Mqabba, located in the south of Malta, can be described as a traditional Maltese village. With a population of around 3,300 inhabitants, it sits right next door to the Malta International Airport, but is still relatively rural compared to other parts of the island. Its name is possibly derived from the Semitic verb ‘qabb’, which means cutting stone: the area around Mqabba has long been associated with quarrying activity.
Numerous archaeological discoveries have shed light on the historical importance of the area: from bones of hippopotami dating from the Pleistocene era, to burial sites from the Neolithic, Punic, Roman and Early-Christian periods. Yet the village in its current form can trace its origins to the late 16th century, when Mqabba became its own separate parish.
The Parish Church
Like most traditional Maltese villages, Mqabba was built around its parish church, dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Built on the site of a number of older, smaller churches, the present structure was completed by 1699. Most of the building is still original, including the 17th century bell tower, which has a total of seven bells, but the dome had to be rebuilt after the church was bombed during World War Two.
Another staple of most village squares are the local band clubs, of which Mqabba has two - the Lily Band Club and the King George V Band Club. Band clubs in Malta date to the mid-19th century, with their main purpose being that of participating in the annual feast dedicated to the village’s patron saint. The main feast in Mqabba is that of the Assumption, celebrated every 15th August, although a secondary feast, dedicated to Our Lady of Lilies, is also celebrated in June. A very important element of these feasts are fireworks, something for which Mqabba is particularly renowned.
Also located around the main square are a number of historic chapels. Built in 1486, the Chapel of St. Basil is the oldest, and the only church in the Maltese Islands with this particular dedication. Next door is the chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, which was once approached via an old graveyard used to bury plague victims. Directly across from the parish church is the chapel dedicated to St. Catherine. This too dates back to the late 16th century, although the present structure is more recent.
Another interesting building is the recently restored Old Hospital situated in St. Innocent Street. The inscription attached to its entrance dates to 1725, when the Cotoner Foundation sublet the premises to a certain Mariuzzo Zahra for 150 years, but the hospital possibly dates back to the 1670s, when a plague epidemic took the lives of over 11% of the Maltese population.
Located on the outskirts of Mqabba is the Vincenti Tower. This was one of numerous such structures built by wealthy individuals to protect themselves from pirate attacks which once used to be very common. The original tower stood four stories high and it was said that Sicily could be seen from its top when the weather was good and the visibility clear. Whilst serving as an observation post for anti-aircraft artillery during World War Two, it was damaged by enemy bombs, whilst its upper parts where later dismantled so as not to hinder airport operations, leaving only the lowest parts visible today.
One of the most important discoveries in Mqabba is the Early-Christian catacombs known as Tal-Mintna, which were found in Diamond Jubilee Square in 1860. Covering an area of around 140 m2, they are similar to those found in Rabat, but on a much smaller scale. Among the more interesting features in these catacombs are the ‘agape tables’. Carved directly out of the rock, they were used for commemorative meals, such as during the annual festival of the dead - an ancient Roman custom.
Although similar tombs were also found nearby in 1960, at Ta’ Kandja, during works to extend the airport runway, sadly there was no way of preserving them. Yet, it is fascinating to think that tourists visiting Malta would have already been within a few feet of such an ancient historical site before even stepping out of their aircraft!
This blog was also featured in the Air Malta Bizzilla Magazine.