• Matthew Camilleri

Ħaż-Żebbuġ: Birthplace of Famous Maltese Personalities

The historic city of Ħaż-Żebbuġ is one of the oldest settlements in Malta. Said to be named after the large olive groves that were once to be found in the area, its motto 'Semper Virens', or 'ever green', aptly describes the beautiful countryside and numerous valleys that still surround it.



Although the area has been inhabited since prehistoric times, Ħaż-Żebbuġ as we know it today originated in the 14th century, when three smaller hamlets were joined together. During the time of the Order of St. John, Ħaż-Żebbuġ became one of the most important towns on the island, mainly due to its major role in the cotton industry, and also because of the presence of a number of prominent corsairs who lived there. During the second half of the 18th century, the population of what was by then a flourishing town courted the French Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc, who in turn bestowed Ħaż-Żebbuġ with the status of a city - Citta' Rohan - in the year 1777.


Over the years, Ħaż-Żebbuġ can also claim to have been the birthplace of a number of prominent Maltese personalities: from patriots and heroes to talented artists, and more.


1. Dun Mikiel Xerri


The Maltese patriot Dun Mikiel Xerri lived under both the Knights of St. John and later the French when they took over the Maltese Islands in June 1798. Originally born and baptised in Ħaż-Żebbuġ in 1737, Dun Mikiel, studied philosophy in Italy, and later became a university professor back in Malta, as well as being ordained a priest. By the time of the Maltese uprising against the French on 2nd September 1798, Dun Mikiel was living in Valletta, where together with thousands of other inhabitants, he became trapped during the ensuing siege.



In the months that followed, as Maltese rebels sought to starve out the French garrison from the fortified harbour cities, hundreds of people were dying from starvation and deprivation. A group of patriots from within the fortifications resolved to risk their lives, in an attempt to break the deadlock. The group, with Dun Mikiel as one of the leaders, intended to open the gates of the fortified cities, so that they could be rushed by the rebels waiting outside. Unfortunately, the French discovered the plot, and 49 people, Dun Mikiel among them, were soon rounded up.



On the morning of 17th January 1799, the archbishop of Malta, Vincenzo Labini, visited Xerri and his companions at Fort St. Elmo, where they were being held. Afterwards, the prisoners were led to St. George’s Square where a firing squad awaited. Dun Mikiel did his best to lift the spirits of the condemned men through prayer. When it was time, he gave a silver watch to the officer in charge and asked to be shot in the heart. His last deed before he met his faith, was to shout "May God have pity on us! Long live Malta!" After the initial volley of fire, those still clinging to life were hastily despatched. Dun Mikiel Xerri was 61 years old.


2. Francesco Saverio Caruana


Another Maltese patriot from Ħaż-Żebbuġ who also fought against the French was Francesco Saverio Caruana, another priest who had once been taught by Dun Mikiel Xerri when he was studying at the Seminary.



Ordained a priest at the age of 24, in 1796 he became canon of the Mdina Cathedral chapter. During the French occupation of Malta, Canon Caruana was appointed to a government commission by the island’s new rulers, but after growing disenchanted with them, he resigned his post and was later appointed as the commander of the Maltese rebel battalions of Ħaż-Żebbuġ and nearby Siġġiewi. He was in overall command of over 200 men, manning the tas-Samra camp and battery in Ħamrun.



Later, under British rule, he became Rector of the University of Malta, as well as rising rapidly through the ranks of the church, eventually being appointed as the island’s Bishop by Pope Gregory XVI in 1831. He served in this role for 16 years, until his death in 1847 at the age of 88. Although he was laid to rest at the Mdina Cathedral, his heart was buried separately in the parish church of his hometown - Ħaż-Żebbuġ.


3. Mikiel Anton Vassalli


Mikiel Anton Vassalli, known as the father of the Maltese language, was a writer, philosopher and linguist. Born into a poor family in Ħaz-Żebbuġ in 1764, he lost his father when he was only two years old. From childhood, he demonstrated a talent for languages, and at the age of 21, he moved to a university in Rome, where he studied oriental languages, soon becoming a professor in the field. It was at this time that he published several important books on the Maltese language, becoming the first person to study it scientifically and according to its Semitic roots.



In truth, Vassalli's primary aim was not the Maltese language in itself, but the education of the Maltese people, which he believed could only be attained through their native tongue. He believed that if they could learn to read and write in Maltese, they could then use it to learn other languages and therefore keep in touch with what was happening outside our shores. He believed that successive foreign rulers wanted to discourage the Maltese from learning their own language so that they would remain ignorant and could then be easily exploited.



From Italy, Vassalli returned to Malta, to what was to be one of the most turbulent periods of Maltese history, consisting of the final years of the Knights of St. John, the two-year French period, and the first years of British rule. This was also a time of great upheaval throughout the continent, which would come to a head with the French Revolution. Vassalli closely followed the developments that were taking place and considered how certain ideas could be implemented here. Needless to say, this did not endear him to the Knights, and after the discovery of his involvement in a political plot, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, although he was soon released following the French takeover.



This chapter of Malta’s history was of course very short-lived, and his association with the French authorities led to British accusations that he was a francophile, which led to him being exiled to France. He returned to Malta 20 years later, aged 56, poor, and in bad health. Soon after he started to teach at the University of Malta as the first Professor of the Maltese language while continuing to write important works. Shortly before his death in 1829, he was approached by a Protestant church to translate the Bible into Maltese, as a result of which he was eventually refused a Catholic burial. Instead, he was buried in a Protestant cemetery in Floriana that was mainly used by the British.


4. Painters and Sculptors


Ħaz-Żebbuġ has also produced a number of talented artists. Among them was the famous painter Lazzaro Pisani, who is considered to be one of the most important Maltese artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in 1854, Pisani studied in Rome at the Accademia di San Luca, before returning to Malta in 1874. He was quite prolific and his works can be found in many churches in Malta, including that of Ħaż-Żebbuġ, where he was buried after his death in 1932.



Pisani was also the cousin of the Sciortino brothers Antonio and Francesco, both of whom became established sculptors. Antonio Sciortino’s talent was evident from an early age, and after studying at the School of Art in Valletta, he obtained a government grant to continue his studies in Rome, where he would spend much of his life, serving for 25 years as the director of the British Academy of Arts in Rome. Despite this, he never lost his devotion to his native country. He won a number of prestigious international competitions and became internationally renowned, receiving commissions from all over the world. Among his most well-known works in Malta are 'Les Gavroches', inspired by the novel 'Les Miserables' by Victor Hugo, and the Great Siege Monument, both of which are in Valletta. He also served as a curator in the Malta Museum of Fine Arts until his death in 1947.



Antonio’s brother Francesco Saverio Sciortino was another talented sculptor, who also studied in Rome. Despite his undoubted artistic ability, he is not as well-known as his brother, perhaps because he spent most of his life abroad after emigrating to Canada. Francesco was also a successful architect, being involved, amongst others, in works related to the church of Nadur in Gozo. He died in Canada in 1958, at the age of 82.



5. Dun Karm Psaila


Ħaz-Żebbuġ has also produced a national poet in Dun Karm Psaila. Born into a working-class family in 1871, he excelled at school from an early age, eventually studying at the Seminary in order to fulfil his wish of becoming a priest. He then proceeded to study philosophy and theology at the University of Malta, before being ordained in 1894. In the following years, he himself taught various subjects at the Seminary: from languages to arithmetic, geography and cosmography. In 1921 he was appointed assistant librarian at the National Library of Malta, and in 1923 director of circulating libraries, a post he held till his retirement in 1936.



Before 1912 Dun Karm wrote only in Italian but eventually started to write poetry in Maltese. In recognition of his contribution to Maltese literature, he received several honours and awards. He is best known as the author of numerous religious hymns in Maltese, but especially for writing the words to the Maltese National Anthem, which was sung for the first time in 1923.



Dun Karm was also declared as Malta’s national poet in recognition of the numerous works in the Maltese language. He passed away in 1961, just five days short of his 90th birthday. His funeral was held at the parish church of Ħaż-Żebbuġ, and he was buried in a chapel built specifically for him in the local cemetery.


There is no doubt that through these heroes, patriots, painters, sculptors, poets and others, the city of Ħaż-Żebbuġ has contributed immensely to the development of the Maltese culture and identity throughout the centuries.