One cannot picture Malta without picturing churches and chapels, monumental proof of the island’s deep Catholic roots. It is said that there are 365 churches and chapels around the islands, one for every day of the year. Most of these religious temples are sky-high, adorned with imposing columns and great domes and steeples. Yet Malta is also dotted with quaint limestone chapels, not much bigger than a room, some of which date back to medieval times. Today we take a tour of 8 of these charming chapels around Malta, beautiful testimonies of the island’s faith since early times.
Chapel of St Mary Magdalene – Dingli
The chapel perched precariously on the vertiginous cliffs of Dingli is perhaps one of the best known chapels on the island. Visitors strolling the cliffs are sure to encounter this modest chapel, while some even start their cliff exploration using her as a starting point. The chapel is dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, however it is also known as the Chapel of the Cliffs. The earliest records show that the chapel has been standing treacherously in its place since 1446, and it used to be the go-to church for the farmers of the area.
Chapel of Our Lady of Atocia, known as tas-Samra – Hamrun
The Chapel of Our Lady of Atocia in Hamrun is one of the lesser known churches on this list. Tucked away in a small alleyway in the central town of Hamrun, the chapel known as ‘Tas-Samra’ to the Maltese (the name, meaning ‘of the tanned Lady’, derives from the icon found in the church depicting a dark-skinned Madonna) was built as the chapel we know today in 1630. This chapel is peculiar as it is fairly larger than most chapels’ layouts, and it has a beautiful arched façade, built in the Spanish style.
Church of Our Lady of the Snows – Marsaxlokk
Suspended above the picturesque town of Marsaxlokk is the grand-looking chapel of Our Lady of the Snows, known among the locals as ‘Tas-Silg’. This chapel’s location has been used as a place of worship since ancient times, and we learn from Cicero that a temple dedicated to Juno stood on this spot during Roman rule. However this location had been used as a temple even by the Phoenicians, who erected a temple dedicated to Astarte here, while the Carthaginians transformed this temple into a place of worship to their god Melkart. The site near the chapel is also an archaeological site, still closed to the public as excavations are ongoing. The chapel dates back to 1650; however the structure was rebuilt again in 1832.
Immaculate Conception Chapel – Ahrax, Mellieha
Ahrax Point in Mellieha is one of the northernmost points on the island, right on the edge of Malta’s ‘tail’. When one reaches this point two features stand out: the niche standing at the very edge of the cliffs, and the peaceful little chapel, humble and inconspicuous. This chapel is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and unlike most of the other churches in this list, is not all that old. The earliest records depicting this chapel date it back to the beginning of the 20th Century, a relative new-born when compared to the other chapels around the island. The original chapel stood even closer to the edge of the cliffs, yet the placement was changed due to erosion of the cliffs below.
The Chapel of Our Lady of Itria – Bingemma
Another chapel dangling perilously on the edge of a valley is the chapel of Our Lady of Itria, in the scenic hamlet of Bingemma. ‘Itria’ derives from the Orthodox nomenclature Hodegetria, meaning ‘she who knows the way’. This chapel was built in 1600, when many devotees revered the Madonna of Itria. What is amazing about this chapel it its location. To the right of the chapel, an uneven pathway leads down to a quaint valley, the sides of which are pockmarked by a series of tombs, or rock hewn caves. Mystery still shrouds this area, as archaeologists still do not agree on whether these caverns were used as tombs, or whether they were ancient dwellings.
Chapel of St Paul the Hermit – Wied il-Ghasel, Mosta
Wied il-Ghasel in Mosta has been forever immortalised in a popular Maltese song, highlighting the beauty of the area. The chapel of St Paul the Hermit adds further charm and exquisiteness to the already fascinating area; the chapel is built in a natural cave opening, incorporating the cave walls into its own structure. The legend surrounding this chapel goes that a saintly hermit lived in the cave before the chapel was built. Some Maltese had started living immorally, and had received fair warnings from the hermit who advised them to change their life’s course. Relentless, and seeing that the hermit lived such a pious life, they decided to tempt him into a life of sin, sending a woman down to his cave in order to seduce him. The hermit could not take their taunting any longer and therefore decided to head first to Comino, then to Gozo. Instead of taking a boat as one would normally do when crossing over to the islands, the hermit lay down his cloak on the water, and travelled on it as if it were a raft. Upon seeing this miraculous event, the Maltese people realised that he was a saint, and asked for his forgiveness. They built a small chapel where the hermit used to dwell, and dedicated it to St Paul the Hermit.
Chapel of St Matthew – Maqluba, Qrendi
It seems that the Maltese had a knack for building chapels hazardously close to the edge. Yet the chapel of St Matthew in Qrendi is an exception. This chapel dates as far back as the 11th century, before the Maqluba sinkhole was formed. It is said that the chapel avoided destruction by the sinkhole miraculously, after the village that stood where the sinkhole is now located was destroyed and engulfed by the earth in a violent storm in 1343. The chapel that stands there today is composed of two adjoining chapels – known as ‘iz-Zghir’ (the small) and ‘il-Kbir’ (the large). The larger chapel was built in 1682.
Immaculate Conception Chapel – Spinola Bay, St Julian’s
Camouflaged among the modern buildings and restaurants along Spinola Bay, one finds a small chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. At first glance, the chapel is almost unnoticeable, as it blends into the hodgepodge of buildings along the seafront. Back when St Julian’s was an idle fishermen’s village, this unassuming chapel served as a place of worship for the workers of the area, and it was known by the name ‘tas-Sajjieda’ meaning ‘of the fishermen’. Nowadays the chapel has been squashed on both sides by imposing modern buildings, yet she holds on steadfastly and looks out to the bay whose fishermen she once served. The site was first used in 1580, when a church known as ‘ta’ Lapsi’ was built after the Great Siege. The church as we know it today was built in 1688 by Fra Paolo Rafel Spinola, whose name is still connected to the area to this day.