Earthquakes and Tsunamis

in and around Malta

It is not uncommon for earth tremors to be felt in the Maltese islands. Many pass unnoticed and are only registered by the University’s seismic measuring instruments (seismographs), because they are often of a low magnitude. However, over the centuries a number of strong earthquakes did occur that caused considerable damage, although as far as we know, these never resulted in any deaths.


The 1693 Earthquake

Perhaps the most memorable earthquake in history is that which occurred on January 11, 1693. The quake’s epicentre was located in the eastern part of Sicily, causing total devastation in Catania, Noto, Syracuse and many other towns and villages in the region. In Malta, some of the larger churches of Valletta as well as those in Senglea and Vittoriosa also sustained structural damages to various degrees. Even the roof of the Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa collapsed, and 665 scudi were spent on its repairs (K. Gambin 2003).

Cathedral medieval Mdina in Fresco GM palacd
Mdina Cathedral destroyed in 1693

Agius de Soldanis says that in Gozo, the citadel’s collegiate church suffered some damages. De Soldanis also claims that at Sannat, the same earthquake caused part of the precipice to detach itself and collapse into the sea below. (A. Bonnici 1999). Michael Ellul mentions in his writing (1993) that the church of St. George in Rabat, Gozo was also effected. Yet, no injuries or deaths were recorded.

Meantime, in Sicily, the same earthquake caused the death of around 75,000 – some maintain that the number could have been as  many as 100,000. In Catania alone, it was estimated that around 18,000 people were killed. It is to be noted that in the port of Augusta in Sicily, where the Order of St. John operated its bakeries and wheat mills that supplied the Order’s ships with biscuits, dozens of Maltese employed there met a tragic end. Apart from these, some Maltese monks who resided in various Sicilian convents were also killed.

Regions of Sicily hit by the earthquake of 1693

Why so many earthquakes in the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean region has always been and remains to this day, geologically active. Scientists believe that the continental masses that surround the Mediterranean, mainly those of Africa and Europe, are still shifting in opposing directions towards one another, causing occasionally, significant earthquakes. In addition, volcanic activities such as those of Etna and Stromboli and the magma that flows beneath the earth may also trigger such tremors. A good part of the Mediterrean region is classified as a ‘volcanic arc’, that comprise the Vesuvius in the Gulf of Naples, Stromboli, Mount Etna and several mountain ranges both on the North African coast (the Atlas Mountains), Turkey and mainland Greece and its islands.

Regions of the Mediterranean where earthquakes are most likely to occur

Why have the Maltese been spared death?

Although in  the main, Malta itself seems to be located (relatively speaking) at some distance away from the epicentres of major seismic activity, the islands are still susceptible to frequent tremors, sometimes local, sometimes emanating from the regions just mentioned.

double stone walling of old Maltese buidlings

Perhaps one of the factors that mitigates the adverse effects of earthquakes locally, may be the way buildings are constructed and the quality of the material. These are mostly composed of solid slabs of limestone (Maltese: ġebla tal-franka). Many of the ancient buildings had their outer walls made up of a double stone surface (Malt. ħajt dobblu), with a space in between packed with small pebble-like stone and soil (Malt. mazkan). The modest height of the buildings, usually reaching two storeys high, also diminishes the risk of them being forcibly shaken and razed to the ground by tremors. Moreover, the ceilings / roofs of houses of old buildings are made of stone slabs (Malt. xorok) that rest on thick wooden beams separate from one another. The relatively short length of these stone slabs if damaged will not make the whole building collapse.

Earthquakes as registered on the Richter Scale

There are various types of measures by which to calculate the intensity of earthquakes. Three such scales are the Moment Magnitude Scale, the Mercalli Scale and the Richter Scale. Here are the basic levels as classified in the Richter Scale:

  • Scale 4.0 to 4.9:   This bracket measures the kind of earthtremors that shake small objects in the house. At the very least, the tremor is weak and sometimes not noticeable if not by instruments.
  • Scale 5.0 – 5.9: An earthquake of this magnitude can damage old buildings and others that are not solidly built close to the epicentre.
  • Scale 6.0 – 6.9: Such an earthquake may cause damages in buildings that are up to 160 kilometres away from the epicentre.
  • Scale: 7.0 – 7.9: This is a very strong earthquake that will demolish buildings in the epicentre where the earthquake originates, and may also destroy buildings that are furtherthan 160 kilometres away. This level of intensity may well correspond to the force released by the earthquake that hit Malta in 1693.

The Thera / Santorini explosion

An artist’s impression of the aftermath of the explosion of Thera

If there ever was a catastrophic geological event in the Mediterranean in humankind’s existence in the Mediterranean, that would have been the tremendous eruption, or rather explosion of the volcanic island of Thera, known today as Santorini. This island is located in the Aegean Sea, some 110 km North of Crete. It is thought that this volcano which exploded some time around 1500 BC. released energy that was several times greater than an atomic bomb. So powerful was the explosion that it destroyed not only the surrounding cities, thus annihilating the Minoan culture of Crete, but also created a tsunami, with waves that were over 13 meters high. These waves spread across the Mediterranean. We do not know at which magnitude this earthquake and the tsunami hit Malta, but one would assume that it was an invasive and destructive force. This phenomenon coincides with the last prehistoric phase of Malta, known to archaeologists as the ‘Late Bronze Age’ (1400 – 700 BC). Many archaeological sites of this period are located on high grounds, such as at Borg in-Nadur, Ġebel Ċiantar and il-Qlejgħa, close to Baħrija. Could this tremendous tsunami have been a determining factor for such communities to start inhabiting higher grounds for them to feel safe from  similar future occurrences? The eruption caused the displacement of various cultures in the Aegean and these migrated to other areas of the Mediterranean. Did this eruption cause migratory groups to reach Malta and thus destabilise the local inhabitants? Perhaps this factor might explain why Bronze Age village sites are known to have a defensive wall?

An island is born but disappears soon after

An artist’s eptiction of the emerging island south of Sicily

On July 17, 1831, a volcanic island emerged, some 30 kilometres south of Sciacca, Sicily. The captain of the British ship that spotted this island emerging from the sea, reported the incident to the Admiralty in Malta. The authorities did not hesitate to set sail and claim possession of the island, setting up the Union Jack before any other nation made any claims. The island continued to rise above the sea until it reached a height of 35 meters. By a month later its circumference had reached about 1000 meters. The British decided to name this rocky islet Graham Island, in honour of Sir James Graham, who was then the First Sea Lord of the British fleet. Among those who visited this island were Sir Walter Scott and his wife, who at that time happened to be in Malta. The Bourbon King of Sicily, Ferdinand, wanted this island to become part of his domain, and had this island named Fernandea. The French and Spanish governments were also interested in taking possession of it as this could prove of strategic importance to their interests. All aspirations were in vain however, because after a few weeks, the island slowly began to sink back into the depths. By December of that year, it completely disappeared below the surface. Apparently, this was not the first time that this geological phenomenon occurred.

The Messina earthquake of 1908

The Messina earthquake claimed the lives of more than 70,000 inhabitants in the city and tens of thousands more, all over Sicily and Reggio Calabria. In Sicily, at least three major oceanic waves caused significant damages and killed many people. The quake also affected Malta. This caused a tsunami to reach Malta’s shores, one hour after the earthquake occurred. The sea rose by some one metre and in Msida the water went inland to reach up to the nearby houses beyond the creek. In Marsaxlokk, the sea level also rose and crossed the main road to reach the parish church. Even in the Grand Harbour, the sea was noticed to reach a higher level than usual. Many fishing boats were wrecked, but no deaths were reported. The British immediately responded to this calamitous event and sent ships that were at the time at Malta to Messina, with medical supplies, as well as doctors, to assist the survivors.

messina terrenit
The Messina earthquake ‘s destructive  magnitude

A list of renowned earthquakes

Throughout the history of Malta, many earthquakes are recorded (sometimes as legendary events). Below is a list based on the writings of Frank Ventura and Pauline Galea (1993), to which are added a few other dates that I have come across in various sources. Whenever relevant, I have included some anecdotal information that are presented as footnotes.

blat mxaqqaq IMG_6809

List of earthquakes  

  • 16thcentury:     1528, 1537, 1542, 1562
  • 17thcentury:     1636, 1650, 1653, 1657, 1658, 1659(¹), 1693, 1694
  • 18thcentury:     1741, 1743(²), 1746 , 1761, 1789, 1793, 1799
  • 19thcentury:     1856(³), 1860, 1861, 1866(⁴), 1867, 1874, 1875, 1886(⁵), 1887
  • 20thcentury:    1903, 1904, 1907, 1908(⁶), 1910, 1911(⁷), 1914, 1917, 1923(⁸), 1937,        1972(⁹), 1983, 1990.
  • 21stcentury:     2008 (¹⁰)

(¹) 1659: The nuns of the Benedictine convent in Vittoriosa wrote to Pope Alexander VII (former inquisitor of Malta) pleading with him to assist them in finding an alternative residence for them to move into, firstly because their religious community had become bigger, numbering 75 persons, and therefore the convent was overcrowded. Apart from that, they were also concerned for their safety as they claimed that the structure of the convent was not structurally safe due to the effects of numerous earth tremors down the years (A. Bonnici 1993).

(²) 1743: Agius de Soldanis mentions this earthquake that occurred in his time (A. Bonnici 1999). He said that this happened on February 23, at 5.30 am. The quake lasted for seven and a half minutes. He states that much damage had been incurred both in Malta as well as in Gozo. In Gozo, damage was done to St. George’s Church, St. James’s Chapel, both in Rabat and Qala church.

(³) 1856 – October 12: The historian Pietru Pawl Castagna (1827 – 1907), claims that the earthquake of 1856 which occurred in his time, shocked everyone. It caused damage to the Protestant Cathedral in Valletta, and the dome of the Mdina Cathedral. The latter had had to have its fresco painting restored. The quake probably had its epicentre near Crete or Rhodes and reached a magnitude of 7.7 on the Richter scale.

(⁴) 1866: A series of earthquakes, some forty in all, were felt between mid-August and the end of September 1866.

 (⁵) 1886 – August 27: A whole series of tremors occurred at frequent intervals. These had terrified the whole population. Many buildings were damaged, including the Law Courts and some churches in Valletta, as well as the Mdina Cathedral.

(⁶) 1908: About this earthquake read the paragraph entitled ‘The Messina Earthquake of 1908’.

(⁷) 1911: The worst hit by this earthquake was Fort Chambray in Gozo probably due to the clay layer that lies beneath the forth.

(⁸) 1923, September 18: This earthquake is mentioned by Mikiel Spiteri (better known as Kilin) in his memoirs Fuq il-Għajn tal-Ħasselin. He says that this earthquake had damaged the chapel at Tal-Virtù, in Rabat.

(⁹) 1972, March 21, 11.06 pm: This was one of the strong earthquakes that I recall during my lifetime. This struck  during the night. Many were terrified by the quake’s magnitude and many families abandoned their homes in the middle of the night in search of open spaces away from buildings. Many were reluctant to return home, until a few days later.

(¹⁰) 2008, January 7, 12.35 pm: Another earthquake that occurred during my lifetime. This time I was at my workplace, in the ancient building of the Auberge d’Italie, in Merchants Street, Valletta. The centuries old but massive building shook violently for about five seconds. I did what I was taught to do in such a situation and sought shelter under the lintel of a doorway that led to another office. The building held its own, thus allowing me and the rest of Malta to recall the incident.

Martin Morana

18 May 2022.


Abela Mary Pace, ‘Earthquakes in Malta: Storms and Tremors in 1343’, 
Heritage Encyclopedia, Vol V. Midsea Books Ltd.
Barbano Maria Serafina & Rigano Rosaria, ‘Earthquake sources and seismic 
hazard in Southeastern Sicily’. Annali di Geofisica, Vol 44, August 4, 2001.
Bonnici Alexander, Gozo Ancient and Modern Religious and Profane - Canon 
Giovanni Peietro Francesco Agius - DE SOLDANIS 1712 - 1770. Media Centre 
Publications. 1999.
Bonnici Alexander, Maltese Society under the Hospitallersin the Light of the
 Inquisition Documents’, Hospitaller Malta 1530 - 1578. Ed. V. Mallia 
Milanes. 1993.
Camilleri Joseph C., ‘Graham Island in the Mediterranean’, Malta Year Book, 
pp. 530, 531.  
Ellul Michael, ‘The Earthquake of 1693’, Mdina and the Earhquake of 1693. 
Ed. Can. John Azzopardi. Heritage Books (Print Services Ltd), 1993.
Galea Pauline,   ‘Seismic history of the Maltese islands and considerations on seismic risk: Earthquakes in Malta'Annals of Geophysics50 (6): 725–740. Retrieved 5 June 2015.
Gambin Kenneth, The Inquisitor’s Palace, Heritage Books. 2003.
Grima Joseph F., ‘The Earthquake of 1693’, Kultura, Vol. 1 issue no. 3.
Inguanez John, Ġrajjiet Malta fl-Imgħoddi, PIN. 2000.
Kilin (Spiteri Mikiel), Fuq il-Għajn ta’ San Bastjan. Pubblikazzjoni Bugelli
 Publications. 1993.
Ventura Frank & Galea Pauline, ‘The 1693 Earthquake in the context of Seismic Activity, in the Central Mediterranean Region’, Mdina and the Earthquake of 1693. Ed. Can. John Azzopardi. Heritage Books (Print Services Ltd), 1993.
‘Recent and past earthquakes in Malta. Interactive map. Volcano Discovery 
‘Are Maltese Buildings Earthquake Ready?’ Times of Malta, January 10, 2022.
‘What is the Richter Scale magnitude’, GNS Science (website).

A *    B *    Ċ *    C *    D *   E *    F *
Ġ *    G *    *    H *    Ħ *    I *    J *    K *
L *    M *     N *     O *     P *    Q *    R  *     S
T *     U *     V *    W *     X *     Ż *    Z *
Aktar kitba u pubblikazzjonijiet mill-istess awtur: AA cover page

The History of Coffee in Malta

The coffee plant knows its origins in Ethiopia. During the fifteenth century, the plant began to be cultivated in Yemen and Saudi Arabia where coffee was roasted and served as a beverage that soon became very popular. From then on, coffee spread to Egypt and Turkey and the rest of the Middle East and eventually became also popular in Europe. It seems that Venice, the Netherlands and England were amongst the first to appreciate this new beverage. In France and Italy, coffee took much longer to become a commodity. It is even possible that this drink became known in Paris after Malta, and that it was probably the French Knights of the Order of St. John who introduced coffee in Paris, (N. Buttigieg and K. Gambin, 2003).

kafe magridHistorical documents show that in 1633, coffee was consumed in Malta and was a popular drink especially in taverns at the maritime town of Birgu. In 1671, the Maltese scholar Domenico Magri (1605-1672), published a treatise in Rome called Della Virtù del Caffè. This priest tells us that in his time, the ‘Turkish’ slaves in the Valletta prisons were renowned for the good coffee they brewed. These not only drank coffee, but also sold it, in order to earn some modest cash. Even the Knights used to go to the slaves’ prisons, located as they were near where today stands the Lower Barrakka Garden, to buy coffee beans, roasted and ground, to consume at home. Other Maltese families belonging to the upper class did the same.

antique-silver-coffee-pot-harris-sons-1927-00In the treatise, Magri gives his opinion on the unique taste as well as the health benefits of coffee. He claimed that drinking coffee helped against constipation and catarrh as well as to relieve migraine. He also claimed that coffee acted as a good digestive when taken after meals. Apart from that, Magri observed that coffee acted as a stimulant that kept one going with his work. It is clear from the title and contents of the essay that coffee was hitherto unknown in Rome. God only knows what Magri would have thought nowadays, as the Italians have become so passionate about coffee and experts in preparing it as a beverage. The same author was of the opinion that the low consumption of coffee in Italy was due to its high duty fees imposed when imported. At the same time, he claimed that in Malta coffee was a common drink – in his words, ‘[…] molto practicata […]. The same writer explains in detail what it entailed to brew coffee. The ground coffee was to be boiled in a pot ‘[…] vaso stagnato di rame […]’ – then some time is allowed to let the coffee grains to sink to the bottom of the kettle. Then a small amount of sugar was to be added to the beverage and preferably, some cloves too; then served hot in a porcelain bowl, (D. Magri, 1671). [A recipe which is still followed meticulously by some Maltese to this day  – MM].

In 1773, the Order of the Knights of St John, then ruling Malta, began to tax various goods that were imported, to raise funds in order to build more fortifications on the islands. Among the items that were taxed were soap, tobacco, playing cards, leather as well as coffee, (A. Hoppen, 1993).

But where did this coffee come from? In a late 18th century document of the Order of the Knights of St John, we find a list of imported goods that were taxed, amongst which, the Caffè di Levante and the Caffè di Ponente. However, no specific country is mentioned by name. (V. Mallia Milanes.) In another source we learn that in 1776, coffee was also exported from Malta to Sicily (Debono 1988 / Vassallo 1998).

The British Period – The 19th Century

coffee-grinderclippedDuring the nineteenth century, therefore, in the early years of British rule in Malta, coffee remained the most popular beverage, whereas tea imported from England was practically unknown, at least among the Maltese. This was because tea was consumed only by British soldiers and other British residents who at the time did not mix socially with the Maltese.

William Domeier, an English physician who visited Malta in the early nineteenth century, published a book, Observations on the Climate, Manners and Amusements of Malta (1810). He claimed that in Malta, both Maltese and British wholesalers were well stocked with such beverages as cocoa, beer, and coffee. Tea is not mentioned.

Old coffee grinder sketch vector illustration
Old coffee grinder sketch engraving vector illustration. T-shirt apparel print design. Scratch board imitation. Black and white hand drawn image.

Just about a decade or so later, John Hennen, another medical doctor, who between 1821 and 1824, was purposely stationed in Malta to check on health matters, states that iced water and coffee were ‘common luxuries’. In the same paragraph he informs us that for breakfast the Maltese normally had bread or fruit, washed down with either coffee or cocoa. Hennen cites the prices of some common beverages that were consumed. This time tea is included. While a pint  of wine or milk (English pint = 0.568 litres) were priced at 1¾d each, (one penny and three grains); tea sold at 2s. 5d (two shillings, five pence) a pound. Coffee was sold at 1s. 10d (one shilling, ten pence) a pound.

At home, coffee continued to be brewed in kettles (stanjata) then copiously poured into a small hand held ceramic bowl. One could drink the beverage at leisure while dunking small chunks of bread or local type rusks, or Maltese crackers (Maltese: biskuttelli or galletti) into the bowl. With coffee one could also add a few drops downloadof rosewater, especially when attempting to recover from an upset stomach. Sometimes drops of aniseed were also poured in for good measure for the coffee to acquire a spicy taste. Over time, coffee grains were even mixed with chicory.

Meantime, the so called wine taverns (Malt. ħwienet tax-xorb) as well as the then emerging feast band clubs were serving coffee more than any other beverage. Even more so in Valletta. Many who commuted to Valletta would often take a moment of respite from their errands by stopping at one of the small beverage shops to refresh themselves with a cup – actually a small glass tumbler of coffee.

Pjazza Regina vallettaBy the mid-nineteenth century, Valletta had its fair share of well established coffee shops. To name a few of the more popular ones, there was the Cafè de la Reine, in Piazza della Tesoreria – later popularly known as Queen’s Square (Malt. Pjazza Reġina). Right opposite, in Strade Reale, there was the Cafè dell’ Commercio, which after the Second World War, became known as Cafè Cordina. This had its ceiling painted with frescoes by the renowned artist Giuseppe Calì (1846 – 1930). There was also L’Europa Cafè in Strada Teatro Antico, while in Valletta’s Strada Reale, or as it was to be later known, Kings Way, at a short distance from Porta Reale, was the Royal Opera House, which of course served patrons entering or exiting the homonymous theatre, built in 1866. Apart from these there were also L’Internazionale, located next door to the Law Courts and D. Buhagiar – better known as, Dimitri, midway in Strada Reale. The latter displayed a sign in Italian, saying that the shop was open practically all  hours, (aperto prima e dopo la mezzanotte) (E.R. Leopardi, 1966).

From the twentieth century to the present day

In the early decades of the twentieth century, other coffee shops were opened, such as, Cadena in Strada dei Mercanti, corner with Strada Santa Lucia, and Gambrinus, in Melita Street (then named Strada Britannia) corner with Strada Zaccharia. Others had changed ownership and also their name. These included the Cafè dell’ Commercio, already mentioned above, which became the famous Café Cordina, as well as the Cafè de la Reine, which changed its name to Café Premier. Throughout the day, most of the regular clients were lawyers who, just like today, buzzed in and out of the Law Courts, located a stone’s throw away. In the evening, and especially during weekends, the clientele changed as gradually Valletta became a popular haunt among young couples (and their chaperone), when going there to watch a movie, or to stroll up and down along the main street of the capital. There were others patronising the coffee Museums Barmnbddfshops. These were the zitelle – unmarried women – seeking to maintain their social communication with their female friends on a weekly basis. Back then, it was not proper for women to venture into a coffee shop unaccompanied. In The Premier there was a small musical bandstand purposely built, to offer some musical entertainment, thus enticing those intending to enjoy a cup of coffee and a slice of cake seated al fresco.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, instant coffee, that is, coffee granules, dried and frozen, was invented in America. Soon after, it was being packed and sold in large quantities, both in the States as well as in Europe. The famous Nescafè brand started selling this kind of coffee as from 1939 onwards, (M. Cremona, 2010). This soon reached Malta too, thanks to the British military presence and proved to be very popular, mainly because it was so easy and quick to prepare and serve. Up to this day this type of coffee has remained the most common beverage, both at home and at work.

Nevertheless, in Malta, the old style brewed coffee, still remains the number one choice with many, especially among those accustomed to drinking coffee a l’italiana. Until the middle of the twentieth century, when few families had a coffee roaster at home, some would do a favour to their neighbours who wished to have their coffee roasted and ground. This process was often done outside in the street, in front of the residence of whoever owned the roaster or grinder, on a stone stove (Malt. kenur). Some would opt to do the same at the local bakery where they were charged a few pennies. Throughout the twentieth century, there were large department stores that imported raw coffee beans and had them roasted in bulk at their own establishment. One such place was Calafato at Hamrun. The aroma of the roasting coffee would fill the air in the street for many blocks away for many hours.

kafe coffee_beans

Nowadays, there are those afficionados of coffee who simply cannot do their chores at home or at work in the office without a cup full of coffee standing close by. For such people coffee is the comfort drink that allows them to set a tempo to the task at hand. The phrase, ‘Coffee Break’ has become a sine qua non, that allows for a pause during important meetings and conferences, whereat delegates can indulge in small talk or business matters. Others working late at home, guzzle one cup of coffee after another in order to carry on with their work through the small hours of the night.

cappuccino-1200x1200-cOne may say that coffee has become one of the most popular drinks at social gatherings. No wonder so many cafeterias have sprouted everywhere, but especially in commercial areas. Whereas in the Maltese villages and towns, the local ‘tea shops’ serve instant coffee in a glass tumbler with a teaspoon of sugar served according to the liking of the individual customer, in most of the coffee shops in Valletta and Sliema, coffee is prepared by a coffee machine according to ‘Italian’ standards. Such are the cappuccino, espresso (corto or lungo) and the macchiato, the latter served like a mini cappuccino, while in truth the name implies that it should only contain a few drops of milk. There is also the Americano which in Malta at least, refers usually to cupful of strong black coffee.

It is nowadays the trend for many to invite friends to meet in a coffee shop. This custom is prevalent amongst all social strata whether young or old, friends or businessmen. Of course with coffee there are often some eats on the table to go with the beverage, a croissant or sandwich maybe – amongst the Maltese gluttons, what better than half a dozen pastizzi, containing a filling of ricotta or peas?

Martin Morana

July 7, 2022

To know about other publications  by same author please click below: AA cover page This book deals with the story of Maltese humour since Roman times up to present.

The author tackles humour both on the individual level as well as that which was and is presented in the theatre and on screen. The writer draws from many past and present anecdotal episodes and situations to elucidate on the genral state of the Maltese psyche. Humour is a two way style of communication that sizes up the temperament of both the presenter as well as the receiver of humour.

Paperback; paġni: 226. Euro 12.95. Available at bookstores …. If you are in Valletta try Agenda or Meli Bookshop.

Also available in ebook format from Amazon Kindle. Price: $.7.30.


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