The Jewish Cemetery at Kalkara
The first known Jewish burial grounds in the Maltese islands were probably
the ancient Jewish tombs near Rabat (Malta) dating to Roman times. They
testify to the existence of a flourishing Hellenized Jewish Community on
the island of Malta. But unfortunately nothing else is really known of
The first known documented mention of a Jewish cemetery is in 1372,
when King Fredrick III granted a piece of land at Tabia to the Universitate
Judeorum, the Jewish Community, for use as a cemetery.
It is certain that the site of the medieval Jewish cemetery was correctly
identified at "Ghariexem",
near Mtarfa, and named "Qbur il-Lhud",
the Tombs of the Jews.
A Hebrew Tombstone was found there, which is now at the Museum of Roman
Antiquities at Rabat. A (plausible) free translation is :
"This is the (tomb of)
the lady Rach(el,) spouse of
Yeshu’a the …
… May her soul be bound up in the bundle of life!"
The Kalkara cemetery is the earliest
surviving Jewish burial ground in Malta. Kalkara lies in the south-east
side of the Grand Harbour area. As one leaves the harbour, it is the third
of four promontories, separated by creeks, opposite Valletta.
During the Turkish Ottoman siege of 1565, Kalkara formed part of the
front line of fighting and is believed to have been used afterwards for
the burial of Moslem dead. It remained open ground till well into the 19th
The cemetery entrance is at the bottom of Rinella Street, where
the street turns to run down to the modern church of St. Joseph and its
square beside Kalkara Creek. The place is about 30 feet by 40 feet, bounded
by houses, and at the front by a retaining wall.
Its elevation, some 8 feet above street level, suggests that the lie
of the ground has been altered, probably in subsequent construction. The
present entrance, a narrow wooden door, with steep, narrow steps at right
angles to it, ill-suited in conducting funerals, would be contemporary
with these alterations. The origins are recorded in a Latin inscription
on a tablet over the door:
GENTIS SUAE EXUVIIS
COEMETERIOM HOC AERE PROPRIO
COMPARAVIT ANNO MDCCLXXXIV
Free Translation: "This cemetery was established
in 1784 by the Leghorn fund for ransoming Hebrew slaves, at its own expenses,
for the burial of the dead of its race,"
The original size of this cemetery was larger but encroachment by unscrupulous
neighbours reduced it to the size quoted above. In 1905, Profs. Gotthard
Deutsch visited the cemetery during a short stay on the islands. He was
unable to procure a key to the "rusty iron door", but climbed
on a ladder to an adjoining roof from which he saw a "little place",
about 40 feet by 60 feet (note that today it is 30ft x 40ft - which corresponds
exactly to an adjacent yard/garden of an adjoining dwelling).
The cemetery he saw was "overgrown with weeds, without the slightest
trace of a tombstone or an inscription on the walls surrounding it."
Twenty years later, Cecil Roth obtained the text, to be read over a "bricked-up
doorway" in "the Strada Rinella", Calcara (Vittoriosa),
from Sir Hannibal Scicluna. Neither apparently realised that there was
a cemetery behind.
A copy of the Knights’ of Malta’s contemporary authorization for the
cemetery is also preserved with an accompanying plan in the National Library
The First Day of March 1784
His Highness the Grand Mater, on the
application of Agostino Formosa de Fremeaux, Agent for the Jews’ Fund of
Leghorn, has granted and grants to the aforesaid Agent the site and authority
for construction of a cemetery for burying Jews who die in His Dominion,
on the said shore of Salvatore or English Creek, to conform to the appended
plan, 6 canes [41feet 3inches] in length and 5 canes 5 palms [37 feet 10
inches] in width, and as is marked on the said plan with the letters A:A:B:B;
this being without prejudice to the said Fund’s rights in the larger site
claimed and indicated on the said plan by the letters G.G = G.D.=D:A=A:E
= E:F= should the aforesaid Fund prove the ownership has been acquired
in the past.
Dr. Samuel Caruana,
Advocate Fiscal to the High Court of the Castellania.
The cemetery appears to have been built to the plan shown in Figure
Wall to wall, it measures 40feet 6 inches from the east to west, compared
with the 41feet 3 inches stipulated (with walls) for A : A. The base of
the north wall and its corners are cut in rock and are probably original.
The line of the south wall is that of the street and may have been redrawn
at the time it was laid. This could explain the difference of some 7 feet
between north - south dimensions of the present site (30 feet 6 inches
wall to wall) and B : B (37 feet 10 inches). The incline shown in the plan’s
cross section matches the basic rise of the ground towards the north, and
the original entrance may well have been from the west, through what are
now Nos. 118 and 119 Rinella street. If the pathway shown was laid, it
has since been displaced by graves. Remains in the north-west corner may
be the tahara -house (for laying-out and preparing corpses (for burial)
shown in the design, or a double grave.
The cemetery today contains twelve identifiable graves (see Figure Nos.
3 and 6-16), four possible graves (Nos. 1-2 and 4-5), one loose gravestone
(No. 17) and two stone fragments (Nos. 18-19). Seven gravestones and one
fragment are inscribed, all in Hebrew. The best-preserved row of graves
is Nos. 10-16 (see Plates 3 and ) and its three decipherable inscriptions
are in date - order running northwards. Nos. 7 and 9 in the next row
Details of these graves are:-
Age At Death
between 1820 and1825
To be continued ...
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