Deceptively ordinary from the outside, Bir Mula Museum, situated on St Margerita Hill in Bormla (Cospicua), hides a treasure trove of conspiracies, mysteries and historical evidence dating back to prehistoric times.
Mr John Vella, the director, curator and owner of Bir Mula Heritage, welcomed me into the two-storey building he had started to restore twenty years ago. He immediately led me to the now open-roofed cellar – the oldest part of the house – which he’s still exploring.
The cellar sports a well that leads to an underground cistern and a fuklar – an original Arab stone oven. Every corner of Bir Mula offers examples of different strata of society and timelines – so many in fact, that I hardly knew where to begin with asking John about it all. He was nonetheless very willing to share my enthusiasm.
What are the characterising features of the cellar?
We started to unearth the cellar – which was choc-full of debris – in 1996, and we’re still finding new things. The oldest artefacts found in Bir Mula were discovered here; parts of prehistoric tools, red ochre, and even animal bones. From the very old masonry, we think that in its earliest days, the cellar might have been used as a shrine.Later, it was used as storage for forage and grains. The stone oven – originally introduced in Malta by the Arabs in the 1220s – shows influence of the Arab period in Bormla. We also found Punic pottery here. The most curious things in the cellar however are the Punic letters inscribed on the stone arch. The arch was obviously built after Punic times, so it’s a mystery how these got here, since the language was not in use then.
How do you think the Punic letters got on the arch?
During the Middle Ages, and also afterwards, there were rumours that the house was a secret lair and hide-away for the Knights Templar during the 14th century. These were being hounded at the time, and many say they sought refuge here. It’s a known fact that the Knights Templar used the Punic language as a secret code. There are also a number of Templar crosses etched on the walls of the staircase on an upper floor, which point towards this theory. The crosses were found etched under 44 layers of lime wash, and it took us eight years to bring them to light in such a way so as not to damage them.
At street level, the house is very different from the cellar. What was its function?
The roof of the landing is very high. This is because at the time, the owners of the house would come in on their horses and dismount here. This level of the house was primarily used by servants. There was a kitchen and a birthing room which was also used for funerary rites. There are also prominent traces of a family of wine merchants who used to live here, most notably etchings of particular Dutch cargo-ships on the walls, as well as a coat of arms on the roof. Today, the museum – featuring exhibitions not only of artefacts found here, but also those donated by patrons – is situated on the first floor.
If the servants lived on the lower levels, where did the owners of the house live?
The nobles lived upstairs on the second floor. There was a marked gap between the servant class and the noble class. The servants weren’t permitted to go upstairs, only the butler, who could cross over to the Piano Nobile, which was where the rich spent their days and entertained guests. They also had a small private chapel there as part of their living quarters. Unfortunately, except for a holy water font and a few etchings on the stone, there are no other visible remains of the chapel today. The Piano Nobile itself still boasts traces of a green and pink border around its walls. The butler room, found at an intersection between the first and second floors, was the link between the two ‘worlds’, so to speak.
Did the first and second World Wars have any impact on the site?
Fortunately, it wasn’t touched or blemished in any way. However for those interested, there are a number of items which have been donated by patrons and which relate back to the 1920s and 1940s, exhibited in the museum on the first floor as well.
This building is truly a crossroads, a road map, the exemplification of a historical timeline, taking us back throughout the ages. It’s a real gem not to be missed by the voracious historical visitor.
Bir Mula Heritage is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am till noon, or by appointment for private viewings. More information can be found on the official website.