Position and Early History
Perched on a series of hills to the north-west of Malta lies the small town of Mellieħa. Its elevated maritime position, being surrounded on three sides by the Blue Mediterranean Sea, gives it magnificent views all around. It is about 150 metres above sea level and it overlooks the beautiful sandy beach of Mellieħa Bay. Today, Mellieħa has a community of about 9000 inhabitants and comprises new housing estates such as Il-Qortin, Santa Maria Estate, Ta’ Pennellu, Mellieħa Heights, Ta’ Masrija and Tal-Ibraġ. It also incorporates the small villages of Selmun and Manikata.
When, around 8000BC, the first inhabitants of Malta came over from Sicily, they must surely have been attracted to this place which is characterised by a series of hills and valleys which abound in large caves, sheltered areas, fertile soil and natural spring water. So Mellieħa must have been a great centre for troglodytic habitations, as period shards of pottery abundantly indicate. Later still, as we find in several places around Mellieħa, as at ‘Ta Msid’ in Aħrax, Armier, Għajn Ġejtuna, Imġiebaħ and other areas, we find instances of megalithic remains while Punic-Roman and Palaeo-Christian tombs are also still visible near San Niklaw, Ħawwiexa and Selmun.
The enigmatic cart ruts which are scattered in many places in Malta are also present in several garigue areas around Mellieħa. Many consist of two narrow parallel gutters cut into the rock face. Sometimes they intersect and those near Paradise Bay lead to the cliff’s edge and disappear somewhere under the sea.
The legendary nymph Calypso also features in the Mellieħa spectrum with a cave complex overlooking Ġnien Ingraw Valley attributed to her as her abode while entertaining Ulysses. Some historians maintain that the description given by Homer tallies exactly with this place. One of the organised heritage trails passes very near to this place.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul was shipwrecked in the vicinity of Mellieħa in the year 60AD. An old tradition maintains that Saint Luke, who was with Saint Paul during this same voyage, painted the figure of Our Lady on the bare rock-face of a natural cave in Mellieħa. Another tradition strengthens this further and we find that in the year 409AD a number of bishops visited and consecrated this same cave as a church. In the year 1436, during the Pastoral Visit of Bishop Senatore De Mello, it is certain that this Cave-Chapel of Mellieħa had from many years earlier been established as one of the first ten parishes of Malta. The Icon of Our Lady that we see in the Mellieħa Sanctuary today has been dated at around 1000-1100AD and it bears Byzantine-style characteristics. Unfortunately, in a corsair attack in 1614, the holy Icon was severely damaged in its lower part, and during the 17th and 18th centuries it often happened that the scattered Mellieħa community had to abandon the village to seek shelter further inland.
However, in spite of this ever present fear of such attacks on the shallow coastline around Mellieħa, the devotion towards this Sanctuary, dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, flourished and hundreds of pilgrims from all over the world came to visit it and beseech Our Lady’s help. They donated ExVoto gifts in the form of oil, candles, money, paintings, silver and other objects. Many bishops, Grand Masters of the Order of St. John and other prominent people have visited the Sanctuary and in 1960 and 1965 Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI sent large decorative candles to be placed at the feet of Our Lady of Mellieħa. In 1990 this same Sanctuary was honoured by a visit by Pope John Paul II who prayed in front of the holy Icon. The Sanctuary acts as an oasis where man can find peace of mind, body and soul and today it is listed among 20 other National European Shrines forming the European Marian Network based in Lourdes, France.
Mellieħa Parish Church
Towards the end of the 19th century, when the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa was becoming too small for the ever-growing Mellieħa community, it was felt necessary to build a new church. The British Government had already allocated an area near Miżieb for the building of the Parish Church but Parish Priest Francis Maria Magri had other plans, for he wanted the Parish Church to be as near as possible to the Sanctuary so as not to divide the Parish. Its foundation stone was laid in 1883 and it took 14 years of hard voluntary work for it to be completed. The white upper coralline-limestone building-stones were cut from a quarry in Armier and brought over on carts by the locals. It was blessed in 1897 though still without its belfries which were built later in 1920. It was later consecrated in 1930. Today various architectural works, sculptures, statues and paintings embellish this unique church.
Comparatively, the Parish church in Manikata, a small village which forms part of the Mellieħa community, is a very modern one, though initiated in 1961 on plans prepared by architect Richard England. Like the Mellieħa church it was built by volunteers after many fund-raising activities. It is a beautiful church which blends perfectly with its rural surroundings and it is dedicated to Saint Joseph.
Selmun Chapel, which was formerly housed inside Selmun Palace, was built in the 1980s and it was similarly built with funds emanating from local collections and fund-raising activities. It is dedicated to Our Lady of Ransom, going back to the times of the Monte Della Redenzione or ransoming of the slaves during the times of the Order of Saint John.
The Grotto of Our Lady of Mellieħa, an underground crypt in the heart of Mellieħa and very near to the Sanctuary, was constructed by Mario de Vasi, a Sicilian merchant, in 1644. He was greatly devoted towards Our Lady and he paid for all expenses for the passageway and crypt to be cut into the rock to create a small chapel where fresh spring water flows beneath a white statue of Our Lady with baby Jesus in her arms.
Another small chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception stands at the very end of the Aħrax peninsula, right on the cliff’s edge.
St. Paul’s Islands
Building further on the tradition of St Paul’s shipwreck near Mellieħa, we find two small uninhabited islands connected by a shallow isthmus. These are often referred to as Selmun Islands, the name being inherited from Marco di Maria, a member of the Salamone family.
In 1576 Marco was returning to Malta when he was chased by a pirate vessel and he managed to pass his vessel through the narrow channel between the Island and the mainland by using a very risky manoeuvre. The pirate ship failed in its attempt and ran aground and was eventually captured. In return Marco was given these Islands as a present by Grand Master La Cassiere. The statue of St. Paul, the work of Segismondo Dimech from Valletta and Salvatore Dimech from Lija, was erected around 1844 and H.H. Pope John Paul II visited the site by boat during his visit to Malta in 1990.
The Red Tower
For several centuries, because of its close proximity to the sea and to several highly vulnerable landing places, Mellieħa suffered a lot from corsair and pirate attacks, with its people often abandoning the area for safer refuge. The first fortification built in Mellieħa by the Knights of Saint John was the Red Tower. It was finished in 1649 to instill fear in the enemy and create feelings of security amongst the locals and we can truly say that it laid the foundation stone for the new Mellieħa. Two other towers were added in 1658, namely White Tower facing Comino and Għajn Ħadit Tower near Mġiebaħ, and in 1714-1716 more shore batteries, redoubts and sea walls were constructed, thus regenerating confidence in the people and the rebirth of the Mellieħa community. Today, one of these batteries houses a Tonnara Maritime Museum.
During World War I Mellieħa played an important part in providing convalescence centres for many Allied wounded soldiers from the Salonica and Gallipoli Campaigns. Għadira Military Hospital housed about 2000 such casualties whilst Marfa Palace provided a recreational centre for them.
World War II shelters
Being surrounded by so many low-lying and easily accessible sandy beaches, during World War II several beach posts and pill-boxes were constructed along the shoreline to meet against possible enemy landings or invasion. Some are still intact and easily reached during heritage walks.
In Mellieħa, about 46 Air-Raid shelters were cut into the Upper Coralline Limestone rock for people to shelter during air-raids and today two of them, very near the Sanctuary of Our Lady, are open to the public. Here we must also mention Fort Campbell, built in 1939 near Selmun overlooking St. Paul’s Islands, when war clouds were already looming over the horizon. It was specifically constructed to keep watch over the entrances to Mellieħa Bay and St. Paul’s Bay. Another fort, Mellieħa Fort, was built at the very top of Mellieħa hill, mainly to serve as an observation post to monitor allied and enemy shipping all around the north coast of Malta. Today this fort serves as a Boy Scouts’ centre.
Mellieha — Your Gateway to Diversity and Beauty
Beautiful fertile valleys around Mellieħa, like Ġnien Ingraw, San Niklaw, Imġiebaħ and Għajn Żejtuna, all provide excellent country walks, especially from Autumn till Springtime. In Mellieħa Bay we find the Bird Sanctuary, a fresh water haven for migratory birds. It offers bird watching facilities for all ages together with guided tours around the whole complex. Incidentally this bird sanctuary lies exactly where the old Roman salt pans used to be and from where Mellieħa, from the word ‘melħ’ which means ‘salt’, derived its name. Further up from this Sanctuary, on the clayey slopes towards the Red Tower, lies ‘Foresta 2000’, a Natura 2000 site where hundreds of trees have been planted by children. Mellieħa is also blessed with a number of natural sandy bays like Mellieħa Bay, Armier Bay and Golden Bay, where locals and tourists alike flock to enjoy their safe, clear and shallow waters especially during the summer months.
The neighbouring village of Manikata, which also falls under the jurisdiction of the Mellieħa Local Council, is the centre of an Agro-Tourism Project which is incorporated in Malta’s National Park, the North-West Nature and History Park, where Heritage walks are organised throughout the year. Similarly the tiny hamlet of Selmun offers a majestic Palace which used to be the
Summer residence of the Order’s Grand Masters together with some very beautiful walks overlooking Mġiebaħ Valley and the slopes towards St. Paul’s Islands and beyond. In Selmun, the restoration and regeneration of a number of old farmhouses is underway and it is intended to serve as an agricultural centre of information and exhibition venue.
The Aħrax promontory, with its varied coastal landscape, offers a series of diverse natural aspects and whichever way one goes one is presented with a different environment. Moving along the coast one meets the cliff environment, an ever changing outline through erosion, the sharp rocky areas contrasting with the several sandy beaches and the garigue areas further inland which present a rich and varied habitat for sundry flora and fauna specimens. Of special note are the sand dunes at White Tower Bay which are home to fauna adapted to such an environment and often endemic to the Maltese Islands. The Marfa Ridge is also notable for its Shearwater breeding places at Il-Kunċizzjoni and the rich marine environment from Ċirkewwa to Aħrax Point along the whole coastline which is rich in its flora and fauna and water habitats.
Looking to the Future
The Mellieħa Local Council has managed to create several activities that go beyond its normal framework of structural projects. For the last years, in September, it has organised ‘Iljieli Melleħin’ or ‘Mellieħa Nights’, a three-night festival bringing together history, art, culture, music, Maltese cuisine, tradition and folklore. Thousands of Maltese and foreigners participate during these events and various groups from Europe contribute for their success. During Christmas week the same Council holds ‘Il-Milied Mellieħi’ or Christmas in Mellieħa’, and the various activities organised for children and adults alike blend perfectly with the joyful period while upholding the Christian spirit. Another annual event which has found its place in the Mellieħa calendar is the feast of St. John in June. A procession is held along Gorg Borg Olivier and Main Street and it culminates with the reading of the ‘Bandu’ and the traditional bonfire in the square. A really commendable re-enactment of an old custom. The town’s titular religious feast is celebrated on the 8 September, though evening celebrations start a fortnight before. It is the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady and with the religious procession, band concerts, fireworks and other sundry activities connected to it, it attracts thousands of locals and tourists.
Surely all these and various other activities held over the year, its unique position, its history and culture, its diversity, the natural beauty around it and the whole Mellieħa community, have earned Mellieħa the prestigious EDEN award, as a European Destination of ExcelleNce, bestowed on it by the EU in 2009. Mellieħa offers a safe destination, a nostalgic place which attracts, creates and promotes diverse situations and experiences which ensure a constant flow of foreigner-visitors both in summer and in winter, so much so that it rightly deserves to be called ‘A Town for all Seasons’.
Hard work brings satisfaction and results and we can truly say that Mellieħa, through the very hard work put up over the years by the Local Council together with the Central Government, and with the unending help and constant participation of its 55 voluntary or non-government organisations and societies, ranging from clubs to choirs to other sundry entities, has managed to turn the tide of our times in its favour. It has generated a great determination to uphold, sustain and pursue future tourism, thus creating economic growth for the benefit of all. It has provided fertile ground for the creation and stimulation of the historical, cultural, social, environmental and artistic potential of a typical Maltese town.
From a tiny, remote, agricultural centre Mellieħa has grown into a small town where modern lifestyles and expectations have become part of everyday life. Public gardens and spaces, artificial-turf football grounds, a large Family Park, Heritage walks, embellishment of bays, streets and roundabouts, the creation of pedestrian areas, a newly-built modern home for the elderly together with a day-care centre, cultural and social activities, free IT and language courses, together with easy access to free internet and other services, have made Mellieħa’s community rightly and truly proud to be part of such a modern “Destination of Excellence”.