Dr Joseph Callus (1505-61) has in recent years become an important symbol of Maltese national identity. As such much research is being done in Malta to try to uncover more information about his life. One matter which has attracted particular attention has been the alleged discovery of his estate, which was confiscated by the Order of St John after he was convicted of treason in 1561.
The property in question is called is-Simblija near Ta’Baldu, Dingli, a few miles towards the coast, south of Rabat, Mdina. It consists of a medieval rural settlement, which includes a number of rock cut rooms, one of which is claimed to be the Santa Marija ta’Callus chapel. There is also an artesian well, communal oven and nearby, the remains of a donkey-driven flour mill. The settlement is surrounded by fields and orchards. A 360 degree panoramic image of the site can be accessed at Malta in 360° including detailed information about the buildings in the complex.
In 2006, the Malta Environment & Planning Authority (MEPA) made a preservation order on the complex, making it a grade 2 national monument, following an EU funded restoration project. However when visitors such as local walking groups tried to gain access to the site, they were blocked by the owners who insisted that as the site remains private property, they are under no obligation to open it up to visitors. This resulted in angry letters being published in the media and even questions in parliament!
However, as it happens, not everyone is convinced this is the correct site! If you think about it, Dr Callus was a man of great status and wealth who had an active public life in the citadel of Mdina. The property at is-Simblija is a rustic, semi-troglodyte dwelling miles from the town. It does not seem the sort of place one would have expected him to live in, although one explanation could be that he acquired lands which were leased out to tenant farmers.
In a piece published in the ‘Times of Malta’ in June 2012, Noel Ciantar claims that the is-Simblija complex is a complete misattribution and that the chapel at is-Simblija is no such thing, just a farm room, a claim backed up Professor Fiorini’s research in 2002. According to public deeds Joseph Callus owned a viridarium (orchard or garden) which contained a chapel at Wied ir-Rum on the outskirts of Rabat. It was originally known as Giardino ta’ Callus but became Wied Ferin in later records, which Ciantar claims suggests an attempt to obliterate Joseph’s name from history. (Although there are now several streets in local villages and towns named after Callus, e.g. in Rabat and Zurrieq). Ciantar cites a number of sources up to 1772 identifying Ta’ Callus about 1/2 km to the west of is-Simblija in a valley adjacent to Il Qattara. He also claims that while there once was a chapel at this site, it was deconsecrated hundreds of years ago and fell derelict. No sign of it remains today and even the correct site of the garden has yet to be pinpointed correctly. We shall have to wait and see what transpires.
Full text of Rendering Justice to Guzeppi Callus by N. Ciantar at Times of Malta.
Folio image of 19th century drawing of Wied Ferin orchard.