successful port ventures after all these centuries. Recent developments such as those at il-Menqa (Small Harbour) vouch to that. But it has other strengths, like its expanding modern factories and its sporting facilities, which now include tennis, squash, golf and archery, together with the ever-popular trot and gallop races. All this should ensure not only a practical and business like harbour town but also a lively and affable one. Yes, Marsa may be at a crossroads but, not, it’s not at a cul de sac.

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