Look for information about the Maltese Islands and you will invariably be told that Malta is an archipelago comprising five main islands and a host of smaller rocky outcrops. The islet of Filfla is usually found at the tail end of the five, following Malta, Gozo, Comino and Cominotto.
Filfla is a rocky outcrop some seven kilometres to the south-west of Malta and is visible from long stretches of the south-western coastline, especially from Dingli Cliffs. It is linked to the Maghlaq Fault on the main island of Malta and may have been joined to the mainland in the past. Its distinctive plateau shape makes it intriguing, while its distance from the mainland shrouds it in an air of mystery. It is easily visible from two prehistoric temples – Hagar Qim and Mnajdra – and may have influenced Neolithic man’s choice of temple site.
The name Filfla derives from the Arabic filfel which means chilli and is described in some old texts and maps as Piper, Latin for chilli or pepper. The name is mostly probably attributable to its shape given that, with a miniscule two hectares of surface area, it is unlikely to have ever been inhabited or cultivated. You’d be hard pressed to see it as chilli-shaped today; but there’s an explanation for that…
The islet used to be slightly larger and more solid than it appears today, but was pounded to rubble following years of being used for gunnery target practice by the British Royal Navy during the twentieth century.
In spite of its small size, Filfla is a natural haven and plays host to two endemic species of lizard and snail not found anywhere else on the planet. Amazingly, it also supports one of the largest known colonies (five to eight thousand pairs) of the European Storm Petrel, Hydrobates pelagicus melitensis: quite an achievement for an island the size of two football pitches. For the past couple of decades, it has enjoyed the status of ‘site of scientific importance’ and is strictly off limits to visitors: a fitting culmination following the depredations it has suffered at the hands of man.
According to some sources the island used to contain a chapel built in 1343 which also maintained provisions for fishermen stranded in bad weather. The chapel was allegedly destroyed in an earthquake in 1856 with all traces disappearing in the bombings that ensued.
So, when in the South West of Malta, do stop and have a long look at Filfla. As in many others things in Malta, it is the ultimate proof that size does not matter, and that even the most negligible of rocky outcrops over here has a larger than life role both in terms of its natural and its historical attributes!
Photo: Leslie Vella.