This ordinary looking townhouse reveals the extraordinary story of Malta’s history, all under one roof.
The story of Bir Mula Heritage House is essentially the story of Cospicua (Bormla) and the story of one man’s passion and determination to uncover its complex history.
When John Vella and his mother were looking for a house in their native Cospicua, little did they know that they would stumble upon a treasure charting the history of a nation under one roof.
John was brought up surrounded by history. Cospicua, one of the ancient Three Cities dominating the southern flank of Grand Harbour, has been inhabited since Neolithic times. The Knights of St John erected double fortifications to protect this strategic city and constructed a dockyard which was to play a vital role in its development, even up to the present day.
As a boy, John would spend his weekends walking around the town with his uncle, listening to his stories about the city’s history. “My uncle was a history book on his own, and I grew up in history and oral narratives,” says John. This fuelled a passion for archaeology, but courses were not available at the time, so he switched his studies to management and tourism - a decision that would prove fortuitous.
A long career in the postal services followed, but his love for historical research never waned, and it was his ever-growing collection of books that instigated a search for a bigger residence. “We had been going round looking at properties for a while when my mother spotted this house on St Margerita Hill. Being a postman in the area, I didn't like it, as all I used to see was a dark entrance hall, TV and a neon light at the end of it,” reveals John.
He reluctantly accompanied his mother to view the property, but something triggered his curiosity. “The seller showed us only the ground floor. Beneath my feet I could hear hollowness. I asked the owner if there was a cellar in the house, but he said we could not visit it as it was filled with construction material and other rubbish,” says John.
He was nonetheless hooked. “I left the house convinced that I would buy it and restore it, irrespective of the effort required. My mother felt otherwise, and it was only later that she revealed to me that she thought I had lost my mind!”
Using only his own resources without any Government or EU funding, John set about the painstaking and laborious task of restoring the house to its former glory. But he was in for a surprise, or rather, several surprises.
“Initially I had no idea what the house contained. All I wanted was to realise my dream of setting up a museum about the history of Cospicua. We spent five years working every single day - nights and long hours manually and carefully cleaning the house and doing conservation and restoration works. There were times when I questioned myself,” admits John.
But the hard work paid off. “The first surprises came when we uncovered graffiti showing old maritime vessels, and the discovery of a classic compass and ancient script. A second but major surprise came when we started cleaning out the debris from the 'cellar'. We soon realised that the cellar was not a cellar at all, but an ancient rural house built centuries earlier.”
Academics confirmed the structure was “very old” and that it was “evident that the insertion of arches and some remodelling took place later during the Arab era (870 - 1224)”. This means Bir Mula is at least 1,000 years old. Chert tools, red ochre, neolithic sling stones, animal bones and pottery found on site showed it was already in use at such an early age.
“Such initial surprises served to boost our effort, energy and enthusiasm,” continues John. “From the outside, it looks like an old townhouse or a palazzino, but inside it tells stories of centuries of history which witness the development of Maltese houses through the ages.”
Two decades of restoration later, the house keeps revealing its many secrets. “Graffiti scratched on the walls, the architecture itself and objects found sealed inside the walls reveal a history absent from formal school books and publications,” explains John. “Up till now, the house has rendered artefacts dating as far back as the Mesolithic age. It led me into researching deeper into the real ancient history of Cospicua and the Maltese Islands.”
Now a PhD student at the Mediterranean Institute at the University of Malta, John believes this is the real history, that of the real people, which should be studied. “We are aware that conspiracies to obliterate history and subjectivities took place from time to time from those in power but archaeology, old houses and intangible sources as toponyms and oral lore witness to undocumented history. This is what I am researching and publishing, because we all have the right to know history as it happened.”
And this house has seen its fair share of history through the ages, from accounts of meetings between the Knights of the Order of St John and the Ottomans to discussing terms of surrender to the rumoured presence of other-worldly spirits. Meanwhile, the restoration is a “never-ending story”, as John himself puts it. And the surprises hidden in this house seem to be never-ending too.
Fancy a visit?
Bir Mula Heritage House is open Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 12pm. For International Museum Day, Bir Mula will open on Friday 18th May from 5:30pm to 7:30pm. On Saturday 19th May and Sunday 20th May, the museum will open as usual from 10am to 12pm, with a guided tour in English starting at 11am.
Also on Saturday 19th May at 7pm, museum owner and curator John Vella will present his 30 year long research, which reveals the origins and development of the Byzantine rock-cut church of Cospicua. A collection of art by local artists will be exhibited in the main hall. Admission is free for all events. Donations for the upkeep of the museum and the exhibits are appreciated.