• 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 www.wirtizzejtun.com

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