Architectural historian Conrad Thake has just launched a book that throws further light on The Ottoman Muslim Cemetery, in Marsa. Keith Micallef spoke with the author during a visit to the burial place.

Widely considered as the finest example of Orientalist-style structures on the island, it is only recently that the Ottoman Muslim Cemetery, in Marsa started being appreciated as a unique architectural gem.

Conrad Thake, author of the book The Ottoman Muslim Cemetery in Marsa.Conrad Thake, author of the book The Ottoman Muslim Cemetery in Marsa.

Designed by architect Emmanuel Luigi Galizia, it was entirely financed by the Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz and opened in 1874. For many years, its state left much to be desired but, fortunately, the Turkish government stepped in to give it back its former glory through a three-year project that started in October last year.

Yet, this effort could be undermined by a proposed fuel station adjacent to the burial place.

The origins of this complex date back to the second part of the 19th century when a small cemetery in Strada Croce, Marsa, had to make way for the widening of the road network towards the capital.

Remains of this cemetery were unearthed in 2012 during excavation works for a tunnel linking December 13 Road to the sea passenger terminal. Some of the original tombstones, however, are still standing as they had been transported to the new cemetery soon after its inauguration.

Upon entering the complex, one cannot fail to notice that some of the Mecca-facing graves have connections with places like Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Somalia and Turkey but also the distant lands of Burma, India, Indonesia and French Polynesia. It transpires that Muslims buried here were mostly members of the military corps and navy personnel or prisoners who died while detained in Malta.

The official contractual agreement for the transfer of land to the Ottoman Empire had been signed on June 11, 1873. Located in an area known as Ta’ Sammat, the site has a footprint double the size of the previous cemetery and measures 113 by 226 feet.

The Mecca-facing tombstones.The Mecca-facing tombstones.

Upon his accession to the throne  in 1861, Sultan Abdülaziz sought to cultivate good relations with the Second French Empire and the British.

“It was during this tour that Sultan Abdülaziz appeared to have briefly visited Malta, on June 26-27, 1867 to pay tribute to the Ottomans who had died in the Great Siege of Malta. However, the exact programme of his visit remains unclear,” Prof. Thake said.

One of the decorative pencil minarets, which are made of solid limestone.One of the decorative pencil minarets, which are made of solid limestone.

In his opinion, the project was an ideal opportunity to establish a tangible physical presence of the “neo-Ottoman culture” on an island whose inhabitants historically associated this empire with the vanquished invaders of 1565.

Construction on the cemetery started in earnest in March 1873, just a month after the formal transfer of land and the project was completed a year later. A key of the complex was given to Lorenzo Farrugia, in his capacity as Tunisian consul in Malta, which was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time.

The rusting Muslim crescent on top of the cemetery’s entrance is set to be replaced by a new one.The rusting Muslim crescent on top of the cemetery’s entrance is set to be replaced by a new one.

The cemetery’s plan was based on a well-articulated geometrical design in which the two main physical structures are placed along the central axis at the front and back. Access to the cemetery is through a grand horseshoe-arched doorway flanked by columns and surrounded by multiple decorative stone carvings.

At each corner of the rectangular enclosure of the cemetery is an imposing solid minaret-like tower. The highly stenographic frontage of the cemetery works its way to a climax at the central entrance, where the crowning bulbous dome looms over four decorative pinnacles.

Unfortunately, overgrown trees and adjacent buildings have diminished the structure’s dramatic impact with the surroundings and detract from the clear articulation of architectural forms as originally expressed.

The monument at the back commemorates the prisoners of war who died in Malta during WWI.The monument at the back commemorates the prisoners of war who died in Malta during WWI.

Inside, a central passageway leads to the funerary lodge at the back with two identical rooms on each side. The one to the east was the preparatory room for burial according to the Muslim rite and to the west there was a prayer room.

Though very little documentation was found on who actually was involved in its construction, the author believes there is no reason to argue that foreign builders were involved because local craftsmanship in stone was of the highest level.

The cemetery was restored between March 1919 and October 1920. Part of the project included the erection of a monument commemorating all prisoners of war who had died in Malta during WWI.

An old tombstone that was previously at the cemetery near Strada Croce, Marsa, which had to make way for a new road around 1873.An old tombstone that was previously at the cemetery near Strada Croce, Marsa, which had to make way for a new road around 1873.

“The restoration was undertaken after the 1918 Armistice of Moudros at a time when several Turkish nationalists, including five MPs, were exiled to Malta by the British. For some time, the place was also used for Friday prayers as there was no mosque on the island,” Prof. Thake pointed out.

It was still in use until 2007, when a bigger facility was opened on a parcel of land in Corradino next to the modern mosque and Islamic centre.

The first phase (the front entrance) of the restoration project financed by the Turkish government is almost completed. The second and third stages will be carried out next year and it is envisaged that the restoration will be completed by not later than June 2018.

Architect John Attard is in charge of the restoration works, which are being carried out in close cooperation with the Turkish Embassy and the Planning Authority.

Galizia’s chosen style

The choice of architect Emanuele Luigi Galizia must have been a natural one given the success of his earlier Addolorata Cemetery and Ta’ Braxia complex. Even more relevant may have been the fact that his brother, Joseph, was, at the time, consul in Constantinople.

For most of his career, he was employed by the Public Works Department and, in 1859, he was appointed chief architect. Between 1880 and 1888 he also served as superintendent of public works.

Throughout his career, Galizia never succumbed to the local pressures of adopting the popular baroque style and he always preferred the neo-gothic or neoclassical style. His works are testament to his loyalty to the British crown.

The construction of the new Muslim cemetery proved to be a daunting job for Galizia as there was no local historical precedent of Muslim architecture to follow. Furthermore, its close proximity to the Addolorata Cemetery meant it had to reflect its own distinctive style.

By resorting to Orientalism, Galizia could create a mystical and fantastical setting that brought together a wide range of architectural forms, such as horseshoe and ogee arches, bulbous onion domes and decorative pencil minarets.

In recognition of Galizia’s efforts, the Ottoman sultan had bestowed on him the Order of the Mecidiye.

Orientalist-style architecture in Malta never quite established itself as it was perceived as a hybrid and alien style exclusively associated with British affluent classes. The definitive end of this short-lived style was marked by the construction of a trio of summer houses in Rudolph Street that Galizia had built for himself in Sliema.

Fuel station application

The Planning Authority is looking into an application for the construction of a fuel station and carwash facility instead of a disused factory located next to the Muslim cemetery. Spanning over a footprint of 3,300 square metres, the application was submitted a few months ago by Cassar Fuel Service Station Ltd.

Apart from the Turkish Embassy, several NGOs have formally objected to this proposal on both aesthetic and conservation grounds.


Thake, Conrad. The Ottoman Muslim Cemetery in Malta, 2016

Prof. Thake will be conducting guided tours of the cemetery on November 19 at 10am and 11am. Entrance is free but registration by e-mail on is recommended as only groups of up to 40 visitors can be admitted at a time. Signed copies of the book will be available for purchase after the tour.

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