4 Aspects of Malta's Mysterious Sinkhole - il-Maqluba
The small, quaint village of Qrendi, located in the South West of Malta, can boast of a long colourful history, a rich religious cultural heritage, fascinating legends, and a peaceful rural environment with breath-taking scenery.
Just outside this small village, with its population of around 3,000, one can find a number of well-known sites, especially popular with tourists, such as the prehistoric temples of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra, the spectacular fishing hamlet of Wied iż-Żurrieq, and the famous Blue Grotto.
But right at the very end of Tempest Street, which skirts around Qrendi, there is another site which is much less known. At one end of the small open area known as Misraħ tal-Maqluba, and just behind the small chapel dedicated to St. Matthew, lies a mysterious crater-like hole in the ground. At approximately 15 metres deep, 'il-Maqluba', which literally translates into 'turned upside down', covers an area of about 6,000 square metres.
1. God's Punishment? The Legend behind it.
Perhaps not surprisingly, centuries ago the locals came up with a legend to explain the existence of this strange feature. It was said that this was once the site of a small hamlet, whose inhabitants had turned away from God. Though He tried to warn them through a pious woman living in the area, they refused to change their ways and were thus punished. A terrifying storm broke out, as angels ripped the village from its roots and dumped it out at sea, thus not only explaining the large hole left behind, but also the creation of the tiny islet of Filfla. Only the woman, praying inside a small chapel on the village outskirts was spared. This story seemed to be corroborated by the fact that today’s chapel is found literally at the edge of the precipice.
2. A Geological Feature
In truth, of course, there is a much more logical explanation for the existence of this feature. Such dolines, or sinkholes as they are more commonly known, are usually formed when the ceilings of underground caverns collapse. Given that caves are very common in the Maltese Islands, there are numerous other sinkholes locally, but the one at il-Maqluba is undoubtedly the best example we have.
It is believed that il-Maqluba was created on the 23rd of November 1343. On that day the Maltese Islands experienced a very severe Winter storm, possibly accompanied by an earthquake, which led to the roof of a pre-existing underground cave to collapse, leaving behind a big gaping hole. In truth, rather than an earthquake, the tremor felt by the locals would more likely have been caused by the collapse itself, the result of constant underground erosion eating away at the supports.
3. A Natural Haven - Flora and Fauna
An interesting fact about il-Maqluba is that because of its inaccessibility, several interesting species of plants and animals thrive there, including ones that are endemic to the Maltese Islands, thus making it a very important ecological site. In fact, it is designated as both a Tree Protection Area and a Special Area of Conservation of International Importance.
In particular, we find a substantial amount of Bay Laurel, as well as specimens of Malta’s national tree: the Sandarac Gum Tree, or Siġra tal-Għargħar. Another interesting tree is the Maltese Salt Tree, which only grows in Malta, while among the more common species, one can also find several Carob, Pomegranate, and Prickly Pear trees. Il-Maqluba is also home to the so-called Cramp Balls, a very rare type of fungus that only grows in a few localities, mostly on dead branches.
The list of fauna identified at il-Maqluba is also interesting and includes rare, and sometimes endemic, species of ants, beetles, a slug, a millipede, and a rare type of woodlouse. It is also known that both grey long-eared bats and free-tailed bats inhabit the zone, while most importantly, Malta’s national bird, the Blue Rock Thrush or il-Merill, is also known to breed at Il-Maqluba.
4. The Chapels
Another point of interest is the chapel at the upper part of il-Maqluba. In reality, there are two chapels joined together, both dedicated to the same saint. The smaller chapel, located literally just a few feet away from the edge of the sinkhole, is known as San Mattew iż-Żgħir. Shaped in the form of a crypt, it is said to have survived the 1343 incident which resulted in the creation of il-Maqluba. Whether this is really the case or it was in fact built later is not really known. The first mention of this building comes from 1575, but its architectural style suggests that it could well have been built in the 14th century. Certainly, it has to be one of the oldest Christian shrines in Malta. Apart from its small size, it also has a very simple interior decoration, which includes a well-preserved fresco of a scallop shell - a Christian symbol also found in the early Christian catacombs.
Attached to it is another, larger chapel, known as San Mattew il-Kbir. This is a product of the Baroque era, having been completed in 1682. Its decoration is a little more ornate; it has small stained-glass windows and a large titular painting showing the martyrdom of St. Matthew hanging over the altar, attributed to the Maltese artist Giuseppe d’Arena, a student of the renowned Italian artist Mattia Preti. The painting is, however, a copy. The original, believed to have been completed in 1688, was unfortunately stolen in 1984, and although it was luckily retrieved sometime later, it is now kept elsewhere for safekeeping.
Unfortunately, at the height of the Axis air bombing campaign against Malta during World War Two, San Mattew il-Kbir suffered significant damage to its façade when enemy bombs exploded in close proximity on the 12th of April 1942. Since there was the fear that part of the structure might collapse, work was undertaken as soon as the war ended to make the building safe. This led to the introduction of some structural changes, such as the addition of two belfries, but the building was otherwise preserved.
All in all, the area of il-Maqluba is definitely a very intriguing site. Whether you love nature, history, or are simply curious, you can always head over to Misraħ tal-Maqluba, take a seat on one of the benches to enjoy the scenery, and of course, don’t forget to follow the path by the side of the chapel so that you can peer for yourself down into this mysterious chasm.
Do you know of any other unusual sites in the Maltese Islands? Let us know in the comments section.