All you need to know about the mysterious islet of Filfla
Undoubtedly the archipelago's most enigmatic island, Filfla has been through its fair share throughout the ages.

Lisa Borain

Located at the most southerly point of the Maltese Archipelago, Filfla is a small, uninhabited isle five kilometres south of Malta. The rocky platform was originally attached to the south-west coast of Malta.

The name is said to come from felfel, Arabic for pepper. The name probably originated either due to the isle's tiny size or its original shape which may have been reminiscent of a small pepper. Later, it was referred to as Piper on maps, which is the Latinised form of felfel.

Apart from the wall lizard and door snail endemic to the isle, as well as being home to one of the largest known colonies in the world of the European Storm Petrel, Filfla is undoubtedly the archipelago's most mysterious island.

It's believed that Filfla was likely sacred to the neolithic inhabitants of Malta, who built the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra on the Maltese coast opposite the isle. Some historians speculate that the mysterious offshore rock silhouetted against the midday sun on the southern horizon may have possessed some symbolic or sacred significance of context to the two ancient temples and stone calendars located within 500 metres of each other.

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The legend of its creation

The legend of Filfla's creation goes that Il-Maqluba (a sinkhole with a surface area of around 6,000m² situated in the village of Qrendi in Malta) was inhabited by people who lived dissolute and sinful lives. They ignored heedings of their sinful ways, and as a result, God punished them by engulfing the hamlet. Angels are then said to have thrown a fragment of the hamlet into the sea, creating the islet of Filfla.

It was bigger

Filfla was previously much larger than its current 2.5 hectares. The land mass has reduced drastically by millennia of sea pounding, and of recent history, heavy bombing practice by the British and other naval and air forces.

A chapel was built there

A map of Malta dating back to 1798 depicts a chapel on Filfla, which was built inside a cave in 1343. The chapel was destroyed by an earthquake in 1856, which also sank part of the island. The titular painting of the Madonna accompanied by saints Peter and Leonard bears the date 1604, and had been removed from the chapel. It's now preserved in the parish church of St Catherine in Zurrieq.

The remains found

Copper Age and Bronze Age ceramic pot pieces (sherds) have been found on Filfla, which are said to be preserved in the National Museum of Archaeology. Bronze Age or later cart ruts were reported by Fr Emmanuel Magri as existing on the isle until the end of the 19th century. Sir Themistocles Zammit reported finds of Temple Period pottery on Filfla in the 20th century.

“Temple period remains have also been found on the islet, probably belonging to a sailor’s shrine. These include pottery, jars and bones of animals. Whether it was inhabited or just visited is however still an open discussion…” (Farrugia Randon 2006:43).

It was used as target practice

Since Filfla's flat surface somewhat resembles a ship, it was easily used by the British and other naval and air forces as target practice, which resulted in a large part of it being destroyed. Further, a huge amount of unexploded artillery was left in the shallow waters surrounding Filfla, originating from the hundreds of unexploded shells which missed their mark. This ordnance was never cleared and many took it upon themselves to dive for it to retrieve the explosives for conversion into festive fireworks. To this day, fishing is prohibited within a one nautical mile radius of Filfla to reduce the risk of netting any unexploded shells.

The median line between Maltese and Libyan waters

In the early 1980s, the Maltese Government appealed to the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague to include Filfla in their deliberations when calculating the median line between Maltese and Libyan waters as a result of a dispute which arose between the two countries for oil-exploration purposes.

Admire it from afar

Given its status of scientific importance, Filfla is off-limits to visitors. However, it can be clearly admired from the stunning Dingli Cliffs or beautiful Blue Grotto, amongst various other spots in Malta.

Featured Image: Nick Bugeja

9th May 2018

 Lisa Borain
Written by
Lisa Borain
Lisa is a copywriter/editor with an adventurous interest and penchant for all things Malta.

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