THE DWEJRA TOWER, GOZO
Access to the tower is from a track off the main road to the inland sea. The Dwejra area is one of the most popular visited sites on the island and is considered to be one of the most popular sites with divers in the whole Mediterranean. It is a Natura 2000 site which means that it is considered to be of european community importance, and it is also a Marine Protected Area. The area has extensive fossil beds, and a peculiar ‘Azure Window’ caused by wind and wave erosion. A ‘Dwejra Life Project’ which was funded by the European Union in 2004 was headed by nature Trust Malta as the beneficiary together with MEPA as the national environment and planning agency. The Dwejra tower, also called Qawra Tower, was used as the main visitor centre and at present it still serves as an information centre as nature Trust Malta still give information on the site using the tower as their base. This Natura 2000 and Marine Protected Area is managed by MePA but it is still littered by illegal boat houses and requires proper management and law enforcement.
The building of the tower was completed in 1652 and funded by the Università of Gozo, although the costs of equipping it were borne by the Order of St John during the time of Grand Master Lascaris. The coat of arms above the main entrance was presumably that of the Università. The main reason why the tower was built was to act as a watch post to supervise any Ottoman fleets in the vicinity. However another factor possibly influenced this decision – the presence of the General’s Root plant (Scientific name: Cynomorium coccineum) on the nearby General’s Rock which was thought to have special Medicinal powers, curing any type of disease including syphilis. The plant is a parasite and totally dependent on its host plant. During the 16th century the Knights of Malta thought that it was a fungus and it became called Fungus melitensis. The General’s Rock is also referred to as Fungus Rock. It was greatly prized and the authorities sent samples to european royalty. To prevent thieves from climbing, the sides of the rock were smoothened in 1744 and the only access was by means of a wooden box which ran on two ropes by means of four small wheels. One can still observe parts of the mechanism used for this purpose. Theft was punishable by death sentence. The General’s Rock is now a nature reserve, so access is still strictly limited.
A road at the bottom of the tower which winds around from its back wall towards the front elevation leads to a rocky area which in all probability was used to cut the coralline stones which were used in the building of the tower. The softer globigerina limestone used mostly, but not exclusively, for the interior of the tower was possibly cut from close to the sea. The rock is very fossil-rich here and in fact erosion of some of the stones used to construct the tower exposed interesting fossils. The lowest five courses of the tower are built without an incline and this forms a podium for the walls of the tower which are inclined inwards on all four sides. At its base the tower is 12 m square with walls which are 3.5 m thick. Foundations of rooms built adjacent to the Dwejra tower are evident and these were probably built to serve as kitchens or even stables. The tower possibly had a small battery near it and foundations of such a structure may be found in front of the Northern wall. If one has to rely on the accuracy of a painting done in 1824, the tower had a smaller turret than the room present today on the roof. It also had a higher roof parapet (which was probably raised after the visit of Knight Fr Ugo de Floregni Vauvilliers in 1685), had drop-boxes on its landward side and had a room constructed on one side of the staircase of which foundations can still be seen today. what is sure is that the present parapet and guard room were constructed at the same time as evidenced from the stones where the two meet. It could be presumed that the guard room was added after Knight Vauvilliers ordered the raising of the parapet wall.
The basement of the tower is vaulted with arches and limestone slabs resting directly on them. There is the entrance to the well which is large in size. The remoteness of the tower and the scarcity of fresh water meant that it was essential to store as much potable water as possible. Light comes in from a window which however is not all that effective because it has its opening under the stairs on the outside of the tower.
The first floor consists of one room for the guard on duty. The room has a window in the centre of each of its four walls that lights the interior very well during the day. In this room the visitor can note a well head and two niches, as well as a place for a kitchen with an extractor hole above it. A flight of steps leads to the roof. The room on the roof was the tower’s Santa Barbara or powder store. Santa Barbara is the patron saint of gunners.
The Capo Mastro or Castellano of the tower was a bombardier paid by the same Università. He also used the salt pans in front of the tower to sell salt and obtain further income. The aggiutante, or second in command, was also regularly present to assure defence of the tower. Three guards were also regularly present at the tower. The tower was equipped by three 6-pounder guns. Strangely enough the parapet wall on the roof does not have any embrasures for the cannon. If Knight Vauvilliers lamented in 1685 that the parapet was too low, it would be assumed that there were no embrasures at the time and the parapet was raised together with the guard room without even allowing space for the cannon. It could be that the cannons were mounted in the battery present in front of the North wall of the tower. In 1787 the tower also had swivel guns, muskets and bayonets, and other utensils used to fire the cannons. no significant attack of the island apparently involved this tower. In June 1798 the French invaded Gozo and the tower did not become involved in any defensive measures. During the eighteenth century the tower was equipped with three 6-pounder (iron) guns but they remained inactive during the French invasion. The Dwejra tower has a square opening leading to the roof which was probably used to take up or haul down armaments and cannon balls to or from the roof (if cannons were ever mounted on the tower!). However the parapet on the roof does not have any embrasures for a cannon and if it ever had these were presumably removed during the British period.
During the British rule which started in 1800 the tower was used as a deterrent against smuggling and to enforce the quarantine regulations with a detachment of one corporal and three privates from the Royal Malta Fencible Regiment. In 1839 a commission appointed to inquire in the affairs of Malta reported that the tower was no longer required but it continued to be used by the Royal Malta Fencible Regiment till 1873 when it gave up its Coast Guard commitment and withdrew its men from Dwejra. During World Wars I and II it was used as an Observation Post. One reported incident describes the rescue of a Royal Air Force pilot who had crashed at Dwejra Bay on 18 April 1942 and was found by Captain Frank Debono and the Observer who were on duty at the tower. In 1985 the tower was used as part of the film set of the film ‘Among Wolves’ and was camouflaged to look like a desert outpost.
Din l-Art Ħelwa Restores The Tower
The 1990 Structure Plan for the Maltese Islands designated ‘the Qawra/Dwejra area including the Inland Sea and Dwejra Bay, as a site of potential international scientific importance because of the complex of features of geological, geomorphological, ecological, archaeological, historical and aesthetic interest in this area’.
Din l-Art Ħelwa recognised the importance of this site and decided to save the Dwejra Tower. On 12 January 1956 the tower was granted on temporary emphyteusis for 50 years to Mr Gerald de Trafford and in 1996 the latter ‘loaned’ the tower to Din l-Art Ħelwa. The association embarked on its restoration in August 1997. The tower was in a state of collapse and had been repeatedly vandalised. Part of the first floor had caved in and someone had set fire to the basement. The outer walls were crumbling as many stones were badly weathered. It is surprising to learn that in March 1685, merely 33 years after its construction, Knight Fr Ugo de Floregni vauvilliers reported a fair amount of stone deterioration and ordered that the roof parapet facing north be raised. He wrote that‘la ritrovai in necessita` precisa di riparo nelle muraglie e scalini …. il suo muro nella parte superiore e` molto consumato, et ha necessita` di remedio aggiungendo che il parapetto della parte di Tramontana e` molto basso e tanto stimo necessario alzarlo due palmi almeno a coprire la gente in caso smontassero in terra le nemici.’
Permission had to be obtained from the Planning Authority to overcome the first problem of how to transport the required building material to the site. This took some time as a farmer in the locality raised objections and the rare fossils on the path way had to be protected. In order to transport the required material for restoration to the tower, sand was laid on large plastic sheets along the chosen paths.
The restoration was carried out during the summer of 1998 and was entrusted to the Baron Group of Gozo. A large amount of stonework was required on the outside as many stone blocks were eroded. The replacement of stones was a dangerous task and many contractors refused the challenge. The walls of the tower consist of two courses of globigerina limestone, the cavity being filled with rubble. About 200 stone blocks on the outer course were eroded and had to be extracted and replaced with globigerina limestone blocks having the same dimensions. Re-pointing of the fissures between the stone blocks, which were not changed, was a meticulous job. The cistern which was filled with rubble was cleared and the pipes from the roof to this cistern repaired. Apertures were closed using red deal timber doors and windows. The steps leading down to the basement were in poor state of repair. After the stonework on the outside of the tower was completed, the inside was pointed. Windows were fitted with a metal grill for security as well as wire netting to prevent vandals from breaking the glass. Flagstones were laid inside. Eroded stones of the staircase were also replaced. The restoration was funded by Galdes and Mamo Ltd as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations. It is thanks to financial support such as this that Din l-Art Ħelwa can restore and preserve such valuable built heritage.
By virtue of article 48 of the Cultural Heritage Act of 2002, the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage was empowered to enter by public deed into a guardianship contract with non-governmental organisations, after having been duly authorised for these purposes by the Minister responsible for cultural heritage and with the concurrence of the minister responsible for lands. By virtue of a deed in the records of Notary Doctor Franco Pellegrini dated 21 February 2003, Din l-Art Ħelwa was handed over the guardianship of the place for a period of 10 years and this was renewed in 2013. The site is open regularly by volunteers of Din l-Art Ħelwa with the help of Nature Trust Malta. Its sensational location makes it a much sought after venue for photography and as a final destination for those trekking to enjoy the experience of its surrounding area. The passage of cetaceans can sometimes be observed from its roof.
The tower is being restored again thanks to European funds obtained from the Malta Tourism Authority.