History conveys that the Maltese Islands were always in need of grain supply to feed their population. As recounted by Jean Quintin d’Autun in 1536, in his “Insulae Melitae descriptio”:
“Malta is very fortunate for this one reason, namely that Sicily, very fertile in all kinds of grain, lies nearby and is for the inhabitants as good as a granary, where otherwise they would die of hunger”. 2
Although some cereals were grown in Malta and Gozo, this was not enough to cater for all the population and as far back as 1398, Malta imported grain from Sicily. It was imperative for Malta to have an abundant storage of grain to suffice in the event of a siege.
This imported grain was stored in underground chambers known also as fossae which were used to store and protect the grain from insects, rodents and mould. This method was also used in the Middle East and Central Mediterranean regions. The fossae consist of the neck of the aperture, the cylindrical chamber and a dry pit.
Since before the arrival of the Knights of the Order of St John to Malta, the Universita’ was in charge of purchasing corn for the Maltese consumption and this was carried out by an entity known as the Massa Frumentaria. This body continued its role till 1818, when it was shut down by Governor Sir Thomas Maitland.
The largest number of these fossae is found at the location known as Il-Fosos opposite St Publius Church in Floriana. 76 fossae still exist today in front of the Floriana parish church, however according to a 1908 edition of The Malta Government Gazette, seems there were 191 granaries in this area. The granaries in Floriana along with the Valletta ones were in use up to 1962, after which it was opted for above-ground grain silos.
The granaries were of great importance during periods of turmoil like wars and plagues. During the plague outbreak of 1813, the Valletta and Floriana areas were segregated from the rest of the island due to the widespread of the plague in these two areas. The largest amount of stored grain was centralised in these two cities, thus the rest of the island was isolated from the main grain supply. To avoid any plague contagion by way of the carts transporting grain, a mechanism was installed near the St Anne Bastion granaries which delivered grain directly to the carts coming from other villages, without having the carts entering the cities and thus avoiding direct contact.
During the Second World War, the Floriana granaries were miraculously spared from destruction. On 28th April 1942, the Church of St Publius suffered a direct hit which resulted in extensive damage and many were left dead and wounded. Considering the effect that the huge loss of grain would leave on the population, it is not clear why the enemy preferred to hit the church several times instead of the more strategically important large area of granaries which lay there like an open target.
Nowadays the Fosos at Floriana is one of the most popular open spaces for open-air concerts which included famous celebrities such as Elton John, Joseph Calleja, Rod Stewart etc. This open space is regularly used for political mass meetings, “Isle of MTV” festivals and other important events such as the Holy Mass celebrated by Pope John II during his visit to Malta in 1990 and the celebration of the Holy Mass by Pope Benedict the XVI during his visit to Malta in April 2011.
Author: Melanie Farrugia
1 Dandria, D., ‘Il-Fosos – Underground Grain Storage in the Maltese Islands’, Treasures of Malta, Summer 2010, No. 48, p.47 - 53
2 Vella H. C. R., The Earliest Description of Malta (Lyons 1536) by Jean Quintin d’Autun, Malta, 1980 as quoted in ibid