Updated 10.10am

A development application for an apartment block close to Gozo’s Ġgantija Temples has set alarm bells ringing for its possible impact on the world’s oldest free-standing building.  

The proposal awaiting recommendation is for the demolition of an existing dwelling at Ggantija Heights in Xagħra to construct 20 garages at basement level and 31 overlying apartments.

Wirt Ghawdex intends to object to the development within the stipulated time, March 5, saying that although it is within a development zone, it is very close to the Unesco World Heritage Site and Grade 1 monument and should, therefore, be treated differently.  

190 metres separate the planning application from the historic temples.190 metres separate the planning application from the historic temples.

“The location falls within the area of archaeological influence submitted as the Ggantija Temples site buffer zone to Unesco,” a spokesperson said.

“It must be kept in mind that any adverse effects caused to the buffer zone of one of our megalithic temple sites will reflect on the value of all the others in Malta as these are inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List as one.”

Environmental NGO Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar has said it is also objecting to the plan, which it warned “not only destroys the characteristic Gozitan vernacular architecture of this house but also destroys the heritage value of this Urban Conservation Area streetscape.” 

Activist's bid to stop the project

The proposed block, which lies just beyond the temples’ buffer zone, less than 200 metres away, would be visible from the site, according to photographer and activist Daniel Cilia, whose passion and fight for the preservation of the country’s built and natural environment has spurred him to highlight the development. 

He has written to alert Environment and National Heritage Ministers Aaron Farrugia and Jose Herrera, as well as the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage and the Xaghra Mayor, in the hope that they can “stop” the project.

An aerial shot marking the proposed apartment block in relation to the Unesco World Heritage Site.An aerial shot marking the proposed apartment block in relation to the Unesco World Heritage Site.

“It is amazing that such an application is even accepted by the Planning Authority in the first place, considering the height of the building and the excavation needed to accommodate the car park under the huge apartment block,” Cilia pointed out in his open letter.

In it, he has also alerted a number of historians, academics, architects, archaeologists and heritage and environmental NGOs to the proposed development and is awaiting feedback.

It is amazing that such an application is even accepted by the Planning Authority in the first place- Daniel Cilia

Meanwhile, Cilia, who has himself published numerous books on the country’s built and natural heritage, referred to recent geophysical surveys from a FRAGSUS project – Fragility and Sustainability in Restricted Island Contexts.

These showed “a large number of anomalies” that could also include other megaliths in the olive grove to the north of the temple, close to the development plot, where an exploratory trench had also been opened.

The Neolithic temples, dating back to the period between 3600 BC and 3200 BC, have been considered Heritage Malta’s most visited archaeological site. 

The proposed development’s visual impact on the temples, its size and design in relation to its context, should also be considered.

'We are wiping out history'

It comes amid an “attack on all fronts” as Gozo is being ruined by major developments that are driving residents to take a stand against them, Cilia said, adding that Xagħra is probabaly the rural village that has been most “besieged” by new buildings.

The dwelling destined to be demolished was an example of vernacular architecture, and Wirt Ghawdex said it often objected to developments that proposed the destruction of these buildings in the belief that they should be protected as testimony of the period they were constructed in.  

“We are sadly wiping out a considerable number of such buildings and erasing history in the process,” the heritage NGO said.

Asked about concerns surrounding the vicinity of the project to the temples, Xaghra mayor Christian Zammit said the issue would be tackled in the local council’s upcoming meeting. 

A digital render of the proposed apartment block.A digital render of the proposed apartment block.

“It is a fact that there is a construction boom in all areas of Xagħra,” he lamented. This was evidenced also by the high number of tower cranes, noticeable from miles away if looking at the locality from any angle. 

“It is also a fact that the local council, despite its lack of resources and funds, is battling a number of these applications, namely a proposed B&B in its main square, an eight-storey structure in the eastern part, known as the Nazzarenu area, and an apartment block almost next to a windmill in Gnien Xibla Street,” Dr Zammit continued.

Planning policies for Gozo needed to change, he warned. “What makes it pretty needs to be preserved. If our streetscapes and skylines get ruined, there will be no going back.”

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us