The Islands Carved in Stone
In the middle of the Mediterranean Sea lie three small islands, all within a stone’s throw of one another. They’re called: Malta, Gozo and Comino, and together they make up the Maltese Islands. Malta is the biggest and, unequivocally, the most famous of all the islands, although all three islands are inhabited to this day. Malta is definitely the most built-up of the three of them, with a larger urban zone covering most of the island. Gozo is somewhat less urbanized, with small villages and farmhouses dotted over the island, and Comino is barely occupied at all.
For centuries, millennia even, one building material has dominated Maltese architecture – and that’s limestone. There’s a reason why locals call Malta ‘The Rock’. The Maltese Islands themselves, and almost everything on them, are, quite literally, carved in stone.
Limestone in Malta is abundant. That’s the simple reason why it has served as the primary building material for all these years. The muted, mellow yellow of Maltese limestone is visible as far as the eye can see. For the Maltese, the colour is just like background noise; it’s so familiar to most Maltese eyes that they don’t even notice it anymore. But for visitors, it’s a different story. Whether you reach Malta by air or by sea, it’s this distinctive colour that will first attract your attention. You’ll see the colour that greeted you everywhere you look, and it will stay with you, forever, as a most characteristic memory.
Like my Mum always said: “you’ll have to make do with what you’ve got” – the Maltese certainly did. Throughout Malta and Gozo, Churches, Palazzos, Farm Houses, Villas and even City Walls have all been built from Maltese limestone. In fact, every era throughout Maltese history, no matter when or who was in command, has seen some sort of limestone construction – the likes of which can still be seen today.
A sedimentary rock, limestone is mostly formed underwater (from the fossilised calcium carbonate shells of living creatures). However, it can also be formed other ways, such as in caves through evaporation processes. Most limestone gets to the ripe old age of several million years before it gets quarried and used in the construction of buildings and houses.
Limestone is the perfect building material. It’s widely available, not just in Malta but all over the world, and it can be easily shaped. Blocks can be cut (for walls and floors) efficiently and without difficultly, and it can be carved comfortably, too. This means that an entire building, no matter how intricate the details, can be made entirely from limestone. It’s also strong and durable. This is evidenced by the ancient buildings and structures found on the Maltese Islands and elsewhere in the world.
The earliest known manmade structures on earth, yet to have been discovered, were all built using limestone. These include the pyramids in Egypt, such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, as well as the temples found here in Malta and Gozo. Even the Mayans built with limestone! Some of the temples that have been uncovered on our islands date back some 6,000 years. The most famous sites are located in Tarxien, in Malta, and Xaghra, in Gozo. These megalithic temples are the oldest known free-standing stone structures in the world, and they were made from Maltese limestone!
Some other notable, historical buildings in Malta, which are also made from limestone, include: the Roman Domus in Rabat, dating from the 1st century BC; St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, built in 1572; the Grand Master’s Palace and the Royal Opera House, both also in Valletta. To this day, limestone prevails as a popular (if not the most popular) building material in Malta. Modern houses, apartment blocks and villas are all built using this native stone. The familiar yellow hue dominates the landscape. It’s prevalent from the south, in Marsascala and Marsaxlokk, to central Malta, in Valletta, Sliema and St Julian’s, and further north, in St. Paul’s Bay, Qawra and Mellieha.
Not only do the structures and buildings found all over Malta serve as evidence of the limestone-heavy construction throughout history, but so do all of the quarries. The biggest of which is found in Mosta. Although it’s fantastic that Malta has such a plentiful supply of natural limestone with which Maltese property can be built, quarrying it certainly does leave its mark on the countryside! The quarry in Mosta is just one of many gaping holes in Malta’s landscape.
Quarrying limestone is also bad for the environment and for the local population, in several different ways. The quarrying process itself takes a great deal of energy powered by fossil fuels. This already makes it a rather environmentally unfriendly business. What’s more, quarrying tends to disturb or destroy the natural habitat of local wildlife, including birds. On top of that, quarries tend to create considerable noise pollution for local residents, as well as potential health risks for quarry workers.
Additionally, no matter whether you live in the north, south, east or west of Malta – or whether you live in an apartment, a farmhouse, a villa or a palazzo – if it’s made from limestone, you’ll still have to deal with mould. This is due to the porous nature of limestone, as well as Malta’s humid climate. Limestone discolours very easily (even a spilled drink of fruit juice can stain limestone immediately). So, be sure to stop any mould problem in its track, as soon as you discover it. Luckily, there are plenty of specialised products you can buy (or companies whose services you can call upon) to help you keep your limestone property sparkling clean.
As is the case with every other building material, there are plenty of advantages and disadvantages associated with building with limestone. However, if you buy (or build) a limestone property and you take care to look after it well, then it will last you your entire lifetime, and for many more lifetimes after that. Who knows? It might still be standing in 6,000 years and someone else will be writing all about it!
Looking for a traditional Maltese property made from local, Maltese limestone? Contact one of our professionals by phone or e-mail, or pop into one of our offices. We’re passionate about helping you find your dream home! Our maestros at QuickLets and Zanzi Homes also give world-class service to owners who are looking to sell or rent out their Maltese property.