During the early middle ages, living on an isolated farm could be very dangerous, especially before the arrival of the Order of the Knights of Saint John in 1530. Since at the time, the Maltese islands were threatened frequently by pirate raids, the earliest complexes of Maltese farmhouses were built towards the central part of the islands. The ones built near the sea coast were usually to be found in areas which were not easily accessible, for example in cliff areas.
The Maltese farmhouse (‘razzett’) were generally either found in the open countryside encircled by patches of fields enclosed with dry stone walls and surrounded by carob trees and prickly pears, or else clustered with other such dwellings outside village cores.
Some researchers maintain that the architecture used to build the traditional Maltese farmhouse was originally influenced by the Arabs, yet others think that these dwellings, whose focal point was the courtyard, could have been influenced by the Romans or the Sicilians.
A typical farmhouse consisted of a two-storey building. The rooms on the ground floor were generally used to keep domestic animals or cattle, the most common of these being a donkey or mule, cows, poultry, sheep or goats. The rooms on the upper floor (‘l-għorfa’) were used by the family, and could usually be accessed through an external staircase which led up to the roof from the ground. These usually had a high ceiling made out of long ceiling slabs (‘xorok’) supported either by wooden beams or stone arches. The arched entrance door was usually wide enough to allow a cart to pass through. This generally led either to a central courtyard or to the ground floor rooms. One or two semi-circular stones generally projected from the facade wall near the door; these had a hole or two in them and were used for tethering animals. Many farmhouses kept watchdogs near their main entrance for security purposes. Due to the importance of safety, it was normal for farmhouse facades not to include windows. All external openings were small and all the rooms had openings giving onto the internal courtyard for light and air. Sometimes ground floor rooms had small rectangular openings giving to the outside, which could be easily closed by means of inserting a piece of stone. The walls were thick and usually consisted of an outer and inner stone facing (‘tad-dobblu’). One of the main objectives of the double-walls was to isolate indoor temperatures from those outdoors.
Climate was in fact a main factor which one had to take into account when building such a dwelling. Malta’s local climate consists of hot humid days in summer and cold rainy days in winter. The courtyard was so central to the farmhouse because it not only provided light for the rooms, but also plenty of air circulation throughout the entire building. On the other hand, during winter, the courtyard let in the sun whose warmth could fill the chilly rooms. The farmhouse was built in such a way to enjoy most hours of sunlight during the day, especially when one considers that at the time there was no electric lighting. At that time, glass was never used for windows, thus these used to be closed with just a wooden casement.
The roof of the farmhouse was flat, like that of all other Maltese dwellings. This served as a catchment area for rainwater, which was typically collected in a cistern dug out of rock below the courtyard. Some farmhouses included a dovecote with squarish apertures on one of the courtyard’s walls, where doves could build their nests. Others even featured a stone dial.
Today, farmers no longer need to live close to their fields and in fact prefer to live together with their families in houses which can offer them the use of all modern comforts in a city, rather than in a farmhouse. Through the years, many traditional farmhouses were gradually neglected and left to deteriorate, others were turned into more modern farm buildings, while others were completely demolished to make way for new development. Those which survived, have been converted and transformed into comfortable modernised dwellings where people generally go for the holidays or to relax. Most of them even have a swimming pool and can hardly are hardly recognisable from their original form.