The Ottoman Turkish cemetery a plea for its conservation

Detail of entrance pavilion – the signs of the severely eroded and damaged ornamental stonework is clearly evident.
Detail of entrance pavilion – the signs of the severely eroded and damaged ornamental stonework is clearly evident.

Article by Perit Dr Conrad Thake

The Ottoman Turkish cemetery in Marsa was in the news recently. Some members of the local Muslim community lamented not only about the physical deterioration of the cemetery which is quite considerable but also about the perceived lack of commitment to expedite the restoration and conservation process of such a fine architectural monument. This unique Muslim cemetery complex dating to the last quarter of the nineteenth century certainly deserves far greater recognition and protection than it has received to date.

It was commissioned in 1873, by Sultan Abdűlaziz I or Abd Al-Aziz (1830-1876), the 32nd Sultan of the Ottoman Turkish Empire,  who reigned between 25 June 1861 and 30 May 1876. He had commissioned the eminent Maltese architect Emmanuele Luigi Galizia (1830-1907) to design and built a new Muslim cemetery to replace an earlier one which stood along the old Via del Croce, limits of Spencer Hill, Marsa and needed to be relocated due to road works. Fresh from his earlier successes in designing the Ta’ Braxia and the Addolorata cemeteries, Galizia produced a superb interpretation of an exotic Oriental architecture, the first of its kind in Malta. For his efforts in completing the Muslim cemetery, Galizia was bestowed by the Ottoman Sultan with the Order of Medjidie (fourth class), which was a prestigious military and knightly order of the Ottoman Empire.

The contemporary writer and artist, T.M.P. Duggan has referred to Galizia’s cemetery as “the Ottoman Taj Mahal.” He describes it as “the least known and certainly today the most important surviving nineteenth century Ottoman building to have been built beyond the borders of the Ottoman Sultanate, in the new Ottoman Islamic style. This building is an architectural statement of great beauty, and also of boldness and authority.”(1)

Sadly, the cemetery complex has suffered extensively over the years. It is situated in low-lying terrain which is prone to severe flooding during the rainy winter months. Its location amidst major traffic thorough-fares and the smog-laden environment have contributed in no small measure to the rapid deterioration of the delicately carved ornamental stonework. The natural elements have also left their mark, there has been the occassional direct hit by lightning targetting the pointed pinnacles of the bulbous dome and less-dramatic overgrowths of vegetation and weeds which have also had an adverse effect on the physical condition of the cemetery. The overgrown trees with their dense foliage have in many instances obscured the variegated skyline which can only now be appreciated from vintage photographs and postcards.

Certainly, a professional restoration and management plan needs to be prepared and completed as expidiently as possible. Emergency remedial works are required for those parts of the cemetery which are in a precarious state, in particular the upper level of the entrance pavilion where the decorative stonework is in a pitiful state. Extensive areas of stonework along the boundary walls also need to be attended to urgently. The type and species of trees needs to be carefully assessed and reconsidered as in some parts this is causing serious damage to the building besides detracting from a full visual appreciation of the original skyline of the cemetery. This wonderful example of Orientalist-style architecture can only be partially appreciated by risking body and limb when crossing the busy road infront of it. However, one can propose that it is possible that the road in front be re-configured and designed so as to permit the creation of a viewing espalanade in front of the main facade where one can in all tranquility appreciate the exterior view.

Galizia’s Ottoman Turkish cemetery deserves greater local recognition. Guided tours of the monument should be organised on a regular basis in order to cultivate greater public artistic awareness of a Muslim cemetery which is not part of the Maltese cultural mainstream. It can also be promoted as an architectural cultural product to those visiting the island. However, this is only feasible if there is a serious and concerted restoration programme which goes beyond the specific physical attributes of the cemetery and its building structures, but also addresses aspects referred to earlier which lie beyond the confines of the cemetery itself. The approach to the cemetery does not entice the visitor to stop and appreciate this monumental complex. To successfully implement a sustainable future for the Ottoman Turkish cemetery, all the stakeholders that is, the Turkish embassy to Malta, the Malta Transport Authority and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority have to coordinate a holistic plan and strategy that addresses all the issues raised. One hopes that this plea for its conservation does not fall on deaf ears. 


(1) T.M.P. Duggan, “The Ottoman Taj Mahal” in The Turkish Daily News, 24 January 2002, cited in Giovanni Bonello, Histories of Malta – Ventures and Adventures, Volume 6, Malta, 2005, 232-233. I am indebted to Judge Giovanni Bonello for bringing this description to my attention.