The Azure Window: To Rebuild or Not To Rebuild?

Written by Dr Barbara Mordà:

Today, I want to discuss a controversial topic linked to the sad event of the collapse of the natural rock formation called the Azure Window of Malta, an iconic landmark on the Island of Gozo. I have been following this issue since it happened and I think it can be used as a case for meditating on the importance of natural heritage, the risk of loss, and correct strategies for preserving memory. I also include the viewpoint of a Maltese person, which, in my opinion, deserves to be considered. Before focusing on the topic, let’s first introduce a little bit about Malta.

What do we know about Malta?

Malta is an independent nation state located in Europe, in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea between the south of Sicily and North Africa. The Maltese Islands consist of an archipelago of a group of islets and three main islands: Malta, which is the largest and most developed; Gozo, representing an idyllic and peaceful rural place; and Comino, the smallest island scarcely populated.

Some history

Malta has a long history dating back to the Neolithic period. This ‘golden age’ left considerable and stunning traces on the island, as discussed below. Of importance is Malta’s strategic geographical position, which meant there was quite a bit of social interaction between many peoples over the ages. Thus, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, and the Byzantines left their marks on this small territory, as did Arabs who impacted the island linguistically. The Maltese language is a Semitic language written in Latin script and is still spoken and written by locals. Later, the Normans and the Aragonese, who were already ruling Sicily, also ruled the Maltese islands since these were considered part of the Kingdom of Sicily. Valletta, the capital of Malta, is famous for its link to the history of the military Order of St John of Jerusalem, who ruled from 1530 to 1798; considered a flourishing cultural and economic period.

Given that Malta is very rich in history, I now introduce some interesting cultural heritage attractions which really deserve to be seen.

Cultural heritage sites

Among the World Heritage sites, UNESCO includes the city of Valletta, the Megalithic Temples of Malta and the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum.

The city of Valletta has 320 monuments, all located in an area of 55 ha, or about half a square kilometre. This makes the capital of Malta one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.

The Megalithic Temples of Malta (Ġgantija, Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Skorba, Ta’ Ħaġrat and Tarxien) are prehistoric monumental buildings which date back to the 4th millennium BCE and the 3rd millennium BCE. These complexes are considered to be among the earliest free-standing stone buildings in the world and represent outstanding masterpieces of architecture, art and technology.

The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a massive subterranean structure which was excavated c. 2500 BCE using cyclopean rigging to lift huge blocks of Coralline Limestone. This is a unique prehistoric (estimated to about 4000 BCE) monument conceived as an underground cemetery which originally contained the remains of about 7,000 individuals.

Apart from these World Heritage sites, other stunning places are the beautiful old capital city of Malta Mdina and the village of Rabat, as well as many art galleries and museums. Malta has a rich archaeological, historical and cultural heritage but it offers also many interesting natural sights.

What about natural heritage?

The Maltese islands offer many natural history attractions including natural objects, events, plant and animal life, fossils, rocks and landscape features, and climate (see Schembri 1994). Focusing generally on the landscapes, Spiteri and Stevens (2019, p. 360) report that both eastern and south-eastern coastal areas of Malta are characterised by the typical Globigerina Limestone while the north-west regions feature the Coralline Limestone cliffs and the Rdum tal-Madonna cliffs. Blue clay overlies the Globigerina Limestone, and forms slopes flowing out over the underlying rock. Finally, Greensand has produced spectacular landscapes, as hills, such as at il-Gelmus, or the coloured sands at Ramla il-Hamra (both in Gozo).

Spiteri and Stevens (2019, p. 360) add the following as the most relevant natural landscape elements:

  • Cliffs and boulder screes – known as ‘rdum’.
  • A system of valleys known as ‘widien’ or ‘wied’, which form an intricate network and are sometimes referred to as river valleys.
  • Garrigues, including phrygana, often collectively known as ix-xaghri in Maltese, are the most characteristic natural landscape: typically low shrubs growing on Coralline Limestone and karst. The most relevant example is the Maltese phrygana, a habitat present only on the Maltese islands, and where Mediterranean thyme is nearly ubiquitous.
  • Steppes and grasslands are also common on limestone and blue clay, particularly with esparto grass and sulla.

The Island of Gozo is 67 km­2 and has a varied and very attractive landscape. Topographically, Gozo consists of a series of hills, each topped by an Upper Coralline Limestone plateau, and separated by low-lying plains where the rock has been eroded down to the Globigerina stratum. The plateaux are karstic, and the hillsides are covered with clay taluses and the plains between the hills roll gently (Schembri 1994, p. 5).

Another typical characteristic of the Maltese archipelago is the presence of natural sea arches along the coasts, one of which was the Azure Window (Maltese: Tieqa Żerqa or Tieqa tad-Dwejra) located in Gozo.

The Azure Window: An overview of the natural arch

The Azure Window was the popular name given to a stunning natural rock arch that stood on the north-western coast of Gozo, in the area known as Dwejra. This arch was entirely eroded to the Lower Coralline Limestone, which is the oldest part of the Maltese sedimentary sequence (Galea et al. 2018, pp. 1-2). It reached 30 metres above the sea and was absolutely stunning, attracting tourists and serving as a location for film and TV, such as Clash of the Titans (1981), The Odyssey (1997), The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) and Game of Thrones (2011). The Azure Window was the only natural arch to be proposed as candidate for UNESCO World Heritage site status.

 The collapse of the Azure Window: A tragic event

Unfortunately, on 8 March in 2017, following a period of stormy weather, the arch completely collapsed. The impact of the collapsed rockmass on the sea floor generated a seismic signal that was recorded on two stations of the Malta Seismic Network at 9:30 am (local time). Soon after, local media announced the tragic loss and news rapidly spread through social media, becoming front-page news of many international newspapers. The Guardian reported Malta’s prime minister calling the loss ‘heartbreaking’ and the opposition leader saying it was a ‘sad day’.

In addition to the leaders’ declarations, it is important to analyse this as an emotional loss. Below is the reaction of my Maltese friend, Corinne, who is a scuba diver: ‘I was shocked because it was something I had never even contemplated might happen in my lifetime. I think I went into grieving mode, as if I had lost a family member. When something as iconic as a landmark just disappears overnight, it shocks you to your core because like traditions that you grow up with, you’d never experienced life without these landmarks. I know it sounds silly, but I had to see it with my own eyes and the next time I went to Gozo I had to go have a look. And it wasn’t there! That is when it felt like I had to accept it. Three years down the line, I still feel a tightening in my chest when I think about the loss and fear that other iconic natural arches, like the Blue Grotto, might also collapse in my lifetime. But one arch collapsing in my lifetime is enough!! I can still remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard about it. It’s one of those moments!’

Corinne’s words together with the thoughts of the Maltese people indicate that the loss had an incredible emotional impact on locals. Moreover, Corinne felt as though she lost a part of herself, and since this tragic event was hard to accept, she felt she needed to personally verify the absence of the arch.

Toward strategic plans of memorialisation

Satariano and Gauci (2019, p. 296) report that the local newspapers, the Times of Malta and the Malta Independent, set up an online poll to understand the public’s opinion about how to handle the lost arch. The vast majority of the public called for leaving the site in its natural state. However, the government had to be strategic about plans to value the place and to attract visitors. Therefore, Malta announced an international call for ideas to memorialise the Azure Window and the following options were considered.

  1. Leaving the site as it is.
  2. Recover parts of the structure from the sea and put them up for view.
  3. An enhanced interpretation centre that would recall the structure in all its beauty.
  4. Use of digital technology and augmented reality to recreate the site for tech users.
  5. Artistic installations at or near the site where the structure was.
  6. An artificial recreation of the structure.

The controversial ‘Heart of Malta’ project

FIG. 1 HYPOTHETICAL RECONSTRUCTION OF THE AZURE WINDOW (DRAWING ADAPTATION BY B. MORDA’)

A hotly debated proposal has been suggested by the architect Svetozar Andreev, who has proposed to rebuild the natural arch, to the same size and proportions of the original arch, using a polygonal structure made of mirrored steel faces which should ‘blend’ into the landscape. The architect plans to use the latest techniques and materials available in architecture and shipbuilding to reflect the natural coastal landscape of Dwejra. A later online poll (12 December 2018) by Malta Today shows that 68% of the population agrees with this proposal.

However, not everyone is convinced, and it has been fiercely criticised. For example, an article written by Sandro Spiteri for the Times of Malta (16 December 2018) discusses this project in harsh terms. A more recent contribution comes from the series called ‘The Skinny’ published in Malta Today (17 January 2020). The article severely criticises Andreev’s choice of materials, sardonically underlining that the tragic event should be accepted: ‘can you imagine the glare of the August sun violently ricocheting off that thing?!’ At the same time, the author proposed an alternative: ‘Augmented Reality interface accessible only via smartphone. I like it. Look away from the smartphone and see the ghostly legacy of the Azure Window in your mind’s eye, where it belongs.’

Social media posts about this topic show many comments from people who would prefer not to modify the site. It is difficult to judge the whole of Maltese public opinion about the hypothetical reconstruction of the natural arch from the various online polls because not all Maltese people voted and not just Maltese people could vote. Therefore, there must be a better method to consider public opinion. Regardless, we can still clarify some points about the relationship between individuals and space.

The relationship between individuals and space

The case of the Azure Window raises many questions about the interpretation of its ‘life’, the relationship between individuals and the territory, and the impact of its disappearance. Once we understand these concepts, we can think about strategic plans of memorialisation, or not.

Generally speaking, based on any given terrain, we can identify specific areas which are linked to particular human behaviours (Kanter 2008) and regarding this matter, Satariano and Gauci (2019) understand that the Azure Window was perceived by people as a ‘therapeutic place’. In support of this statement, the scholars underline that the Azure Window was an attractive subject to be painted, photographed or simply enjoyed. The natural arch combined various visual elements, such as blue spaces, rock and wild land, creating emotions of well-being and strong attachment. Whilst tourists were attracted to the beauty of the arch, Maltese locals recognised the Azure Window as a part of their identity. Instead of considering only the area around Dwejra Bay, we need to consider the Maltese perspective of the whole island nation. The island of Gozo was and remains a quiet place to get away from the chaotic routine of the main island. This is confirmed by my friend Corinne, who is also Gozitan: ‘Maltese people used to go to Gozo for week-long holidays and weekend breaks. Even today, Gozo remains a popular destination with us Maltese, and it is a place we visit on top of our international holidays. Gozo is perceived as a quieter, and more easy going island, with much less development and buildings, and you can still find quaint old traditions that have died down in Malta. For example, as a kid I used to find it hilarious that Gozitans used to leave their key in the main door of their house.’

Here, Corinne’s words match the discourse of Satariano and Gauci (2019) and it’s clear the whole island represents a therapeutic place. Thus, instead of ignoring the fact that individuals construct deep emotional relationships with their surroundings, we should try to comprehend those emotions. Individuals and the territory in which they live evolve over time so the perceptions of the space changes, as do individual behaviours. So, we need to ask: Does the proposal really meet the needs of the locals?

To rebuild or not to rebuild?

The architect Svetozar Andreev, as reported by CNN, seems to think his proposal is legitimate, based on the Malta Today poll. On his website he states, ‘We cannot refute the fact that modern society needs new symbols which reflect the same issues which confronted the people who built beautiful cities many centuries ago, moreover we understand that we cannot live on monuments to the past alone, and we are now confronted with the necessity to create new projects which reflect the epoch in which we are living. These thoughts form the principal motive which led us to create the Heart of Malta complex.’

This statement seems to be in contrast with the fact that heritage links people, their culture and the environment and, equally heritage links the past, present and future. Although the ‘Heart of Malta’ project represents an original idea for a heritage site, it does not seem to represent these links; for this reason, the disappointment of a part of the Maltese community is understandable. Some portions of the Maltese people do not identify with the ‘new symbol’, which instead of invoking a feeling of well-being, brings feelings of unease. Equally, their emotions may be echoed by tourists who might experience a structure that is in strong contrast with the morphology of Gozo. I had the privilege to live in Malta for a couple of months and, having experienced its stunning cultural and natural heritage, I would not be comfortable with this structure in Dwejra Bay either.

The architect adds: ‘We are, after all, also a part of nature, just one which possesses self-awareness and the ability to interpret that which occurs around us. In spite of the superficial impression of being in conflict with the environment, what we have in this project is an example of the ultimate conceptual and architectural integration of a structure into its physical context, meaning that here we can speak of a successful solution which goes beyond the bounds of the concept of urbanisation. The image of an Azure Window built from steel, one which reflects the sky, the land, and the sea – this is a very powerful image.’

The interpretation of what occurs around us is certainly important, but it should also include how a natural event, such as the collapse of the Azure Window, can trigger feelings in individuals before interfering with the environment and its natural evolution. The impression of the project being in conflict with the environment is not superficial but real, considering that Gozo is a rural island, not ‘urbanised’, and as such is considered a therapeutic location. Satariano and Gauci (2019, p. 301) also point out that experts in marine biology think the territorial and aquatic ecosystems need to be considered; meaning the course of nature is inevitable, and should be accepted and not modified. After the collapse of the Azure Window, the site of Dwejra changed, together with the behaviours of individuals, and now the site is an attractive underwater destination which is still therapeutic for individuals, particularly divers like Mika Tanninen who explored the underwater site.

(Video by courtesy of Mr. Mika Tanninen https://maltadives.com/sites/azurereef-dwejra)

Likewise, those missing the Azure Window – and nature lovers in general – must remember that on the Maltese islands there are around 25 natural arches which deserve to be visited, such as the Wied il-Mielah (Gozo) or the enchanting Blue Grotto (Malta).

The case of the Azure Window makes us think in general terms about the management of natural heritage, as well as how to react to natural events. The Maltese government and heritage organisations need to think strategically about plans for their heritage sites, and rightly need time to carefully evaluate this ambitious project, reflecting on the needs of the community and also considering some other non-invasive proposals. The Maltese archipelago is a jewel in the Mediterranean and undoubtedly will continue to attract tourists regardless of this outcome.

References

Galea, P., et al. (2018). Seismic signature of the Azure Window collapse, Gozo, central Mediterranean. Seismological Research Letters, 89.3, 1108–1117.

Kanter (2008). The archaeology of regions: from discrete analytical toolkit to ubiquitous spatial perspective. Journal of Archaeological Research, 16(1), 37-81.

Prampolini, M., et al. (2018). Geomorphology of the north-eastern coast of Gozo (Malta, Mediterranean Sea). Journal of Maps, 14.2, 402-410.

Satariano, B. and Gauci, R. (2019). Landform Loss and its effect on health and well-being: the collapse of the Azure Window (Gozo) and the resultant reactions of the Media and the Maltese community. In: Gauci, R. and Schembri J. A. eds. Landscape and Landforms of the Maltese Islands. Cham: Springer Nature, pp. 289-303.

Schembri, P. J. (1994). Malta’s natural heritage. In: Frendom, H. and Friggieri, O. eds. Malta, Culture and Identity. Valetta, Malta: Ministry of Youth and the Arts, pp. 105-124.

Schembri, P. J. (1997). The Maltese Islands: climate, vegetation and landscape. GeoJournal, 42.2, 115-125.

Spiteri, L. and Stevens, T. (2019). Landscape diversity and protection in Malta. In: Gauci, R. and Schembri J. A. eds. Landscape and Landforms of the Maltese Islands. Cham: Springer Nature, 359-372.

Web references

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/08/azure-window-malta-collapse-game-of-thrones

https://lovinmalta.com/news/news-breaking/breaking-maltas-tourism-minister-announces-international-call-for-ideas/

https://www.maltatoday.com.mt/arts/architecture/91634/dwejra_azure_window_gozo_reimagined_steel_structure_russian#.XtIHpMZS-CS

https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/russian-window-on-the-med-sandro-spiteri.696855#cta_comments

https://www.maltatoday.com.mt/news/skinny/99711/are_we_just_gonna_let_the_natural_world_continue_to_bully_us_into_submission?fbclid=IwAR37FXUlmfDs_W780FzlYzr55M4Xo5Tv51jfzpb96ADBorQKe9cG77Waecc#.XtIHwcZS-CR

https://www.hotei-russia.com/theheartofmalta

https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/malta-azure-window-steel-arch/index.html

http://divemagazine.co.uk/travel/7606-azure-window-underwater

https://www.tvm.com.mt/en/news/malta-25-natural-arches-similar-azure-window/

Acknowledgements

Ms Corinne Vella, scuba diver

Mr Mika Tanninen, scuba diver

 

 

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