Historic Fort Chambray
Għajnsielem, found on the southern coast of the island of Gozo, is the first village one meets as he leaves Mġarr Harbour towards the capital city of Victoria. The name of the village means ‘Peaceful Spring’, in reference to a number of natural springs in the area which were probably the reason why people settled here in the first place.
Għajnsielem became an official Parish in 1855, with its Patron Saint being Our Lady of Loreto, and the village feast being celebrated each year on the last Sunday of August. It is also interesting to note that the island of Comino falls under the responsibility of the local council of Għajnsielem.
Though Għajnsielem is not large, it contains many popular places of interest, most notably the Prehistoric Temples of ‘Tal-Imrejżeb’, ‘Tal-Qigħan’ Prehistoric Temple, Lourdes Chapel, Mġarr ix-Xini Tower, Saint Cecilia Tower and Chapel, and Fort Chambray amongst others.
Fort Chambray is an old fortress built at the top of a hill called ‘Ras it-Tafal’, or Blue Clay Point, which is situated between Mġarr Harbour and x-Xatt l-Aħmar. It started to be constructed in the year 1722, during the reign of Grand Master Antoine Manuel de Vilhena (1722 – 1736) of the Order of Saint John. Originally, the idea for building the Fort was for it to be a starting point to build a new capital city to replace the Citadel (Ċittadella), however this plan never came to fruition, and in fact the actual completion of the fort was shelved for some time due to lack of funds. It was in 1749 that a Norman Count of the Order of Saint John named Francois Chambray offered to finance the full expense of the construction, which is why the fort was named after him. During that time, the islands were under the governance of the Grand Master Manuel Pinto de Fonseca (1741 – 1773). The Fort was built in order to safeguard the island of Gozo from pirates, and it was finally completed in 1758. It was used to house the Government’s Palace, administration buildings, and a chapel.
In 1798, Fort Chambray saw its first military use, during the French invasion of the Maltese Islands. The knight De Megrigny, who at the time commanded the Fort, offered it as a place of shelter for many Gozitans, who took refuge inside with their livestock and possessions.
Unfortunately, the Fort was later forced to surrender, after which it was manned by a French garrison. Months later, the Gozitans rebelled and re-took possession of the Fort.
Some years later, Fort Chambray was abandoned, but it found a new lease during British rule. In fact, during that time, several soldiers were stationed there and it was mainly used as a military hospital. During the Crimean War, the hospital was expended further, and it also served well during the First World War, when it was used as a Convalescence Depot. Three cemeteries could also be found near the Fort. From 1937 till 1956 Fort Chambray was used as a leprosy unit.
In 1971, the government laid plans to develop this Fort as a hotel for tourists, however later there was a change in administration and the plans were scrapped. Later, in 1990, another attempt was made for a major project within the fort. In the mid-1990s in fact, a Master plan for the re-development of the Fort was approved, and residential units started to be built. The bastions were restored and the urban design was created with the aim of not only exploiting the magnificent seaward and inward country-views, but also of building a layout which would respect the original historical configuration, while also relating to and a promoting the public and social aspect, and respecting an environmental approach.