Posts Tagged ‘St Thomas’ Bay’


    Times of Malta dating 15 April 1969 (Photo by Fiona Vella)Skeletons found in hidden Żejtun corridor reported the Times of Malta on Tuesday, 15 April 1969. A photo of sacristan Ġann Marì Debono holding a skull in his hand accompanied the news of this remarkable discovery which up to this day is still shrouded in mystery and imbued with controversy.

    I have been investigating and researching this find, often by interviewing persons who declared to have been involved in this discovery. My findings were discussed during a national symposium which was organized by Wirt iż-Żejtun in 2014 and later published in the book The Turkish Raid of 1614 which was issued by the same NGO.

    Charles Debono, the eldest son of Ġann Marì Debono (Photo by Fiona Vella)I never got the opportunity to talk to Ġann Marì Debono since he passed away in 2001, at the age of 78. Therefore, I accepted gladly the invitation of his eldest son Charles Debono who offered to share with me his father’s story.

    “My grandmother had many children and so my father was brought up by his uncle Pawlu and his wife Beneditta Fenech. Pawlu was the sacristan of the parish church of St Catherine in Żejtun and he often took my father with him while he was at work. Soon, my father got very fond of this job and he gave a hand to his uncle whenever he could. Eventually, when Pawlu died, my father took over his duties and he became the new sacristan.”

    Along the years, the old church of St Gregory which originally was the parish church of the village, had become neglected.

    St Gregory church Zejtun“There was nothing but a few farmhouses in the area. However, when a housing estate was built in proximity to this church, it made sense to revamp this building to provide service to the inhabitants who lived close by. Since my father was considering leaving his job at the parish church, Fr Ġwann Palmier, who was responsible for St Gregory’s church and also a friend of his, offered him a job there. Soon, my father was appointed as the sacristan of this church and together with Fr Palmier, they began to restore the place back to its glory.”

    On the right - Gan Mari Debono“My father was blessed with a curious nature and a strong determination. He had often listened to the rumours of the old villagers who insisted that there were some people that were buried around the dome of St Gregory’s church. He tried hard to locate this area, especially while doing maintenance work around the dome but he never succeeded.”

    Time would reveal that this was an impossible task since the human remains were actually buried around the roof and not around the dome.

    “There was a raised stone close to the exit of the stairway’s room which led to the roof. My father often commented that it looked unusual and out of place. He was convinced that there was something beneath it. One day, there were some men doing maintenance work on the roof and he asked them to try to remove it.”

    St Gregory's church in the 1960's - red arrow pointing to the raised stone on the roof (Photo by Johnny Vella)“Once the stone was removed, it was clear that it was covering an opening which led into the church. When my father entered into this space, he found his way to a small chamber which led to U-shaped passages that ran around the roof. Inside the corridors, he found several human remains. I remember him coming home on that day, full of excitement and telling us ‘I found them! I finally found them! I will take you to see them!’”

    When Charles visited the passages with his father, he noticed that the skeletons seemed to be lined up near each other along the corridors, as if someone had arranged them in that way. There was about 3 centimetres of dust which had collected in the corridors along the years during which the passages were blocked and closed away.

    Figura_14._Sezzjoni_mill_armarju_li_bhalissa_l_oggetti_misjuba_huma_mizmuma_fih.Within this dust, a wooden shoe sole with a high heel, a small gilded wooden cross of Byzantine design, odd bits of a gilded wooden frame (perhaps an icon), three coins: two bronze with the cross of the Order, the other gold, but very worn out that it cannot be deciphered, pieces of pottery of the 16-17th century, fragments of animal bones, and a part of a chain mail armour vest, were discovered.

    “My father found these passages in pitch darkness but soon he noticed that there were stones blocking five narrow loopholes in the thick walls. Once he removed these stones, he realized that three of them were pointing directly at St Thomas Bay and Marsascala while the other two looked out at Marsaxlokk and Birżebbuġa.”

    The skeletons which were discovered in the secret passages (Photo provided by Charles Debono)To avoid them being trodden, Debono picked up all the human bones and stacked them at the end of the third corridor. Yet the story does not end there….

    “My father was sure that there was another entrance to these passages within the church itself. He pondered this idea and made several attempts to trace it out. Eventually he came upon a wall cupboard which was situated in an area along the winding staircase and seemed to be of no use. He decided to ask his friend Ġanni Vella, who was known as Ġanni l-ġgant (Ġanni the giant), to bring one of his mason’s tools; a huge iron nail with which building stones were kept in place. He knocked on the wall cupboard with this tool and suddenly, this feature moved out of the wall, revealing another entrance to these passages. It is from this entrance that people get in to view these passages nowadays.”

    In 1978, paleopathological studies were done on these human remains by Seshadri Ramaswamy and Joseph Leslie Pace. These experts concluded that the bones appeared to have been exhumed from a cemetery and placed in the passages. However, others find this conclusion hard to believe and they insist that these remains possibly belong to a group of people who were trapped in these corridors whilst hiding there during an Ottoman attack on the village in 1614.

    Ġann Marì Debono (Photo provided by Charles Debono)Every Wednesday after Easter, the traditional feast of St Gregory is celebrated in this historical church in Żejtun. Probably few of those attending are aware of the secret passages and the human skeletons lying within.

    Considering that 49 years have passed from this discovery and that several scientific tools are now available to provide more conclusive results, including perhaps dna tests to trace family ancestry, isn’t it time to resolve this mystery by identifying who are these people and how they ended up in these passages?

     (This feature was published in the Sunday Times of Malta issued on 25 March 2018)

    2018.03.25 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • Isn’t it time to solve some of St Gregory’s mysteries?

    Figura 1. Il-parrocca l-antika ddedikata lil Santa Katarina, llum maghrufa bhala Ta' San Girgor, fiz-Zejtun..JPGFigura 2. L-iskrizzjoni li tinsab fil-parrocca l-antika taz-Zejtun li tiddeskrivi l-attakk li sehh fl-1614..JPG

    Figura 8. John M Debono biswit l-ghadam li nstab fil-passaggi (Ritratt - Times of Malta).JPGFigura 10. Grezzju Vella qed juri l-post minn fejn dahal ghall-passaggi sigrieti..JPG

    Figura 9. L-inizzjali u d-data li gew imnaqqxa fuq gebla gewwa l-passaggi sigrieti.JPGFigura 14. Sezzjoni mill-armarju li bhalissa l-oggetti misjuba huma mizmuma fih..JPG

    The old parish of St Catherine in Żejtun, popularly known as St Gregory’s, is entrenched with deep-rooted mysteries which up to date remain unsolved.

    Some of these dilemmas have been discussed during the second national symposium which was organized by NGO Wirt iż-Żejtun, right in this church, particularly since it is related to the theme that was being commemorated and discussed – the 400th anniversary from the Turkish raid of 1614 on Żejtun and other areas in Malta.

    The eight speakers who participated in this national symposium come from various fields of study and therefore each of them presented interesting and significant relative information from different perspectives.

    Among the matters treated, one finds the old inscription which for many years was believed to represent a narrative of what took place on that eventful day of the 6th July 1614, when 60 Ottoman galleys set anchor at St Thomas’ Bay and the port of Marsascala, and from there, 6000 Turkish soldiers attacked Żejtun and the surrounding areas. According to this inscription, the Turks pillaged the villages, and the churches and chapels which they came upon, until they were finally reached by Maltese soldiers and the cavalry, and had to retreat back to their ships. Some Maltese were injured but none died, whilst some Turks were killed and others were captured as slaves. However, when referring to some local archives, and also to those who were written by Ottoman authors, one will find details which do not necessarily concur. So what is the real story?

    Other curious issues relate to the 1969 discovery of three secret passages within the old church of St Gregory, wherein a number of human bones were also found. Even the discovery itself poses several questions on the true story of their revelation. Indeed, when the passages were located in 1969, right in the beginning of the third corridor, some engravings bearing initials and the date 1909 were noticed, thereby suggesting that these corridors had already been discovered before. Rumours say that after the last discovery, the parish priest had searched among the village elders who had those initials until he traced a certain Carmelo Zahra, known as ‘ir-Rangu’, who confessed that he had entered into these passages when he was a young boy together with some other individuals. He claimed that they had seen skeletons dressed as soldiers in these passages and that they had some weapons and flags with them. Moreover, he said that some people from this group removed these objects and took them away, and threatened the others in order not to mention anything. Indeed, many had been surprised at the frugal objects that were found with the bones in 1969. Could Zahra have been telling the truth?

    The remains that were collected during the last discovery included a wooden shoe sole with a high heel, a small gilted wooden cross of Byzantine design, odd bits of a gilted wooden frame (perhaps an icon), three coins: two bronze with the cross of the Order, the other gold, but very worn out that it cannot be deciphered, pieces of pottery of the 16-17th century, fragments of animal bones, and a part of a chain mail armour vest. Presently these are stored in one of the rooms within the church and it seems clear, both from their state of preservation and from the display box in which they stand, that no one has bothered to look at them for whole long years. In fact, very few individuals knew about their existence. It is a pity that these objects are hidden away from researchers and from the public. Don’t they deserve to be conserved and studied and later on displayed appropriately?

    Likewise, there are various versions of how and who came upon the opening to the secret passages. One of these claims that this person was none other than Ġann Mari Debono, the sacristan of the church, as published in the Times of Malta dated 15th April 1969. However in 2011, Grezzju Vella talked to journalist Fiona Vella and recounted a slightly different story wherein he declared that he had exposed the opening and entered first in the secret passages.

    Certainly, the human remains have also led to another mystery since to date no one knows how and why they were found in these secret passages. A ballad written by Walter Zahra soon after the discovery of 1969 imagined these people to have been the victims of an Ottoman attack after they had gone up to hide in the secret passages and were found by the enemy. Yet by time, this invented story transformed itself into a legend and many villagers believed that this was the truth. However, in 1978, Seshadri Ramaswamy and Joseph Leslie studied these bones and presented a report on their paleopathological studies. They concluded that these bones had been buried in some other place since they had observed that some of the vertebrae had a plug of soil in the vertebral canal. Hence, according to this theory, during a particular period, the secret passages in St Gregory’s church might have been used as an ossuary. Many have asked what sense did it make to carry the bones up to these passages when they could have been stored elsewhere. Yet many more demand why a carbon dating examination has not yet been performed on these bones in order to date these remains and end some of these rumours?

    In the coming months, the information that was delivered during the presentations of this national symposium will be published by Wirt iż-Żejtun in the book ‘The Turkish Raid of 1614′. Presently, one may enjoy a pre-publication offer on this book by ordering it through the NGO’s website

    (This feature was published in The Sunday Times of Malta dated 24th August 2014)

    2014.08.24 / no responses / Category: Torca - Features & Articles