The Maltese Farmhouse

The Maltese Farmhouse

Since the number of people who are still involved in farming has decreased greatly over the years and because transport has improved so much that farmers no longer need to live close to their fields, today's farmers prefer to live together with their families in houses which can offer them the use of all modern comforts, rather than in a farmhouse.
 
As a result of this, many farmhouses were gradually neglected and left to deteriorate, whilst others were turned into more modern farm buildings for garaging agricultural vehicles or as warehouses. Others were completely demolished to make way for greenhouses or for new development. Some have survived and are now being refurbished. A number of these can hardly be recognized from what they were originally built for, but some of the old style of architecture can still be seen.
The Main Characteristics of a Maltese Farmhouse
 
Security: Living on an isolated farm, especially before the arrival of the Order of the Knights of Jerusalem in 1530, was very dangerous. Therefore a farmhouse had to be built in a particulr way in order to provide a certain amount of security for those who lived inside it. Therefore, it is no wonder that farmhouses were always constructed with very thick walls (tad-dobblu) and with very few small windows on the outside, positioned on the first storey and never on the ground floor. At ground floor level, the rooms' only openings to the outside were ventilators (rewwiħiet), built so high up and in such a vertical narrow shape that they could also have been used as a look-out post. Moreover, they could also be used as an opening fom where to fire a gun in case of an attack.
 
The front cart-room door (bieb tar-remissa): was always strong and very thick. When locked during the night, it was usually also reinforced by placing scantlings (saratizzi) from the inside, down each part of the double door, holding the door firm when fitted in their holes in the ground. Thick wooden bars would also be set on the inside of the door. Each farm always kept vicious, usually 'Barbary dogs' (klieb tal-Għarab) as watchdogs tied on the roof and around the main gate (xatba) for added security, as their barking was a very effective alarm for the farmers who would be working in or around the farmhouse.
 
The passage and the gate (il-passaġġ u x-xatba): A typical Maltese farmhouse was usually surrounded by fields. Moreover, it was not uncommon to see a cluster of three or four farmhouses, usually belonging to the same family. Each farmhouse, or cluster, always had a passage-way leading from it to the public road and this would be wide enough for a horse and cart to pass. At the end of this passage-way, one generally found a wooden gate (xatba). This gate was often left open during the day but was always shut at night.
 
The main door (il-bieb tar-remissa): The entrance to a farmhouse was always through its front cart-room (remissa). When fully open, the width of this doorway, had to be wide enough for a cart to pass through it. The door was made of thick wood and made in two parts with the right side closing on the left side and kept shut on a latch. The top part of the door was always semi-circular in form, with a low masonry arch around it. Stone masons generally used a low three-centered arch (ħnejja rieqda) and never a lintel (blata) for such doorways. This type of doorway is still commonly known in the villages, as the cart-room door (il-bieb tar-remissa), and those surviving today can still be seen fitted with a large locally made lock and key. This type of large key is called 'muftieħ' and its elegant shape has helped many of them to survive, still in use as a house decoration, on a shelve or hanging on a wall.
 
Other door features: Outside the main door of such a farmhouse, a plain iron ring (ħolqa tal-ħadid) was usually attached on the right side in the vicinity of the latch, as if it were a knocker, but its function probably was to pull the door shut from outside. Around the key hole, a metal plate (skudett) was affixed. A curious but common habit was that of piercing a small hole through the front door, a little above the latch, wide enough to allow a string to pass through it. This string then was tied to the latch lever from inside, passed through this hole and left dangling on the outside, so that when the string is pulled from outside, it would lift the latch and therefore open the door. This method was still very much in use with most dwellings in Gozo until the early1960s and was very practical since it enabled one to enter the house without having to use the key or needing those inside to interrupt any chores to open the door.
 
The facade (il-faċċata): On the facade of the farmhouse and close to the door jamb (koxxa tal-bieb), one would usually find a jutting-out stone slab with a hole through it forming a stone ring (marbat). This ring was used to tie up a horse, mule or a donkey; the most common form of transport at the time.
 
The cart-room (ir-remissa) - On stepping through the main door one would find oneself in the cart-room (remissa). This room was similar to a hall which leads into the courtyard. Besides the cart, here the farmers kept other agricultural tools. On one side of the cart-room there usually was a stone slab (sing. xriek; pl. xorok) held on two short stone pillars to form a bench (bank – pronounced "bunk") on which the animal's halter (kappestru) or similar equipment were kept. Hooks (grampuni) were fixed on the walls around the room for farmers to hang tools and equipment on them while a number of sacks (xkejjer) would be found lying around.
 
The courtyard (il-bitha): In all traditional farmhouses, the cart-room (remissa) led straight into the courtyard, which was the central and most important part of the building. It was usually quite spacious and would always include a well with a stone well-head (il-ħerża tal-bir) and next to it a stone water-trough (ħawt tal-ġebel). In the courtyard, one would find an exterior staircase (taraġ miftuh jew minn barra). This was always supported against one of the side rooms, embedded in that wall (ingaljat fil-ħajt) while other doors led to various rooms, mostly animal pens (pl. imwieqel sing. maqjel).
 
The cattle-pen, stable & cow-shed (il-maqjel u l-istalla): The rooms in a farmhouse where animals were kept, the cattle-pens, stables or cow-sheds, were all generally called 'il-maqjel' though strictly speaking 'maqjel' is more used for the cattle or as a pig-sty. For the other farm animals such as a horse, donkey, cow or ox, the word (stalla) meaning a stable or cow-shed was used. In each 'maqjel' one would find some type of manger (maxtura). This manger was a low stone wall dividing part of the stable from the rest, so that the fodder would not be trod upon and wasted.
 
The fold (il-mandra): In the animal enclosure (il-mandra) was usually part of the courtyard of the farmhouse itself werein the hens, rabbits, a lamb or a kid (a young goat) were left to roam. The hens very often would leave their enclosure as the farmhouse door was usually left open during the day, and would end up grazing along the front passage or in nearby fields. Because of their foul smell, pigs were more usually kept outside the farmhouse.
 
The upper room in a farmhouse (l-għorfa): The exterior stairs (taraġ minn barra) in the courtyard of a farmhouse lead up to the roof of the ground floor rooms. This part of the roof leading to the upper room (għorfa), always had a parapet wall (opramorta) built around it and was called the terrace (is-setaħ). From the terrace one entered the upper room. The members of the family usually slept either in an upper room, when there was more than one room, or in some other room downstairs, next to the pens. The upper room was used as a sort of drawing room and there the family would keep its best possessions. For this reason, this room was always locked and it was used only on special occasions: during family feasts, when giving birth, or when a member of the family was sick. When later a farmer started to have a house in the village besides his farmhouse, the upper room or rooms (għorfa jew għorof) started to be used as dry-rooms for fodder.
 
The ceiling (is-saqaf): Most of the rooms of a farmhouse (razzett) were roofed by using stone slabs measuring one 'cane' or 2.096 meters long (xriek tal-qasba) which then were laid onto the walls across the width of the room and rested on corbels (kileb). However, this very early method of architecture restricted the width of the room. Another method of roofing was that of using arches (ħnejjiet) and then on top of them, ordinary stone slabs approximately three and a half spans (xbar, pl. of xiber) long were laid resting from one arch (ħnejja) to the next. Although permitting a wider room, this method still had its restrictions as it was more difficult to build. For this reason, one would not usually find more than one room with arches in a farmhouse, and this would usually be the upper room (il-għorfa). Because this early architectural method of roofing, restricted the width of the rooms, one understands why the stairs were always built on the outside. Yet, this type of early architecture of building exterior stairs, continued even when large timber beams were later introduced.
 
The roof (il-bejt): The roof was always made out of stone slabs resting on corbels or on stone arches, and later on, on timber beams (travi ta' l-injam). The stone slabs were then covered by about four inches of soft stone chippings (xaħx) mixed with fine material and lime (ġir). On top of it all, they used to lay a final surface of ground-pottery(deffun) mixed with a little cement. This type of surfacing also served to make the roof water-proof, and was made to slope down towards the stone water spouts (imwieżeb pl. of miżieb) which were fixed jutting out from the roof. These water spouts (imwieżeb) took the rainwater off the roof and were fixed in a way so as to direct the water towards the well in the yard. The roof of the upper room (l-għorfa) never had a parapet wall (opramorta) built around it.
 
Cantilevered slabs (knaten ħergin il-barra mill-ħajt): On one of the side walls of the upper room (l-għorfa) from the outside and overlooking the terrace (is-setaħ), one would often notice a number of stone slabs jutting out of the wall (knaten ħerġin il-barra), rising at an angle. These slabs served as primitive steps to reach the roof of this upper room. For lack of space inside, these steps would be built on the exterior.
 
A type of verandah (loġġa): A very common feature in most traditionally built farmhouses was found on the front of the upper storey room (għorfa) or rooms (għorof) and overlooking the internal courtyard. This was an enclosed terrace or verandah. In this sheltered place, many things were left out to dry: bundles of fresh garlic or onions, which were hung against the walls, homemade cheeselets (ġbejniet) placed and left to dry on square flat reed frames (qanniċ), jars (vażetti) filled with tomatoes and preserved in kitchen-salt were put on high shelves and left to ripen to be used during the winter months when nobody, in those days, could grow them out of season, pickled onions (basal tal-pikles), olives in brine (żebbuġ fis-salmura), and others. A pleasant sight was that of huge pumpkins (qargħa aħmar) lined all around the roof of the upper room (l-għorfa) and on all other walls around the farmhouse in order to expose them to the sunshine until they ripen.
 
Prickly pear trees (siġar tal-bajtar tax-xewk): Farmhouses used to be surrounded by prickly pear trees (bajtar tax-xewk) from all sides since they served both as a very good and solid fence against intruders and also as a good shelter to the farmhouses during strong winds which prevail in Malta. Along the hot summer months, they offered some shade from the scourging sun to farm animals. Moreover, these trees produced a lot of delicious fruit and their over-abundant, succulent, large leaves could also be fed to animals such as goats, sheep, horses, donkeys, rabbits, and others. The farmer needed only to cut these thorny, succulent leaves early in the morning when their thorns are soft after the morning dew and slice them into small pieces to be fed to the animals. The fact that these trees needed no attention at all, not even water in summer, was very important at a time when Malta depended solely on underground wells and reservoirs.
 
The carob tree (Il-ħarruba): Next to every farmhouse one was sure to find at least one carob tree as this enormous tree was very important to shelter the farmhouse during the winter storms and to provide shade during the summer heat. Like the prickly pear, the carob tree is an evergreen perennial tree, requiring no care at all, not even a drop of water in summer and offers abundant large carob pods which are edible to both humans and animals. A sweet, delicious carob extract (ġulepp tal-ħarrub) was also made out of these carob pods. In addition, the carob tree was a very good provider of firewood for the stone stove (kenur).
 
It is a great pity that today the number of such farmhouses has dwindled. Decades ago, probably at the time when the village parish church was being erected, farmers had already started to build their village houses. These new houses were architecturally very similar to the farmhouses and while most rooms on the ground floor functioned as pens, those on the first storey were only used by members of the family. Many of these early village houses which once surrounded the parish churches forming narrow, winding crooked streets and lanes, have today disappeared, some to make way for wider roads and others to permit the creation of new village squares. Others were upgraded or reconstructed. However, the mortal blow came with World War II when Malta's infrastructure was transformed overnight due to urgent defense action. After the war, the restructuring process played havoc with the Maltese farming community. Many farmers emigrated to Australia and Canada whilst others found alternative work with the armed services or in the construction business.
 
In 1964 Malta gained its Independence and the island witnessed what was called 'a building boom'. Since then this boom continued building up momentum, causing the demolition of many 'outdated' homes that were considered too primitive for modern living.
 
copyright 2011-12 Edwin P. Borg