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The Island of Comino

Santa Marija Tower  |  The Chapel  |  Santa Marija Battery  |
The Blue Lagoon  |  Old Comino Maps  | 
Placenames (Map)  |  A natural paradise


One of the best places to spend your holidays in Malta would be the tranquil and idyllic island of Comino which lies between the islands of Malta and Gozo in the Mediterranean Sea. It's tranquillity and isolation together with its unspoiled beauty  are among the chief reasons why Comino has been declared a bird sanctuary and nature preserve. The island is also the home of the Blue Lagoon, a beautiful bay with crystal clear blue waters filled with rich marine life,
which tourists and tour boats frequent daily.
 

Introduction
This small 3.5km sq. island is situated nearly at exactly the same distance between Malta and Gozo. Comino is renowned for it's solitude, and beautiful Cyan waters. With an official population of 4, the island is a nature reserve and bird sanctuary. Peace and beauty are it's main assets.

At  first glance, Comino strikes you as having a rather barren appearance. Its most visible landmark is the tower which situated at its highest elevation and is visible from all parts of the island and from some distance out at sea on every side of the island. he island is a sanctuary of natural beauty with a clear clear sea glittering with shades of blue and green and providing perhaps the best swimming in the Mediterranean. There are rocky reefs, small sandy bays and navigable caverns beneath the coastal cliffs and also the famous Blue Lagoon a natural sea pool of unique azure colour.


Photo by Daniela Ganzerli

Comino's stone is granite which goes down to about two hundred and eighty feet depth. Towards the south there is a widespread erosion caused by the wind and the incessant pounding of the waves. This has resulted in the wholesale falling of large chunks of cliff whose foundations has been eroded from under them.

The history of Comino is best known by the pirates, who in the dead of the night used to hide there biding their time to raid Gozo or escape from their persuaders. The Knights were more interested in Comino as a hunting ground. Though stark and barren today, it seems the Island was home to wild boar and hares when the Knights arrived in 1530. The Grand Masters went to great lengths to ensure their game on Comino was protected: anyone found breaking the embargo on hunting could expect to serve three years as a galley slave.

Few people live on the island, though in summer the number is considerably swelled by tourists and hotel servants from Malta and Gozo. Up to a few years ago there were about ten families living there. Two modern hotels were built and the hotel's ferryboat increased considerably the number of people who visited the island in search of fun and tranquillity.

Video Feature
 
The island of Comino today has just four permanent residents. They are two brothers, Salvu and Angelu, their aunt and a cousin. Salvu races in his Jeep across the little island and monitors the water supply. He never leaves Comino except for health reasons or to get spare parts. A priest visits them regularly to celebrate mass for the mini-community. And tourists come here by boat from Malta during the summer. Salvu likes having a chat with them, but is happy when they go back, so that he can get on with his work in peace. This five-minutes video shows the daily chores of this family before the tourist season takes off on the Gozo channel island.


 

 The Santa Marija Tower
There are several places of interest on the island. The most prominent is certainly Santa Marija Tower - a landmark for miles around. The fort was slow in arriving though, some 200 years late in fact. Back in the middle ages, in 1418, the Gozitans had petitioned their ruler, then the Viceroy of Sicily, to have Comino defended.  King Alfonso V of Aragon gave the permission for this tower to be built and money was raised by the local government, the University, through the taxation on imported wine. Unfortunately the money was used to fund Alfonso's military exploits and the tower remained unbuilt. In 1532, barely two years after the arrival of the Knights of St. John in Malta, a Florentine engineer, Piccino, was commissioned to prepare designs for a tower to be constructed on Comino. Piccino was however soon called to draw a bastion at Telghet Sceberras, in what is today Valletta, and the Comino Tower was once again shelved. In 1535 Piccino left Malta.

When in the 1601, Aragonese Grand Master Martino Garzes passed away, the newly-elected Grand Master, the Frenchman Alof de Wignacourt took possession at a time when a Turkish assault on Malta was imminent. In these years the population of Malta was 38,500, that of Gozo 2,700. The assault was eventually carried out in 1614.

It had to be Alof de Wignacourt, who in 1618 financed and built the Santa Maria tower in Comino to guard the Gozo-Malta channel and deter enemy shipping from finding shelter in the caves of Comino.  The tower, armaments and provision for the Santa Maria Tower in Comino cost 18,628 scudi, the most expensive, the designs probably being drawn by Maltese architect Vittorop Cassar (1550-1607). The site chosen is at Ras l-Irqieqa, on the southwestern side of the island, at a height of 230 feet above sea level. Its walls are 18 feet thick, the tower being 65 feet above the ground.

The tower housed ten heavy guns, eight light guns and could take a compliment of 130 men, expected to oppose landing parties. There is a place where a number of horses could be sheltered if necessary. It had a compliment of thirty Maltese soldiers, whose task was to defend the place in case of attack.

The Santa Maria tower rests on a plinth that is 110 feet square and 25 feet high. Other defensive facets are the scarp musketry gallery at the base of the walls, the fausse braye and the glacis.It was only after the construction of the Santa Maria tower in 1618 that Comino was partly brought under cultivation, not with so much success.

Signallers on the roof kept in continuous communication with St. Agatha's Tower, It-Torri l-Ahmar, in Mellieha on Malta and Torre Garzes in Mgarr, on matters of a defensive nature, such as enemy movements and their own state of alertness. It was not uncommon of having Knights of the Order, including those who flirted with their vows of chastity and celibacy, imprisoned here, perhaps to contemplate better on their lifestyle. Some of the soldiers were decrepit and infirm, as was the case of Mikiel Zarb, an octogenarian Detachment Commander in 1749. Boisgelin, writing in 1804 states that the Comino Tower armament consisted of two iron 12-pounders, one bronze 10-pounder, one bronze 4-pounder and two bronze 3-pounders.

With the British arrival in 1799 to help assist the cause of the Maltese revolution against French Napoleonic rule on the islands, the British forces decided to use the Comino Tower as a prisoner of war camp for undesirables, including extortionists and other nefarious characters.

Comino was made out of bounds for all civilians, and sailors were ordered to give the island a wide berth, or face the consequence of a death by a firing squad and confiscation of the shipping vessel. With the might of the omnipresent British navy now based in Malta, preferred to the Minorcan harbour of Mahon, the fears of Ottoman incursions against the islands were no more.

The tower was manned by the armed forces in both the First and Second World War, until handed over to the Government of Malta. From the 1960s vandals crept in, denuding the Comino Tower of its furniture and fittings, leaving a fracas only degenerates could contort, behind them. Fires were lit inside, glass strewn all over the historic site as the authorities dozed and yawned. This pathetic situation persisted throughout the 1970s, although the Gozitan heritage organization Wirt Missierijietna [Our Forefather's Legacy], now defunct, campaigned and succeeded in having the wooden bridge removed, in order to arrest further voluntary damage. In 1982, the Comino Tower reverted to military life, this time under the Armed Forces of Malta, who used the place as an anti-smuggling deterrent. Electricity replaced oil lamps and the presence of soldiers helped, albeit, checked vandalism and theft, which had included the savaged flagstones.

In 2000, the Malta Maritime Authority reached an agreement with Din l-Art Helwa, a national heritage organization, to fund the entire restoration of the Santa Maria Tower. This shall be carried out in two main phases; the outside restoration, including the missing parapet and damaged walls and turrets and the internal part of the Comino Tower. Restoration works were completed by 2004.
 

The Chapel of Comino
On the extreme southern eastern end of the island, there is also Santa Marija Battery, erected in 1715. The Santa Marija Chapel of Comino, first recorded in a mid-thirteenth century navigational map, is situated in a bay that bears its name. The chapel was built in 1618, at the same time of the building of the tower, and enlarged in 1667 and again in 1716. That year the few farmers living on the island dedicated the chapel to a joyful moment of the Virgin Mary's life, Her Return from Egypt. However both the Chapel and the bay continued to be called by its former dedication: ta' Santa Marija. The chapel may have fallen victim many a time to the pillaging and ransacking exploits of Muslim raiders from the Barbary Coast, as was the norm with many other countryside chapels in Malta and Gozo. This, perhaps, explains the buttress at the back of the chapel.


(c) imaginegozo.com


(c) imaginegozo.com

In summer the Comino chapel offers reprieve from the swelter outside, in autumn, its overwhelming aura of silence, quietness and peace drifts you away. You can hear your heart beat, your mind think. There are only fourteen benches, each holding three abreast. Three lesser-than life-size statues, one of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, another of Our Lady, the third of St. Joseph and Child complete the Holy Family. Pictures of the 'Via Sagra', The Way of the Cross, encircle us. Beneath, a plain azure mosaic layer, added in the 1950's.

Dun Karm Scerri has been celebrating mass since 1963, only a year after his brother; Dun Lawrenz had become chaplain of Comino. Both are from Qala, as was their predecessor Dun Frangisk Camilleri Tal-Bedeq, even though Comino falls under the aegis of Ghajnsielem. He has seen this community grow smaller and smaller. Some geraniums and chrysanthemums are potted in six Bofors and four pom pom anti-aircraft shells, placed on the altar and beneath the statue of Our Lady. Karmnu Said, the island's only active soldier in the last war, had brought them over to Comino.

The Santa Marija chapel used to celebrate its feast, that dedicated to The Sacred Heart of Jesus every 24th of July. This until tragedy struck in 1949. Salvu Said, the dry-stone wall keeper, then in his twenties, lost his life when a petard exploded on the ground. Since then all outside celebrations have been cancelled, and with the island community dwindling, the street decorations are stored away for posterity.


(c) imaginegozo.com

It is the unpretentiousness of the Santa Marija chapel, set within such a unique setting that makes is such a memorable place, not only to hear the word of God, but also to visit and enjoy the timeless atmosphere it presents us with. Regular masses are still held for the island's residents and visitors.
 

The Santa Marija Battery
By the early eighteenth century, there was grave concern about an imminent Ottoman invasion of the Maltese Islands. This led the Knights of St. John to consolidate the defence of the Maltese coastline by building a number of batteries on the three islands.

The Vendome batteries, so called after their French designer, have a semi-circular gun battery facing out to sea with the barrack area in the back. Their main aim was to engage and dissuade enemy forces from disembarking on the coastline. Philippe de Vendome’s recommendations were to strengthen the vulnerable bays by a series of fortifications, including entrenchments. Some members of the Order, who backed Vendome’s appeals, met the expenses, with the batteries named in their honour.


(c) imaginegozo.com


(c) imaginegozo.com

Most of the twenty plus batteries still existing in the Maltese islands are in an appallingly poor state of management, a term too kind to describe their physical condition. Squatters occupy some of them, others have been used improperly as discotheques, private summer shacks or are simply closed and falling into dilapidation. Two that are in a very sad state are the Ducluseaux Battery in Marsascala and the Saint Anthony’s Battery in Qala.

The batteries are also a target for those intent in restoring country homes, their weathered and patina encrusted slabs in great demand, thereby creating a lucrative black-market trade. Once these batteries are destroyed, they shall be whitewashed from our national memory forever, with Malta’s man-made heritage definitely impoverished.


(c) imaginegozo.com

The Santa Marija Battery in Comino has seven gun emplacements. Built in 1715, it faces the Wied Musa Battery at Marfa on Malta, close to Ir-Ramla tal-Bir. The battery cost the cassa della fortificazione 1,018 scudi. It was armed with six cannons, two of which were twenty-four pounders, with the other four being six pounders. However, when the Knights came to man these batteries and prepare them on a state of alertness, not enough troops were available to man them. One has to bear in mind that batteries and fortifications dotted the islands from Il-Hamrija Tower in Qrendi up to Il-Qolla l-Bajda Battery in Marsalforn.

Brigadier A. Samut-Tagliaferro writing in his monumental work The Coastal Fortifications of Gozo and Comino, states that it is recorded that in 1770 the Santa Marija Battery had no gunpowder, since it lacked a gunpowder room and “more, importantly, there was no one to look after it ‘non vi è chi la guarda’. The Battery was unoccupied and remained so.”

Referred to as It-Trunciera by the Cominans, it was lived in by a Gozitan family in the pre-war period. On becoming unoccupied one again, a fig tree, ficus carica, took over the main entrance, as overgrowth and the inclining elements helped fasten its deterioration. A few cannons ended in the gorge beneath, most probably dragged by plebeians in their attempts to spirit them away to some foundry for smelting and reuse.


(c) imaginegozo.com

Up to 1993, the Santa Marija Battery was in a total state of abandonment, its two twenty-four pounders lying off the gun carriage on the paving. We read that these “were found too heavy to cart away and were left abandoned on site below the second-third and sixth-seventh embrasures. Both barrels have had their cascabels sawn off and one of them has also one of its trunnions missing.”

The Armed Forces of Malta and the Royal Navy retrieved the cannons on the 21st August 1997 during a joint operation, when a helicopter from HMS Illustrious and Maltese infantrymen helped transport them back to within the battery. Three barrack rooms are at the landward side, one having a caved ceiling. The battery is being restored by Din l-Art Helwa. The site has been cleaned, gun carriages have been reconstructed, and the gun embrasures repaired and restored to their original condition.

A clear azure sea, just beneath the precipice on which the battery is perched, awaits the visitor. Hugging the side gun emplacements is a cluster of shrubs, namely the African wolfbane, Periploca angustifolia, and olive-leaved germander, Teucrium fruticans, thankfully on the increase now that liberal goat grazing has experienced a steady decrease. The flowering Mediterranean heath, Erica multiflora, and Mediterranean thyme, Thymbra capitata, add to the beauty, harmonizing the quietness and remoteness of the place. This is a place to enjoy and cherish.


The Blue Lagoon

The Maltese refer to the Blue Lagoon as Bejn il-Kmiemen, literally ‘betwixt the Cominos’, Comino and its uninhabited smaller sister Cominotto, an islet measuring a mere 400metres. You can literally gaze for hours at the opposing 52-metre Cominotto slope, or the lagoon itself, and that would be time wisely spent. A favourite location for many a designer calendar, the lagoon was in olden times, frequented by Muslim corsairs. These were not lured by its optimal bathing areas, but rather to use it as their lair, so ideal for their marauding exploits in Maltese waters.

The Comino Channel also bore witness to the activities of Christian corsairs, such as Francesco di Natale, a Corsican, who between 1739 and 1746 plied the Mediterranean from Minorca to the southern Anatolian coast in search of Muslim slaves or booty. The crew of the 'Blessed Virgin of the Rosary' included Maltese, Greek islanders, Sicilians, Corsicans and Italians. They were given a patent by the Grand Master of the Order of St. John to fight against the Muslims. The ‘fight’ included the abduction of Turkish or Cypriot women, as in the case of Larnaca in 1740, and the capture of a sizable laden Ottoman cargo ship in Djerba.

Other operations in the Comino waters were of a clandestine nature. These activities persisted well into the late Victorian period, so much so that in 1852 a Marine Police Station was erected on the lagoon’s vantage point. It cost £38 to build. In 1897 the policing of our coastline cost the Malta Government Suffice £12,039 out of £33,382, well over one third of their yearly emoluments.

The Comino Marine Police had, like such other stations, to be on the lookout for smuggling and contraband activities, fishing with dynamite and the arrival of foreign vessels without having the clearance from the sanitary officers of the quarantine island of Manuel Island. This at a time when outbreaks of epidemics such as cholera, plague and typhoid were not uncommon.

Today the Victorian marine police station houses the public showers and convenience. On its facade one can notice agave succulents, tamarisk trees and the sea orache. Unfortunately, no interpretation sign indicates the former use of this station.
 

Old Comino Maps

The foremost authorities on Maltese cartography are Dr. Albert Ganado (1924- ) and Maurice Aguis-Vadala (1917-1997). Amongst their numerous publications one finds the Pre-Siege Maps of Malta (1986) and A study in depth of 143 Maps representing the Great Siege (1995). In April 2003 Dr. Ganado published Valletta: Città Nuova: A map history (1566-1600), where he describes in great detail ninety-two maps, a good number of which that were practically unknown. Click here to view some of these unique maps


Placenames

Comino Map

Ref      Local Name English Meaning
1 Bejn il-Kmiemen Between the Cominos
2 Ghar Ghana Song Cave
3 Ic-Cimiterju the Cemetery
4 Id-Darsa the Molar
5 Il-Bejta tal-Fenek the Rabbit's Burrow
6 Il-Forn the Bakery
7 Il-Hazina the Waste
8 Il-Hobza The Loaf
9 Il-Kappella the Chapel
10 Il-Kola [Santa Maria] Bay
11 L-Modd il-Modd - a unit of measure
12 IL-Palazz the Palace [sic. hospital]
13 It-Torri the Tower
14 It-Trunciera the Battery
15 L-Ghar tal-Mazz 'Tal-Mazz' (Pile) Cave
15 Taht il-Mazz beneath the 'Mazz' (Pile)
16 L-Imkebba the Wrapped One lit.
17 Ras l-Imnieri Lanterns Point
18 Ras l-Irqieqa Narrow Point
19 Il-Qala ta’ San Niklaw Saint Nicholas' Bay
20 Stazzjon tal-Birdlife 'Birdlife' Station
21 Ta’ Prexxa Of the Breach lit.
22 Tal-Hmara Of the Donkey
23 Wied Ernu Ernu Valley
24 Wied l-Ahmar Red Valley


A natural paradise
The Island is best known by tourists for a stretch of sea with a unique clear turquoise blue water known as the Blue Lagoon. Comino is worth a visit all year round. In winter, it is ideal for walkers and photographers. Without urban areas, or cars, you can pick up the scent of wild thyme and other herbs. Cumin still grows here, self-seeded from the time it was cultivated. With the clear warm seas, water sports enthusiasts will find Comino paradise. The isle has some excellent dive sites too. Even if you are there for a short visit, it is easy to see why Comino has become known as an undiscovered paradise.

A controversial decision is whether a bridge or causeway project between Malta and Gozo should be developed. Nobody can say whether it will be an advantage or not. Lets just hope Comino will never turn out to be the loser.

Most of the information was researched and complied by Steve Farrugia.
More information can be obtained from
www.my-malta.com.
Images were taken from
www.imaginegozo.com

The photos were taken by Joe Zammit
 

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