Were a bridge to be constructed between Malta and Gozo, as is proposed from time to time, the likely end point on the Gozitan side would be Qala.
Though Qala is the farthest village from Gozo’s capital, Victoria, it is the closest to the rest of the Maltese archipelago, and the rocky hillsides of Qala enjoy an unobstructed view of the islands of Malta and Comino. Breathtaking scenes can be enjoyed, among other places, from the Qala Belvedere and from the small courtyard in front of the church known as II-Madonna tal-Blat (Saint Mary of the Rocks). This church faces Comino and legend has it that it was built so that the people of that island could follow Holy Mass from across the straits when rough weather precluded a priest from going there.
Except for a few sheltered inlets, like the popular Hondoq ir- Rummien. Qala’s coastline is a rocky trek to which nature and history both have contributed a great deal. Natural gifts include several caves, the prettiest of which is Ghar Minka, which is accessible only by boat. Historical works are mainly defensive structures designed to deter enemy landings. Foremost among these is St. Anthony’s Battery (1732), known locally as it-Trunciera. This is one of the works of the Knights that transformed Malta from a pirate haven into an island fortress.
A few years after the erection of St. Anthony’s Battery, the Knights invented the fougasse, an assembly of explosive material pressed into a hole in the ground and kept ready to fire on the intruding ships. The fougasse was introduced to Gozo in 1743, and several were erected along the Qala shore. Reportedly, two survived one facing towards Mgarr Harbour at Blata I-Bajda, the other on Gebla tal-Halfa.
Another interesting feature of the Qala coastline are its salt pans, some of which are still active. The process of trapping seawater in hand-dug troughs is a traditional way of producing salt in Malta, where the main ingredients- a rocky coastline and strong sunshine are in abundance. Qala’s salt pans are found intermittently between Hondoq ir- Rummien and Gebla tal-Melh. A less traditional plant at Hondoq ir-Rummien accomplishes the opposite - a plant that used to extract clean water and discards salt and other impurities, today this mass of concrete has fallen in disuse.
A walk along Qala’s interesting coastline offers all this, plus a constant view of Comino, which seems almost close enough to touch. Despite this proximity, Qala’s contact with the other islands is practically invisible. Occupying the easternmost corner of Gozo, Qala is clearly off the beaten path. Still, hordes of tourists descend upon this traditional village of 500 families whose 19thcentury windmills give it a distinct appearance. There was a time when the windmill was a common sight in the Maltese towns and villages. Until late in the 19thcentury there was no better way to grind wheat and barley into flour. As steam mills brought one windmill after another to a stop, only two, one in Qala and the other in Xaghra, remained in working condition. A few years ago a storm damaged the Maltese one, at Zurrieq, leaving the Qala Windmill as the most eminent one of the country. The tower of another windmill, known as Ta’ Sufa, also survives in Qala.
Qala’s history goes back nearly 6000years. Several temple period and Punico-Roman pottery has been gathered with more still lying about. By 1989, six Qala sites were identified as temple period settlements, others as Punic structures. At least one temple site existed in Qala, its cornerstone being the famous Gebla /-Wieqfa (standing rock). A rough pyramid, this is an eleven-foot high megalith known in Gozitan mythology as the seat of a giantess. Ancient cart ruts, not very common on Gozo, are found in at least three locations in Qala. One such location is found near one of two temple period settlements at il-Wileg, where megalithic patterns survive. The other stone-age settlements are west of Qala Windmill, Qala school, south of the parish church and further south at il-Wardija, where there is also another cart rut site. But the best Qala site for cart rut viewing is definitely at Is-Sidra. Not only the ruts extend for over two hundred feet, but the side views are equally tantalizing. North to south, they take one past an old deffun, a stone used to crush pottery into powder for building purposes. The ruts continue amidst a forest of wild thyme and xkattapietra, a plant unique to Malta and named for its use as treatment for stones in the gallbladder (xkatta-break, pietra-stone). Lithotripsia would be an appropriate Latin name for it. Where the ruts end there is another group of megalithic structures and of course, another great view of Comino.
According to tradition, another stone-age temple stood at the site of the Qala Sanctuary, one of Gozo’s most sacred churches. Lying between two Punic houses (one to the north, the other to the south), the site has been graced by a Christian church since times unknown. It is not known when the present one was constructed, but tradition holds that Count Roger the Norman, who is credited with liberating the Maltese from Muslim rule in the 12thcentury, used to pray in it. Adjacent to the church is a cemetery whose origins are likewise buried in antiquity. The church was then dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady and the titular painting of the Assumption, now at St. Joseph’s parish church, is one of the most revered in Gozo. But Bishop Cagliares changed the dedication to the Immaculate Conception, donating a new titular painting in 1615, by Federico Barocci. Sometime between 1575 and 1630, the sanctuary was enlarged. In 1688, when Bishop Cocco Palmieri decided to grant parish status to the eastern part of Gozo, it was Santa Marija tal-Qala that served as parish church for the people of Qala, Nadur, Ghajnsielem, Mgarr and Comino. Upon the building of a bigger church in Nadur, the sanctuary lost the parish seat, but that honor fell to the esteemed church once again in 1872 when, after awaiting for centuries, Qala was finally awarded parish status in its own right. While Qala waited to receive this honor, its native son Mikiel Buttigieg, became the first Bishop of Gozo. In 1887 a titular statue of the Immaculate Conception was brought over to Qala from Marseille.
But the sanctuary, small in size and away from the village proper, again lost the parish seat to a new church built in the heart of Qala. Started in 1882 and completed in 1889, the new parish church, dedicated to St. Joseph is at its most beautiful on the first Sunday of August, when the gilded titular statue. an 1890 product Of Gallard et Fils(Marseille), is carried in procession around the streets of the village to mark the finale of the annual festa. The Qala feast is considered to be one of Gozo’s most spectacular, especially with regards to fireworks displays and the performance of local and guest brass bands. The titular painting (1899) by Giuseppe Cali’ is also an object of great devotion. When it was solemnly crowned in 1971, by Cardinal Giovanni Colombo, Archbishop of Milan, two commemorative stamps showing Cali’s painting in its original colors were issued by the Maltese Postal Authorities. In 1981, in one of Qala’s darkest moments, this crown was stolen by still unknown robbers. On 1st August 1999, a recurrence of the 1971 celebrations occurred once again in the main square, where after a historic procession with both titular statues, once again the painting was crowned with a gold and diamond crown. The apse of the church depicting various episodes from the life of St Joseph, was painted by renowned Maltese artist Ganni Vella between 1943 and 1966. During this period the church was also enlarged to its present state. The church has many other beautiful paintings and a handsome baptismal font made from Qala stone. One painting in particular, the one depicting Il-Madonna ta’ Salus Infirmorum (Our Lady of Health), attracts thousands of devotees and is revered as miraculous. Another addition to the church is a small museum consisting mostly of prehistoric pottery from the many Qala sites.
Officially, Qala’s parish church is not dedicated to St. Joseph alone, but also to the Immaculate Conception. One may note that all three churches of Qala are dedicated to this favored appellation of Our Lady, for even the church of Tal-BIat carries the same title. This unique curiosity emphasizes the strong bond that the village has with the Immaculate Conception. This bond was first cast in the early 17thcentury at the Sanctuary, where a feast is still celebrated every December 8th. Qala is extremely religious. Processions are also held for Our Lady of Sorrows (one week before Good Friday), Corpus Christi 9ate Mayor early June). Sacred Heart of Jesus (3"’ Friday in June), Our Lady of Mercy and Good Health (3 Sunday in September), Our Lady of Rosary (1st Sunday in October), the Blessed Sacrament (last Sunday in October), and the Holy Infant (Christmas Eve). For this reason one can find several of beautiful statues in the parish church.
Gozitan lore’s fascination with both the spiritual and the mundane find the perfect theme in the White Lady. A definite reference to the Mother of God, this earthly term conjures a vision of a friendly ghost and allows Our Lady to perform tasks that are human and miraculous at the same time. In the Qala story, workers entrusted with the construction of the Sanctuary were given the plan, the material, and the location. The job got started underway, but the following day the fruits of their labor were found someplace else. Dumbfounded, the workers started afresh according to plan, but the same thing happened, over and over again. Eventually the inevitable reports started to circulate: the White Lady had been seen. She has visited the site of the plan and then walked to her chosen place, with the foundation stones following her! This sign from heaven was belatedly accepted, and the church was built on the spot indicated by the White Lady.
Several books written between the 17thand the 20th centuries are replete with stories of divine intervention at the Sanctuary. The old Canonica (parish House) played an important part in the numerous pilgrimages. A stone cross, Is-Salib Tal-Kuncizzioni, stands a block away to guide visitors, and another one near the center of the village marks the spot where the church was intended to be built.
Graffiti depicting 17thand 18thcentury ships can be seen on the outside wall of the sanctuary. These are probably votive offerings from people who survived shipwrecks. Among the part-legendary part-historic refugees of Qala is San Kerrew (St. Corrado). This holy man, who lived in the 15 century, did not need a bridge to cross to Qala. Chased away from Malta because of his strict moral standards, Kerrew simply rolled out his mantle and crossed over the sea to Qala. Here he resumed his life as a hermit and a prophet, correctly foretelling, among other things, the coming of the Knights and the building of Valletta. Another story, this time from Sicily, even claims that Kerrew once crossed over to that island, his mantle again providing the transportation. There he is known as San Corrado of No to, where a weekly recitation used to be held in front of his shine. But back in Gozo, San Kerrew is believed to have lived in a cave by the sanctuary till his death at a ripe age. Though long hidden underground, the location of this cave, once a Punic tomb, was well known to the people of Qala. When the church was enlarged, a wall was erected right over Kerrew’s grave. A cross, still visible, was incised on the wall to mark the location. In 1937, volunteers dug the site under the scrutinizing eyes of the believers of Qala. They found a skeleton of a 15thcentury man who had died at an advanced age. The preserved remains are now venerated in a special urn in a crypt in the church. Near the skeleton one can see the wear in the ground where people with special needs scooped dust in the belief, that just a fragment from the final abode of a saintly man would answer their prayers. The people of Qala still place their hopes in their saint, and accounts of miracles are professed today as they have been for centuries.
Qala’s name means ’bay’ or ’harbor’ probably for the nearby harbor of Mgarr. Although other versions of the name have been proposed, the harbor theme is well reflected in the village’s coat of arms. A Gozo boat sailing on rough waters, and on its motto, In Tempestate Perfugium (Haven from Storms). Qala is well known for its hard coralline type of stone. When the breakwater of Mgarr Harbor was constructed reliance was placed on the high quality limestone quarries near Hondoq Bay. Other examples of construction with Qala’s stone also include the War Memorials in Floriana and in Victoria, the Grand Harbor’s breakwater in Malta, the base of Christ the King Cathedral in Liverpool and recently also the main altar in the Qala Parish church.
Qala has nurtured some outstanding personalities. Qala born Mikiel Frangisk Buttigieg, was the first Bishop for Gozo. A statue in his memory is found alongside the parish church while an inscription marks the house, in Qala’s main road, where Monsignor Buttigieg was born in 1793. Malta’s Poet of Nature and second President of the Republic, His Excellency Dr Anton Buttigieg was also born in Qala. His birthplace can be found in Qala’s main square and the local primary school is named after him, while a monument can be found on entering Qala’s center. Gozo Law Courts first serving magistrate, Dr Salv Attard was also born in Qala. Today a playing field carries his memory. Another Anton Buttigieg, one of Gozo’s foremost educators, second President of the Gozo Civic Council and acknowledged village historian, was another outstanding son of Qala, as was Fr Joseph Portelli who served as a missionary for half a century in India.
For centuries, Qala had an agricultural and fishery based economy. Today Qala has a service oriented economy in the area of construction, tourism and crafts. Qala has a police station, football ground, leisure park, playing field, a variety of shops including bars, social and sportive clubs, restaurants, groceries, confectionery and also a pharmacy. The Institute for Tourism Studies is located alongside the Primary school and is a center for learning and training for the tourism industry in Gozo. ’Ite ad Joseph’ is the local brass band which started its first public performances in 1997. Qala St Joseph is the football team competing in the Gozitan league; currently the team is playing in the 2nd division.
Qala enjoyed its first local Government from 1963 to 1973 when the experiment was discontinued. Since 1993,Qala has had a Local Council with a mayor, deputy mayor and three councilors. Paul Buttigieg is Qala’s first mayor. The council was granted an emblem consisting of a Gozo boat with lateen sails on a blue sea and a reddish field with three red stars on a silver chief. Since its establishment the Local Council has carried out a number of projects substantially improving the image and infrastructure of the village. In November 2000, the village of Qala became the first village in Gozo to twin itself (with Comune of Santa Marina Salina, Italy). Bearing in mind this fruitful experience, Qala Local Council entered into a new twinning agreement with the Comune of Lanciano (region of Abruzzo, Italy) in September 2005. As of July 2006, Qala Local Council’s premises is located in the Civic Centre situated next to the Primary school.
Based on past performance, the Local Council of Qala will increasingly influence the development and progress of the people and village of Qala for present and future generations.