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FILFLA: a disappearing islet of hope in Malta

VALLETTA, Oct. 27 (Xinhua) -- Filfla is a tiny island situated 5km off the southern coast of Malta. It has a circumference of 800 metres, its cliffs are 60 metres high and it has a plateau surface of 2.5 hectares. Its name is said to originate from the Arab word 'felfel', a type of pepper which has a similar shape to that of the island.

Although this minuscule island might seem to be an insignificant, barren rock within the Maltese archipelago, it actually has a very rich and storied history.

Some of its history has been researched by John Joseph Borg, the principal curator of Malta's National Museum of Natural History. Borg discovered a document dating from 1575 in which pastor Mons. Pietro Dusina visited Malta.

"In this document, I read that a parish priest was asking the Church to remove the beneficiary service from the small chapel which stood on Filfla since he was going through too many difficulties to reach it when the sea was rough," explained Borg.

The chapel is believed to have been built in the 14th century as a thanksgiving to God by a person who had been saved from a tempest after he sought refuge on the island. From then on, fishermen who were fishing nearby Filfla would attend mass in this chapel when a parish priest was present.

"The plea to deconsecrate Filfla's chapel was accepted and the triptych painting that used to adorn this site was removed and placed within the sacristy of the Zurrieq parish. Eventually, this chapel was completely destroyed when an earthquake hit the area in 1856," said Borg.

Meanwhile, this island was also popular for its valuable natural water resource and pirates used the area as a hiding spot from which to attack approaching ships. In the 18th century, this situation became so troubling that the Knights of St. John decided to get rid of the water source by exploding it with gun powder but they did not succeed.

In fact, it took 200 years of regular explosions to completely eradicate the blue clay layer of Filfla and to drain out this water source. It was only fully destroyed when the island was used as a military target practice zone during British rule for its resemblance to an aircraft carrier.

Bombardments on this island stopped in the 1970s but the unexploded bombs rendered it highly dangerous. An attempt to detonate some of these bombs was attempted in the 1980s but this only resulted in wreaking greater havoc on the island's environment.

Filfla wasn't always uninhabitable, however. The island often served to save people who were in distress. During the plague of 1813, a Maltese family left the main island and sought sanctuary on Filfla. They managed to survive, thanks to a relative who provided them with regular supplies until the plague was over.

Interestingly, the island saved the life of its enemy, when during World War II, a German pilot who was shot down by the Maltese artillery while he was attacking the Maltese islands, managed to swim to its shores and was later taken aboard a ship.

In 1988, Filfla was established as a natural reserve and no one was allowed to land on it except for those who obtained a research permit.

Now, left to deal with its own fate, the little island has succeeded in turning itself once again into a sanctuary for a number of species which live on it including lizards, snails and various seabirds.

"We keep a regular watch on the island in order to examine the bird population. It is exhilarating to see life surviving in such a place which has gone through very rough times," said Borg. "Yet the sea and the natural elements keep consuming this island little by little and, one day, Filfla will only exist on historical maps."

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