One of Malta’s unique Arabic windows, the Muxrabija, will get a deserved restoration

There are only 36 of them on the island, and they are also known as ‘in-nemmiesa’ or ‘il-glusija’ from the French word for jealousy

The farmhouse outside Marsaskala near St Thomas Bay
The farmhouse outside Marsaskala near St Thomas Bay

A heritage group has requested the green light to restore a unique ‘muxrabija’ window – a Mediterranean feature dating back to Arabic times – on an old farmhouse on the road from Zejtun to St Thomas Bay.

The heritage NGO Wirt iz-Zejtun will restore the muxrabija architectural feature, which is found atop the main door.

The farmhouse was originally located near the old church of St Thomas, which was demolished in the 19th century, and is now in a very bad state of disrepair.

“Although the farmhouse is not in Zejtun, we could not turn a blind eye to numerous requests to help save this building from further deterioration,” Wirt iz-Zejtun president Ruben Abela told MaltaToday.

Examples of muxrabija windows. Source: https://oldhousesmalta.com
Examples of muxrabija windows. Source: https://oldhousesmalta.com

The farmhouse is one of 36 buildings which include a muxrabija and granted Grade 2 protection by the Planning Authority in 2016.

“But unfortunately this unique part of our vernacular heritage may soon be extinct due to the small number of surviving examples, which also suffer from deterioration,” Abela told MaltaToday.

The muxrabija generally consists of a wooden frame protruding out beyond a small window which was completely covered, leaving peepholes in the front, sides and bottom of the box. They were developed around the Middle East and North Africa, mainly to cool the building interior by allowing the breeze to circulate through the trellis-work.

The muxrabija served as a “safe window to the outside world for women” whose socialisation in the outside world was somewhat limited, according to folklorist Dr Carol Jaccarini in an article penned in 2002.

The muxrabija would be positioned on the first floor of the facade overlooking the main door and the viewing peepholes vary from holes in the front, sides and bottom of the box structure, to louvre-like slits. This allowed the person on the inside to observe outside, and yet not being visible to the people on the street. 

The muxrabiji found in the Maltese Islands carry distinct characteristics, as due to the lack of trees in Malta, the older ones are constructed in local limestone instead of wood.

The muxrabija is also known as ‘in-nemmiesa’, ‘ix-xerriefa’ and in Gozo ‘il-kixxiefa’ or ‘lkixxijìja’ and ‘il-glusija’ (probably derived from the French jalousie meaning envy).

In Maltese architecture, the earliest version of the muxrabija, dates back to the late Middle Ages (1300-1400) but the tradition could date back to Malta’s Islamic past which lasted till the middle of the thirteenth century.

“It is not known whether the muxrabija was directly introduced by north African Arabs or indirectly from Spain and Sicily,” wrote Jaccarini.

But according to other scholars it is more likely that the muxrabija reached Malta, through commercial contacts with Egypt, “centuries after the Arabs had been expelled and Malta returned to the western cultural milieu,” according to heritage publication Vigilo editor Joe Azzopardi.

This would be a strong indication that Malta’s cultural contacts with the Arab world continued well after the Arab period.

Muxrabiji are most commonly found in the villages whose inhabitants lived away from the safety of Mdina and fortified cities around the harbour area, providing extra security. This is evident in the geographic distribution of the surviving specimen.

The muxrabijiet were “symptomatic of a closed, insular society” according to Azzopardi, who notes that it was during the British period that the muxrabija acquired the connotations of “eavesdropping that are still attached to it”.

Other muxrabiji are found in Tal-Karmnu Street, Victoria Gozo, in Sqaq il-Qajjied, Siggiewi Triq Santu Rokku Street in Birkirkara, in Ta’ Ghammar in Gozo, in Triq il-Knisja in Gharb and in Triq Doni in Rabat.

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