Fireworks threat to Gozo’s legendary San Dimitri chapel

Warnings have arisen that a fireworks factory, proposed in Gharb poses a 'real threat to the integrity' of Gozo's historic chapel, San Dimitri

San Dimitri Chapel, Gozo
San Dimitri Chapel, Gozo

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage has warned that a fireworks factory proposed in Gharb poses “a real threat to the integrity” of the historic San Dimitri chapel, which is located less than 300 metres away from the site.

The application has already been cleared by an ad hoc committee that assesses the technical aspects for new fireworks factories before they get Planning Authority approval.

The report from the committee, which is chaired by police inspector Sandro Camilleri, fails to refer to any dangers posed to the historic chapel.

The Superintendence warned that the proposed development will also negatively impact the landscape, as it will be visible from various parts of Gozo including the Gordan lighthouse and its surroundings in Ghasri.

The St Demetrius chapel is an early 15th century chapel that was rebuilt in 1736 just outside Gharb, close to the cliffs of Ras San Mitri (the Cape of St Demetrius).

In its objections, the Superintendence called for a Risk Assessment Report to clearly assess the risk to this chapel. 

The Superintendence also called for adequate mitigation measure guarantees to protect and safeguard this chapel in case of an accident if the permit is approved.

NGO Wirt Ghawdex also called for the refusal of the application, noting that it raises strong concerns with regard to its negative impact on the surrounding environment, in particular its proximity to the historic chapel.

A policy regulating fireworks factories approved in 2015 allows the development of fireworks factories on agricultural land as long as this is registered as being “dry”, something which has already been confirmed by the Agriculture and Rural Payments Agency.

Fireworks enthusiasts who talked to MaltaToday insisted that the need for fireworks factories is strongly felt in Gozo because presently the island has to rely on fireworks imported from Malta. When the new policy was approved in 2014, there were 35 licensed fireworks factories in Malta but only one in Gozo.

But the PA has already approved two fireworks factories in Gharb, with two more factories being proposed in the village. Two other fireworks factories are being proposed outside development zones in Kercem and Qala.

Another factory in the vicinity of the chapel was approved in 2007. On that occasion the applicants were asked to insure the nearby chapel against the eventuality of damage caused by a possible explosion. This led then planning ombudsman Joe Falzon to question the permit by asking: “If there is no danger to the Chapel of San Dimitri, why insist on an insurance policy? If, on the other hand, there is a danger, no amount of insurance money can replace a historical monument.”

Falzon had criticised the case officer for saying that no studies on the impact of a potential explosion were required, simply because the chapel had incurred no damage in an explosion in August 2005.

“How did he know that this was the most massive explosion possible? Is it not possible that a repeat of the accident can take place, but of more massive proportions which will cause damage to the chapel and other archaeological remains in the vicinity?”

A repeat of the incident did take place in September 2010. The explosion shattered some of the chapel’s windowpanes but the building did not suffer any structural damage.

The San Dimitri legend

According to Gozitan folklore, a woman called Zgugina went to pray to San Dimitri in the same chapel to get her son back after he was abducted by pirates. She made a vow to keep an oil lamp (musbieh) lit day and night until her son’s return. Answering her prayers, San Dimitri leapt from the portrait on his white horse and rode to the pirate ship over water. He fought the pirates and returned her son safely.

Another legend has it that the original San Dimitri chapel was closer to the cliffs. But one day, an earthquake caused the chapel to subside, still intact, into the sea.

Despite being submerged, Zgugina’s oil lamp is said to be still kept alight day and night, and fishermen have occasionally claimed to see the light of this underwater chapel from their boats.

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