The Re-Christianisation of Malta: Siculo-Greek Monasticism, Dejr Toponyms and Rock-Cut Churches

The Re-Christianisation Process

In 1896, A. Mayr argued convincingly for a bishopric of Malta in 1156.There is, none the less, no secure mention of a bishop until June 1168 when Johannes, Bishop of Malta, petitioned the Royal Exchequer in Palermo for the grant of approximately a quarter of an acre of arable land to set up an endowment in favour of the newly built church of the Saviour at Capizzi, near Cefalú. Johannes can be documented in Sicily until 1212, but nothing is known of his Maltese activities. The unnamed bishop of Malta mentioned on 1st December 1217, in the registers of Pope Honorius III, could have been Johannes’s successor. A mention in 1244, in a diploma in the Archivio Capitolare of Palermo, of a Johannes Zafarana Maltensis canonicus, may suggest an organized diocese, but this cannot be confirmed until around 1270 when Malta had passed under Angevin rule. The ecclesiastical establishment seems to have consisted of a Latin-rite Sicilian clergy based at Mdina where there was certainly a cathedral church by 1299. The presence of Latin Christianity is also apparent at the Castrum Maris on the Grand Harbour, where a Latin-rite church of Santa Maria is documented in 1274, and in the Gozo castello where the miles Guillelmus de Malta, nephew of Andrea, Count of Malta, lay dying in 1299.

It seems probable that in Malta, as on the island of Pantalleria, the three-pronged programme of Christianisation and Latinisation, linguistic assimilation, and cultural acclimatization, was, in comparison with Sicily, unduly delayed. Until the forced expulsion of the Muslim community, which has recently been tentatively relocated to the period 1221 – 1225, their inhabitants were tam christiani quam saraceni. The available evidence suggests that Christianity was defiantly resisted by the Muslim natives, many of whom, as in Sicily, found refuge in the countryside where they could perpetuate their religion and cultural traditions with less molestation. It is unclear if the policy of religious toleration encouraged by the Norman Court at Palermo was practiced in Malta. The isolated reference, in an official diploma of 1198 to a collective fine imposed on the Christian community for the murder of a Muslim, is open, as shown by C. Dalli, to different interpretations.The Muslim population seems to have formed a distinct class and, perhaps, as happened on Pantalleria, had some sort of local council based on Islamic customs.There is reason to believe that their status was inferior to that of the Latin Christian community, and that this state of affairs continued to be reflected long after 1225 when fear of exile to Lucera, in Apuglia, coerced an apparently substantial number into accepting baptism.

A measure of social inequality was also apparently manifest between the Latin and Greek clergy present on Malta in the 12th and 13th centuries. There is as yet no conclusive documentary evidence of the activities of a Greek monastic network, but its presence is reliably indicated by a number of eloquent non-written sources that include iconographic, architectural, hagiographic, and toponomastic evidence. Its work, and theological and liturgical idiosyncrasies must necessarily be viewed in the context of Sicily of which Malta was a geographic, political, and (to an extent) ethnic appendage. There are undeniable pitfalls in such an approach, and one should guard oneself against going too far, but the fundamental importance of a sound understanding of the situation prevailing in Sicily at a time when its relations with Malta were especially intimate, cannot be sufficiently stressed. Siculo-Greek monasticism had, in addition, a missionary dimension and founded affiliated houses on the island of Pantalleria, in the Calabria and Basilicata regions of mainland Italy, and as far away as Mount Athos in Greece. The probability of a monastery on Malta before 1300 has already been hinted at by H. Bresc. This study seeks to consolidate the arguments and discuss the corroborating evidence.

Siculo-Greek Monasticism

Greek-monasticism in Sicily has its roots in the ascetic coenobitic tradition of the early Christian period, and benefited from contacts with the Orient, particularly the Nile Delta and Syria.This experience resulted in a fascination with escathology and anchoritic activity that is often reflected in the rock-cut hermitages, and in the architecture of some of the built churches particularly in eastern Sicily. Syrian architectural influence seems, in particular, to receive a measure of support from the 8th century Vita of SS. Alphio, Philadelphius, and Tecla which tells of three Syrian master masons who arrived unexpectedly to build a church founded by Tecla at Lentini, where their arrival was regarded as miraculous because of the absence in Sicily of competent architects. The predilection for cave-hermitages is similarly corroborated by the Lives of other Sicilian-Greek saints, such as Gregorius Decapolita, and Calogero, who followed the example of Philip of Agira and went to live in a cave. Philip of Agira, whose father was allegedly a Syrian animal merchant, was a central figure to Sicilian-Greek monasticism and the famous monastic establishment on the slopes of Mount Etna, founded on the site where according to a legend already current in the 8th century, the saint had performed his most spectacular miracles, remained a point of reference throughout the Muslim period and the Norman government that succeeded it. His cult in Malta, which may be the only one outside Sicily and the Calabria, is, in spite of its uncertain origins, of notable significance.

In the Norman period, the Sicilian-Greek monasteries that had survived the long Muslim rule were more remarkable for their asceticism and piety than as centers of learning and theological study. The cultural poverty was, to an extent, the result of a diaspora of scholars and erudite clergy who, after the Islamic conquest, had sought refuge in more secure provinces of the Empire. Enclaves of Sicilian-Greeks in exile were, in this way, formed in Constantinople and the Peloponese, and, possibly, also in Rome. The most important exodus was, presumably, however, to South Italy, particularly the Calabria and Basilicata region.In Muslim Sicily, Christianity was tolerated, but the Christian community suffered injustices and was often discriminated against. The monasteries continued to exist but suffered harassment, and there is evidence for at least one martyrdom, that of the monk Argenzius which took place in Palermo in the Spring of 906. The hub of Greek monasticism remained Eastern Sicily, particularly the areas round Syracuse, the Val Demone and the Val di Noto where the ascetic and troglodytic traditions remained one of the essential characteristics. The intellectual revival that manifested itself at the turn of the 12th century, in the wake of the Norman conquest, was in great measure achieved by the migration of Calabrian monks who sometimes carried valuable books in their luggage.These monks grafted on to the Sicilian-Byzantine tradition new devotional and religious idiosyncrasies, one of which was the cult of the obscure Irish saint Catald that centred round the Port city of Taranto. It was through this channel that Catald came to be venerated in Malta where a partially rock-cut church was built above an early Christian cemetery in Rabat.

The Dejr Toponyms

In 1647 Giovanni Francesco Abela argued for an early 12th century Benedictine house on Malta on the basis of a notice in the martyrology of the Benedictine congregation of  Pulsano in Calabria. It is, however, almost certain that the Melita Insula mentioned in the document was the nearby Dalmatian Island of Melida in the Adriatic that was owned by the monks of Pulsano who founded a monastery there in 1151. There is in fact no evidence for Latin monasticism in Malta prior to the late 14th century, and it is significant that in 1363 the Benedictines of San Nicolò l’Arena at Catania turned down a pious endowment for the setting up of a house on Malta on the principal pretext that the island had “no buildings in which the brethren could conduct the monastic life of prayer, meditation, reading, and teaching”. The other reasons included the fact that the language spoken by the natives was alien to the monks and that the journey to the island was too hazardous.

Hints of eastern monastic establishments may, on the other hand, be contained in the several Dejr-toponyms encountered in different parts of Malta but not,apparently, on Gozo. Dejr (derived from the Arabicdayr) normally means a Christian monastic set-up,and G.B. Pellegrini records three Sicilian Dejr-toponyms which clearly refer to monasteries. It can, however, as G. Wettinger has pointed out, have other interpretations, foremost among them that of a sheepfold. The two meanings were, in fact, sometimes combined, as in the case of the Tunisian island of Galita where there is a late medieval reference to a convent known as the ‘Convent of the Sheep’. The issue at stake is whether the Maltese Dejr-toponyms derive from the presence of early post-Muslim monasteries, or whether they record the presence of sheepfolds. Wettinger who published his first pioneering study in 1974, has wisely cautioned prudence, and is sceptical of religious associations, arguing that the surviving toponyms have no apparent connections with either cloistered buildings or churches. His hypothesis is justified if considered exclusively in the context of Latin Christianity. With the significant exception of Abbatija tad-Dejr, there is, in fact, no evidence of a link with Latin monasticism, and some of the toponyms, such as Dejr il-Bniet (first recorded in 1351),or Dejr Baqar, and Dejr Handun (both first recorded in 1399) were seemingly already well established when the Western Orders started making a presence in last decades of the 14th century. If therefore the Maltese Dejr were as a monastic building, as was the case in Sicily, an earlier and different type of monasticism would seem indicated.

The Abbatija tad-Dejr

The only Dejr-place-name with uncontested Christian associations is Abbatija tad-Dejr at Rabat where the site centres around an early Christian cemetery that is first described in 1647 by G.F. Abela who refers to it as a “Cimiterio nominato l’Abbatia”. The name which, at first sight, has the significance of being compounded of a Romance word and its Semitic equivalent, is of unknown antiquity, but the area can presumably be identified with the clausura ‘Ta’ l-Abbatija in contrata iddeyr’, mentioned in a deed of 1549 when it formed part of the landed property of the Benedictine nuns of St. Peter, at Mdina. The fact that the appellative ‘Ta’ l-Abbatija’ does not feature in an earlier reference to the district, in an act of 1467,may arguably suggest that it was added to qualify property rights after they had been acquired by the nuns.

The place has notable archaeological and art historical significance and consists of an early Christian necropolis, made up of a main cemetery (Hypogeum I) with sixteen freestanding baladacchino-tombs, and of three smaller hypogea (II – III- IV), dug into the sides of a low hill that was quarried to enclose a quadrangular space. A colonnaded building with an opus sectile floor, fronted the complex, and  Hypogeum 1 was in turn accessed through a rock-cut oratory. The dating evidence is insecure. A chi-rho monogram on one of the baldacchino-tombs excludes a date prior to the mid-4th century, but burials were taking place around the 5th, when a Latin inscription recording several deceased was painted in red ochre on a tomb in Hypogeum IV. Architectural and artistic considerations suggest that the site had a gradual development and a long life that spilled beyond the start of the Byzantine period around 535 A.D.

In the post-Muslim period, the site was revitalized as a cult centre and as a monastic (possibly anchoritic) station by an ascetic religious community whose Sicilian-Greek roots are indicated by the stylistic idiosyncrasies of their architectural interventions, and the wall icons that they painted. Both have a close affinity with the Basilian troglodytic coenobitic establishments that flourished in Sicily, and the Apuglia, Basilicata, and Calabria, regions in the Norman and Swabian periods, between the late eleventh and the late thirteenth centuries.There is in particular, as noted by Aldo Messina, a close similarity to the Grotta dei Santi at Monterosso Almo, in the province of Ragusa where a Paleochristian hypogeum was likewise adapted to the needs of a monastic community.The monks squatted among the tombs and Hypogeum III was transformed into a monastic cell that preserves the sinopia of two haloed heads that probably belonged to an icon of two standing saints painted for the private contemplation of the resident monk. The oratory at the entrance to Hypogeum I was likewise decorated with icons that included a St John the Evangelist and a St. Michael the Archangel (known through 19th century photographs), and a probable Christ Pantocrator whose sinopia survives in a poor state of preservation. Greek crosses with forked finials, highlighted with red paint, were deeply incised on the walls.

A paleochristian burial-chamber at right angles to Hypogeum (I) was meanwhile mutilated and transformed into a modestly proportioned oratory (3.20m x 2.89m) that was still in use as a church, under the dedication of the Nativity of the Virgin, in 1575. It has a flat ceiling supported by a rock-pillar (that was presumably re-cut from a baldacchino-tomb), and low, partially built benches along the side walls. The back wall had an apsed recess, 1.21m deep, with a Siculo-Byzantinesque mural that telescoped into a single scene the principal Christian mysteries of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion. Stylistic and iconographic evidence exclude a date prior to the late 13th century, and there is an evident stylistic relationship to a thematically related painting in the, already mentioned, Grotta dei Santi at Monterosso Almo, in Ragusa.On the rock-pilaster were two armorial shields one of which carried the arms of the Kingdom of Sicily, and the other had a white cross on a red field that looked suspiciously similar to the standard of the Knights of St. John.Both are presumably late additions and may in fact belong to a post-1530 period.

The Eschatological Dimension of Troglodytic Monasticism

Abbatija tad-Dejr is an important example of the widely diffused phenomenon of rock-cut churches and troglodytic monasticism that manifested itself in many places of the Mediterranean littoral during the Middle Ages. Peter Brown has perceptively categorized it as an important aspect of an early pan-Mediterranean monastic culture that bore witness to the horizontal unity of the Middle Sea because it was unaware of any distinction between East and West. The practice may have stemmed from the East where it could have had an eschatological significance because of its symbolic association with the tomb and, therefore with death that man must undergo to wake up to eternal life. Michael Gervers sees in it an allegorical image in monumental form of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s Resurrection and Christendom’s most hallowed shrine, with which Christians who could not make the journey to Jerusalem could associate themselves in absentia.One may also postulate a symbolic expression of Christ’s birthplace in a grotto that could be read as a prefiguration of the Entombment and Resurrection. The rock-cut church came therefore to represent the great mystery central to Christian belief of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is possible to detect in this Christian fascination with caves a debt to Oriental (particularly Zoroastrian) cosmology which saw in grottoes places that were “proper to genesis and departure from genesis”, and according to whose mythology Mithras was born miraculously from a rock in a cave.

The first great centre for the diffusion of Christian troglodytic architecture was the Nile Valley where an ascetic, and often anchoritic, quality of early Christianity received inspiration from the Desert Fathers who fled civilization to set up monastic communities in the ‘huge silence’, silentium ingens, quies magna, of the African desert.Caves, both natural and man-made, and, when available sepulchers and cemeteries became in this way desirable sites for hermitages.  The missionary activities of Coptic, Egyptian, and Syrian monks popularized the practice in Ethiopia,and all over Asia Minor from where it was adopted by the later Roman Empire, and, more especially, in those regions dominated by Greek Christianity and their border (and border-influenced) zones. In Western Europe the two area of major proliferation were Sicily and the heel of the Italian peninsula, both of which were provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Vasiliev has shown how during the Iconoclastic crises of 726 – 843 A.D., a huge number of monks, perhaps as many as 50,000, fled persecution within the Empire and sought asylum in Italy.Many found refuge in Rome, where the Popes did not admit Byzantine control and were anxious to stress their disapproval of the heretical attitude of the eastern emperors, but the majority seem to have preferred the desolate South Italian countryside where the rock-cut churches bear striking similarities to the rock-cut monasteries of Cappadocia.There was another diaspora of monks into the central Mediterranean in 1071, after the battle Manzikert, when some of the monks presumably found their way to Sicily, and some might have touched at Malta.

The date of Malta’s rock-cut churches cannot be securely documented, but in the light of the available evidence the early post-Muslim period seems best indicated. This does not exclude the existence of pre-Muslim establishments, particularly in association with hypogea and other cemeterial sites.The fact remains, nonetheless, that iconographical and architectural considerations seem to anchor the great majority of Maltese troglodytic churches in the late Middle Ages. This would make them coeval to most of the rock-cut churches in the Sicilian and South Italian countryside to which they have a close artistic and liturgical affinity. It is their relationship to the Christianisation of Maltese Muslims by Sicilian-Greek monastic communities who might have used them as nuclei of evangelization that remains to be ascertained.

Interpreting the Toponyms

In addition to Abbatija tad-Dejr, Wettinger has noted the following other dejr toponyms:
1.  Dejr Baqqar 2.   Bieb id-Dejr 3. Dejr il- Bużbież
4.  Dejr Deru 5.   Dejr Ħandun 6. Dejr il-Ħmir
7.  Dejr l-Imara 8.   San Ġorġ ta’ Dejr Magħlaq 9. Dejr is-Safsaf
10.Dejr iż-Żara 11. Dejr is-Saf 12.Dejr il-Bniet
  13.San Ġwann tad-Dejr  

Conttrata ta Deier Birzigrilla is in addition mentioned in the 1575 Apostolic Vistation Report of Mgr. Pietro Dusina,but since it was apparently located at Rabat, not far from Għarxiem, it is probable that it formed part of the same territory as Abbatija tad-Dejr San Ġwann tad-Dejr (Sancti Johannis de lu deyr) which is mentioned as an ecclesia, in 1500 deed of Notary J. Sabbara, was, possibly in the same district, but its exactly locality is unknown. This toponym shares with San Ġorġ ta’ Dejr Magħlaq (Sancti Georgii di deyr mihallac) the distinction of being associated with a Christian saint. In both cases the toponym presumably got its name from a church that stood in the district. San Gorg ta’ Dejr il-Maghaq was noted by Wettinger in a deed of 1494, which does not, however, indicated its location. He interpreted the name as ‘Dejr of the Enclosed Area’, and suggested a site in the SE of Malta, possibly at Birzebbuga (where a church of St. George is documented in 1575) or, perhaps, in the nearby anchorages of Marsaxlokk and Marsascala which both have a place called Il-Magħlaq.There is, nonetheless, a probability that the site can be identified with a territorium di deyr limallac, mentioned in a document of 1500 which defines the parish boundaries of the village of Siggiewi.Since the parish of Siggiewi had two churches with such a dedication to St. George, it may be possible to narrow the quest for the toponym to either of  two possible localities.

One is the Ġebel Ciantar district at Ta’ Żuta, near Fawwara, overlooking the precipitous cliffs of the west coast. The place is of archaeological interest on account of a late Roman site whose remains were at an unknown period reutilized by a Christian community who adapted a rock-cut columbarium into a church whose dedication to St. George can be documented to 1436.The topography of the place made it a likely place for a hermitage, and there are in the area an abundant fresh water spring, and several large caves that were inhabited until recent times.The other site is Wied il-Maghlaq, a lonely and desolate ravine close to the Għar Lapsi road. A church of St. George is documented there in 1575 when it was in an apparent state of dereliction.It was not an important church, but it is interesting to note that it had an association with the monks of San Nicoló l’Arena of Catania because it belonged to the endowment they received in 1363. The monks were, as a result bound to celebrate the feast of St. George with mass and vespers. Equally significant is the presence on the site of a small necropolis of Early Christian sepulchers.Their presence was, perhaps, a bigger attraction to anchoritic monasticism than the classical ruins at ta’ Żuta, but the topography was less hospitable.

Dejr is-Saf, which is recorded as a viridarium in 1496, may derive its name from the Arabic personal name Saf. The site is identified with Tabrija (della tabria sive di deyr isaf contrata) in 1525, which presumably means that it was a district of this extensive royal fief, west of Siggiewi. Its approximate location in the neighbourhood of Bukett, at Ta’ Xwejxa, near a church of the Virgin, is indicated in a 1548 document (ta deir issaf viridarium in contrata S. Marie ta xeuxe). A later 1557 document refers to the place as sancta maria di deyr saf. The church, which in 1575 celebrated the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, stood on high ground and was a prominent landmark visible from miles around. It was rebuilt in the seventeenth century, but is now a sad ruin. Its origins are unknown, but irrespective of its real significance, it is worth noting that the surrounding lands had by the time of the church’s first mention become ecclesiastical property and an important part of the mensa vescovile, which fact was diligently noted in the 1575 report.

Dejr l-Imara presents a more interesting case study. It seems possible that it is similarly derived from a Semitic personal name, and a Basilius Limara cives Melite is mentioned in a 1324 document. His name may suggest a Greek-rite Christian of Muslim descent, but the word can have other meanings. Wettinger seems to be more inclined to translate it as “Dejr of the commanders” or the “admirals”, and it should be emphasized that even if originating from a personal name, there is no justifiable reason why it should be associated a Muslim convert to Greek Christianity. The name is common and continues to be recorded in Malta until the early modern period.If the site does have a Christian significance it might prove more profitable to look for clues on the site itself. The topography of the place does not favour cave dwelling, and if there was a monastery, or anchoritic station, this was presumably built rather than rock-cut. Traces of ‘Norman’ buildings, supposedly including a church, and various rooms grouped round a courtyard, were diagnosed by Missione Archeologica Italiana a Malta, in the late 1960s, among the classical and paleoehristian remains at Tas-Silg, on the high ground which marks the start of the Delimara peninsula. These scanty and highly problematic remains were interpreted as a possible monastic establishment. The dating was based on a scatter of glazed pottery with a hatching of brown lines on a creamy-white ground, which were thought to be Norman, but the typology seems to fit a wide arc of time between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, or even later. There was on the site a built trough-tomb that was vaguely dated to a post-1100 A.D. period.It is of course not improbable that a community of Greek-rite monks lived among the classical and Early Christian ruins of Tas-Silg. Dejr l-Imara may therefore be another case of a Greek-rite community rooting itself at a site where Christianity had known a vigorous early tradition interrupted by the Muslim invasion of 870 A.D. The Missione’s archaeological interpretations must, however, be treated with caution.

Dejr il-Ħmir seems to present an analogous case. The topomym can likewise be associated a Muslim personal name (Humir), but it can also be interpreted as “Dejr of the donkeys”. Its first known mention is in a deed of 1500 where it is located in a place called Nadur Għajxa, in the district of rahal antun (Hlantun).This late medieval settlement, which had been deserted by the first three decades of the 15th century,was named after a church of St. Anthony the Abbot,whose remains, consisting of a wall built of small, square ashlar blocks of the type used in late medieval buildings, could still be identified in 1970 when I took a measured drawing.The church may already have been deconsecrated by 1575 and does not seem to be mentioned in the Dusina report of that year.Like Tas-Silġ, the place has notable archaeological significance, but its monuments are still largely unstudied. They include at least two late Roman round towers, namely Ta’ Gawhar, and Ta’ Torrijiet,and, at least, five paleochristian hypogea, besides a number of isolated rock-tombs. Among them the Tal-Liebru Hypogeum is worthy of particular attention on account of its carvings of several cross monograms some of which may, in fact, be late medieval rather than paleochristian. 

 Dejr iż-Żara should presumably be identified with Dar iż-Żara, at Ta’ Qali, at the foot of the Saqqajja plateau, where a church of the Nativity of the Virgin, was reportedly built in 1431 on a preband of the Chapter of the Cathedral. A 1571 document which describes the site as terri in contrata ta salib ta San Jacobo,suggests the existence of a second church in the area.

Dejr il-Bniet, which can mean either “Benet’s Dejr”, or, more improbably, “Dejr of the girls”, was the name of Crown fief that is first reported as a viridarium in 1351.The site borders on the late medieval settlements of Tartarni and Dingli whose church of S. Dominica was a cappella, or parish church, in 1436.The dedication is of interest because of its South Italian and Sicilian Greek-Christian associations. Dominica is the Latinised version of the Greek Cyriaca, a martyr of the Diocletian persecution who enjoyed a cult in the city of Tropea, in the Calabria, where her relics were translated at an unknown period in the Early Middle Ages. As in the case of Cataldus, and Philip of Aggira, it is probable that her cult reached Malta with the Normans.

Dejr Baqqar seems to have been located close to Dejr is-Saf in the fertile Girgenti Valley, no far from the Crown fief of Tabrija and Il-Wied ta’ l-Isqof. A field of that name at the foot of Tal-Għolja Hill, at Siġġiewi, presumably indicated its approximate location, while an orchard, which in 1506, was known as ta beb Jdeir, could have marked some sort of landmark on the site. Situated in a sheltered, eastward-facing valley, with a good supply of fresh water, it had all the makings of an ideal setting for a community of hermit monks. No archaeological remains are today visible, but Abela mentions vestigi di grossissime pietre e anticaglie. The name could have derived from the Arabic personal name Bakr, but can also mean “Dejr of the cows”.
Dejr Ħandun (or Ħandul), on the high plateau to the north of Dingli, was renowned for its fresh water springs that had been tapped for water supply since antiquity. The site, first mentioned in 1399, is presumably the same as Djar Ħandul, which was the site of vineyard in 1542. No church has been noted in the area, and, in spite of the fact that the likely translation of the name is “Ħandul’s monastic-type building”, there is nothing to suggest that the site had a religious significance.

Dejr Deru may, perhaps have acquired its name from a lentistic shrub that grew in the neighbourhood,although a derivation from a personal name is also possible. The site is unlocated. Godfrey Wettinger mentions a number of rural districts called Ta’ Deru,but it is not possible to identify any of them with it. The most tempting, albeit arbitrary, is a field at Bubaqra where a church dedicated to the Eastern saint, Cyrus (San Ċir) had an apse mural of a Blessing Christ in the Siculo-Byzantinesque Pantocrator tradition.

Dejr il-Busbież, and Dejr is-Safsaf, may also have obtained their name from the characteristic vegetation of their location, the fennel shrub in one case, and the osier willow in the other. The former seems to be an alternative name for Wied il-Busbiez a fertile valley to the NW. of Rabat. The site, first mentioned in 1556,has all necessary amenities for a hermitage, but no Christian associations, have been reported from the area. Dejr is-Safsaf is, on the other hand, an unlocated district first mentioned as a contrata in 1467. An area called Ta’ Safsaf, which in 1495 was a territorium, at Wied Ta’ Bufula, in the district of Wardija, at St. Paul’s Bay, might, possibly, have been the same site, but there is no way of ascertaining. The remains of “ancient” buildings were noted there at the turn of the seventeenth century, together with three churches of unknown antiquity with respective dedications to St. John, St. Simon the Apostle, and St. Nicholas. That of St. John, known as ta’ Chereb (‘Of the Ruins’) was thought to mark the place where St. Paul had baptized his shipmates after the shipwreck, as well as the site of Publius’s country villa. This tradition could have been a modern fabrication, but it is also possible that it stemmed from the distant recollections of a Christian activity in the area which centred round the presence of Greek-rite monks.

The Raheb Toponyms

Another possible clue to Greek-rite monasticism in early post-Muslim Malta may, perhaps, be preserved in a second set of toponyms that center around the Semitic word raheb (monk), or its derivatives. Wettinger has argued that the word referred to Western mendicant friars, notably Augustinians. The Romance word patri, was (and still is), however, in much more common usage, and it is possible that raheb, which is now virtually obsolete, qualified another type of monk, such as a one belonging to the Greek-rite. It should be emphasized, however, that this is a hypothesis that still needs to be buttressed by scientific investigation, and it could also have been the case that in its late medieval context raheb meant all types of monks.

An eloquent raħeb- toponym is Bir ir-Rieħbu (‘the Monk’s Well) which refers to a site in close proximity to Abbatija tad-Dejr, at Rabat, thereby enforcing arguments for a monastic establishment there. The name, which is still in current use, was first mentioned as a galca, or field, in a deed of 1519. L-Irqajjaq tar-Raheb (‘the Fields of the Monk’) which was the name of an area, near the church of S. Lorenzo tal gemune, at Ta’ Għolja, Siġġiewi, is also of interest for its possible associations with the nearby Dejr Baqqar, while a clausura called Ġnien tar-Rħieb, noted at Wied Qannotta, near Wardija, in 1611, may, perhaps, be an added argument, to the location in the area of Dejr is-Safsaf. 

Raħeb place-names do not seem to be widely diffused. There was an un-located alley called Tar-Raħeb, in 1496, while two fields at Lija and Mrieħel respectively were known by that name in 1533 and 1539. The Mrieħel field was, perhaps identical with a clausura ‘Ta’ Raħba’ which is recorded there in 1536. The name Raħba (ta' raħibe) was also borne by three strips of land at Marsalforn, on Gozo in  1496; by a field at Ħaż-Żebbug, in 1500;  by a chantry lane at Tarxien, in 1536, and by an ecclesiastical benefice of undisclosed locality, in 1532.There was also, on Gozo, in 1564, a Wied ir-Raheb,apparently in the neighbourhood of the desolate Kap San Dimitri, while in Malta, an Andar ir-Raħeb (‘The Threshing Floor of the Monk’) is recorded, in the area of Fiddien, in 1621.

The most intriguing toponym, is however, Ras ir-Raħeb (‘The Headland of the Monk’), on the remote NW corner of the Rabat-Dingli plateau. The place has archaeological interest and there are the remains of a Late Roman establishment, possibly a sanctuary.In 1647, Abela suggested that the area got its name from a peculiar rock formation that vaguely resembled the figure of a monk, but it is equally possible that the name stemmed from the recollection of a community of hermit monks who squatted among the ruins. The place has been unsatisfactorily excavated and published. A valuable piece of evidence which was overlooked, is a large worked stone with present measurements of 111 x 65.5 x 0.35 cm, that lies partially in a shallow basin, bordered by beautifully squared stone blocks, at the back of one of the two megaliths which mark the site. It has a moulded base and chamfered edges and looks suspiciously like an altar-top, or perhaps, a tombstone. Its age and real purpose cannot possibly be ascertained, and it ought to be said that no demonstrably medieval sherds have so far been identified in the area which abounds in fragments of fine Roman red ware. Important testimonies may have been destroyed during the unhappy excavations of 1961-62, and the true history of the site will probably never be known. The toponomy of the place which, in addition to Ras ir-Raħeb, was also called Ras il-Knejjes (‘The Headland of the Churches’), implying some sort of ecclesiastical connections, is, however, significant.

The Evidence of the Built Churches

Although this study is concerned with rock-cult churches, it should be emphasized that hints of Greek and Oriental Christianity can also be found in the built churches of period. This is above all the case of the countryside churches which normally owed only a very superficial debt to the ecclesiastical architecture of the Latin West. There is, it is here argued, a close relationship between them and their rock-cut counterparts, and they seem likewise to be related to the earliest, post-Muslim native Christian communities. San Cir at Bubaqra,with its Siculo-Byzantinesque apse mural, was presumably not an isolated case, and it is significant that most of their dedications were to eastern saints or devotions. Architecturally they were uninspiring edifices. Constructed entirely of stone, they were plain one-cell buildings of severe box-like proportions. Roofing was by a system of stone slabs carried on the backs of transverse arches that rested on wall piers and divided the internal space into a regular sequence of bays that were lined with low stone benches. At the east end there was often a cylindrical apse, but the altar sometimes rested against a plain wall.

This typology of stone architecture, which originated in Arabia, and finds a close parallel in the early Christian churches of the Hauran in Syria, reached the western Mediterranean in the course of the Early Middle Ages as a result of the several migration waves of Middle Eastern monks. In 1993 I argued that it might have been introduced in Malta in sub-Saracenic times, by Sicilian Greek-rite monks.Direct evidence is lacking, but it should be pointed out that in Eastern Sicily, churches with similar ground plans and construction methods, had close connections with Basilian coenobitic monasticism. One church in particular, San Barnaba in Valderice, had the same structural idiosyncrasies. Others though largely analogous have different roofs which in their present state are either barrel-vaulted or made of timber. The original roofs were in most cases rebuilt in the early modern period. 

Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica : Journal of the Maltese Historical Society. 13(2002)3(253-283)

The Re-Christianisation of Malta: Siculo-Greek Monasticism, Dejr Toponyms and Rock-Cut Churches

Mario Buhagiar