Gżira and Manoel Island
Gżira, situated between Msida and Sliema in the central region of Malta, is filled with popular shops and venues, and has currently a population of approximately 8,000 citizens, which doubled since the Second World War. This town’s motto ‘Recte Floreat’, that is, ‘Flowering with Justice’, is particular to the history and name of ‘il- Gżira’, which means ‘the island’ in Maltese.
The history of this town revolves around the small leaf-shaped island in Marsamxett Harbour known as Manoel Island. Originally known as ‘L’Isola del Vescovo’, that is, ‘the Bishop’s Island’, the isolation, and yet at the same time, the close location of what is now Manoel Island to the mainland provided Grand Master Lascaris with a perfect site for a plague quarantine hospital when there were outbreaks of this sickness in 1592 and 1623. Lazzarett Hospital was built in 1643, and contains records of every epidemic since 1654, the last one of which occurred in 1936. The island offered full quarantine facilities to several Mediterranean countries, and this produced substantial revenues to the Maltese treasury.
The island was renamed after António Manoel de Vilhena, a Portuguese Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta. Fort Manoel, built by this same Grandmaster, was built in 1726 to help defend Valletta across the waters. It is a well-designed fort with four corner-bastions and a protruding ravelin. It was also self-sufficient, with its own water and gunpowder supplies, and supported a garrison of 500 soldiers. This fort contains two chapels dedicated to Saint Joseph and Saint Anthony. A short bridge from Manoel Island leads straight into the heart of Gżira.
Gżira’s parish church, that of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, known as Tal-Karmnu, was built in 1921. Alternatively, this church is also known as ‘tal-Ġebla’, meaning ‘of the Stone’, and named so after a local legend which tells the tale of three drunken sailors who threw a stone at a pub which contained the small shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Although the stone hit and broke the glass of the frame, it never made contact with the painting itself, leading to the legend that this painting is blessed. Today this shrine is held within the parish church itself. The festa of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is held on the second Sunday of July.
During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the town of Gżira’s name was a disreputable one in certain social circles, since many associated it with a particular quarter where a number of brothels and houses of dubious nature held sway. Today, the tables have turned, and Gżira has developed into an economical and business centre where hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, real estate companies, betting companies, legal firms and offices abound. Many of the seafront houses have been converted into modern apartments and homes sought after by both locals and foreigners.
Gżira is also very popular today as it is situated in the central area of activity within the island, being close to both the University of Malta and the capital city of Valletta, as well as the social hub which is Sliema, and Paceville, well-known for its touristic and entertainment venues.