The Maltese landscape is defined by a number of indigenous architectural styles and buildings. One of these is the Maltese rubble wall (ħajt tas-sejjieħ), which features prominently throughout the Maltese islands. This kind of structure is a historic staple of Maltese culture, and, although the structure may look simple, it actually takes quite a singular and specific set of skills to construct a durable one.
Wikipedia defines the word ‘rubble’ as “a broken stone of irregular size, shape, and texture”. Rubble masonry, or rubble walling, is generally the use of undressed rough stones to construct a wall, whereby the stones are piled over each other in a non-continuous or linear manner. A specific type of rubble wall construction, called dry-stone walling, constitutes a wall where such stones are used without the use of mortar or any other binding agent. The stones are placed together in such a way as to allow gravity and friction to serve as natural binding. Smaller stones and stone chippings, known as maskan, are used to fill in the space between one layer of big stones and another. This type of rubble wall is the one generally found around the Maltese countryside.
Image source: Ottsworld
The tradition of dry-rubber wall building is a very old one. I myself spied such dry-stone rubble walls during a holiday in the Sicilian countryside, and it’s well-known that they can also be found within certain Arab countries. It is therefore surmised by some that the practice of rubble-wall building in both Malta and Sicily was derived from a time when both islands were under this Arab influence, since the Arabs held sway in both of them during roughly the same historical period. Another theory claims that the need to build such walls originated in our country during prehistoric times.
What is certain is that Maltese rubble walls were and continue to be built for a variety of functions. They not only mark the contour of fields and divide one particular field from another in order to divide crops, but also markedly diminish soil erosion due to wind and rainwater. This is because a rubble wall acts as a sieve, allowing rainwater to flow through, while holding back the soil, and also preventing the crops from retaining excessive water.
Image source: Ottsworld
It’s hard to credit that such beautiful mesmerising structures, which add so much traditional and picturesque lustre to the Maltese landscape, are erected using only two or three simple tools. All that’s needed is a spade, a string to mark the limits of the wall being built, and a small axe or hatchet known as an imterqa, which is basically a double-edged walling hammer with a short handle, a heavy metal head with a flat edge on one side, and a sharpened edge on the other.
Maltese rubble walls provide living quarters for bees, butterflies and lizards, and they also host many species of other flora and fauna, like the wild caper plant.
Rubble walls are an integral and defining part of the Maltese heritage, and they’re considered to be part and parcel of Maltese conservation areas. When considering the time and dedication, as well as the skill needed for them to be built, it’s very important that those visiting the Maltese rural environment pay particular attention to not damaging or disarranging them in any way.
Image source: Majjistral
On a side note, rubble walls are also lately being used as an inspiration for part of the cottage-style external and internal decor in homes and houses. This style mimics mortar colours, and usually blends different coloured and shaped stones to create a rustic or vintage effect. I’ve seen this style used in living rooms, kitchens, gardens and even for the façades of houses, and I must say that I simply love it.