Stranger Things: Could Mellieha's mysterious cave complex shed light on a lost way of life?
All images by Melanie Drury
Mellieha is troglodyte country, or, at least, it was, once upon a time. Indeed, this northernmost locality of Malta is well known for its many caves, many of which are known to have been inhabited, until recently, since neolithic times.
Most famous of these is L-Ghar u Casa, a term stemming from both Arabic and Italian meaning ‘the cave and home’. Interestingly, in the Maltese language, Gharukaza eventually came to mean 'disgrace', perhaps pointing at the disparaging attitudes towards those that still lived in caves as recently as a couple of centuries or so ago.
Nonetheless, set inside the cliff face across from the Parish and Our Lady of the Grotto, the yellow facade of L-Ghar u Casa proudly stands testimony to another era that knew completely different lifestyles in Malta. While the noble lived in palaces, many people still dwelled in caves until the British Colonial Government forced them into neighbouring villages in the 1830s.
The set up of the cave dwellers at L-Ghar il-Kbir - the big cave - at Dingli is well-recorded in history; contrary to what one might think, it was a matter of choice rather than necessity. What is far less known is anything about one very intriguing complex of Mellieha caves that’s on the edge of Triq il-Wied, which was certainly inhabited by a rather well-developed community for a while.
From Triq il-Wied facing across the valley, the cave entrances catch your eye. With my typical wanting to explore every hole in the wall, the first thing I did when I moved to Mellieha was explore these caves. What I found was marvellous.
A series of caves and rock-cut spaces are spread all around the cliff face overlooking the valley and Mellieha Bay. One particular space has a stone staircase and a rock-cut facade that makes it look like something out of the Lord of the Rings.
The facade feels important, and even has notches in the rock, which I could only imagine were for lighting it up with small fire torches.
On the far side, a large window is cut out, showcasing a full view of the bay. These guys sure knew how to appreciate a good view! Whether there was any defence concern is uncertain, since the actual period when it was made is not quite known. If this was a neolithic site, it could well be before seafaring was even a thing.
Beneath, some large caves still bear soot remnants. No doubt these were meeting spaces for the community around a fire, for cooking, dining and social gatherings. Intentionally rock cut sky-lights probably served to let out the smoke and let in the sunlight.
Some of the caves are easy to reach, but the area is so overgrown and falling apart that others are largely inaccessible but for some deft manoeuvers. It feels rather a shame to let this site get swallowed up by nature - it should be celebrated as national heritage not unlike the megalithic temples!
All around, smaller rock cut rooms with clever S-shaped entrances would have kept out any draughts. These rooms look like they would only be used for sleeping, their tiny size retaining the body heat of the two or three persons that could lie there in slumber. I'm just speculating, of course, but it makes sense...
I’ve visited and revisited these caves but have never been able to find any information about them online. I haven’t even been able to discover their name, if they have one. What is sure is that they have existed for a very, very long time. The weathering on the rock has not occurred in just a few centuries, more like millennia.
I contacted the Mellieha Local Council in a bid to obtain any available information about the caves. However, Mayor John Francis Buttigieg informed that the council does not have any information about them.
What emerged, however, is that author Jeffrey Sammut has been researching and collecting information about these caves for an article in his book: Mellieha Through the Tides of Time Volume II, due to be published this February.
Due to the rather exclusive content of the article, the author was not keen to share any of the information prior to the book’s publication, but we can certainly look forward to finally learning what he has discovered about these amazing yet mysterious caves - a forgotten piece of Maltese heritage!