We are following a meandering country path. The way is led by a sea of Lellux (a local yellow flower) and an enthusiastic nine year old named Izzy. The almond trees are in bloom and their thin branches reach over stone walls, the pink and white flowers sport petals delicate as insect wings. Bees buzz in our ears and slow moving beetles stretch their spindly legs in the soft grass. Geckos dart in our periphery. There is a subtle hint of fennel wafting on the breeze. It is midday. The sky is blue and there is literally not a cloud in it.
For the past week myself and a few of my cousins have had an ongoing chat on Whatsapp regarding Ix Xuxana (pronounced Shushana) and the cave dwellings at Għar il-Kbir.
Patrick: Ix-Xuxana was a legendary ‘hermaphrodite’ leader of a sheep rustling gang operating out of a series of caves near Siggiewi. The Brits forcibly removed all the cave dwellers and relocated them to Rabat, because you couldn’t have troglodytes in a British colony. They had to do it several times and ended up bombing the cave system to make sure they didn’t go back to it.
Paula (from Australia): Are you bullshitting?
Patrick: Not as far as I know. As I remember Veronica (his sister, our cousin) telling it (she had researched it at some point) there was a dramatic scene with crying women and children being held back at bayonet point. Of course this could have been Veronica dramitising for effect. If so she did it well :). I remember Veronica telling me all this years ago and it made a big impression.
Paula: Sordid. My god! Hermaphrodites and troglodytes…sheeprustling gangs. Troglodyte is not a nice word.
We are in search of these caves today.
We drove here, navigating narrow, winding, inscrutable country lanes whose delineation seemed as random and as indefinable as the wind. We were attempting to find our way using google maps but on these roads it is notoriously unreliable.
We passed a deep quarry from where the large Maltese brick known locally as kantun is cut out of the ground.
We find ourselves on the road edging the Dingli cliffs. These cliffs are dramatically high and fall straight into the Mediterranean. The cliffs continue underwater and mark the edge of the Pantolera rift, some of the deepest water in the Mediterannean. Though little is known of the breeding habits of Great White sharks, it is thought that they might give birth in these waters. The second largest great white ever caught was hooked nearby but there has never been an incident of a shark attack in recorded Maltese history.
The island of Filfla squats in the distance.
Patrick is four years older than I am. He is an extreme marathon runner and recently ran a gruelling course around Malta and Gozo to raise money for migrant education. It took 36 non-stop hours and he did it at the peak of summer when temperatures here average in the mid 30’s. He is a natural problem solver with a questing intellect and a capacity to reason that I am envious of. There have been many occasions in my life where I have sought his advice and he has been happy to proffer it. None of this applies on the football pitch, where if you are unlucky enough to be playing opposite him (and sometimes even when you are on his side) he will take you down with extreme prejudice, the most savage tackles seemingly reserved for blood relations.
The site of Għar Lkbir is so well disguised in the local topography that without even realizing we are close or even travelling in the right direction, we are suddenly upon it. It’s a deep chasm with a network of caves spreading out 360º from it. We find the closest path down and are immediately in what was clearly a living area. There are shelves cut into the walls and places to secure rope to. Alcoves which were obviously bedrooms are cut into the walls. In one section we find deep holes hewn in the ground which Patrick surmises were probably used to store food. There is a large area which could well have been used for sheep or goats. The headroom is generous throughout except for a few cuts and holes which we climbed through without much difficulty.
Veronica: Yes. Yes. All true about Ix Xuxana.
Me: Ix Xuxana is a lovely name.
Veronica: It’s an expression to this day. If someone is looking unkempt, especially having a bad hair day, you tell them, ‘qisek ix-xuxana.’ (You look like Ix Xuxana.)
Me: Joe (my father) tells me that that the siblings (our aunts and uncles) used to call Marcelle (our aunt) Ix Xuxana.
Paula: I don’t know if that’s mean or cool. Could have been worse I suppose.
Veronica: Poor Marcelle. It’s all down to the hair I’m afraid. Ix Xuxana is the name of the bandit queen herself. The place was Hal Kbir. Literally translated as big village. One of the cluster of hamlets including Huxxluq which then morphed into Siggiewi.
Me: So was she a cave dweller herself?
Veronica: Yes she was. The caves were her headquarters.
Veronica: It seems her name was Marija Schembri and she was arrested for murder in in 1878 and sent to the womens prison, then moved to the male section when her ‘male characteristics’ were discovered. She’s also in the kids O level Maltese novel. She leads a gang of sheep rustlers that attack a farmhouse in the Siggiewi area.
It is a good idea, when exploring, to have child with you. Not that my own appetite for adventure isn’t sufficient, but seeing the enjoyment that Izzy derives from this excursion only amplifies mine. Izzy (Isabella) is Patrick’s nine year old daughter. She has dark hair and a smile that is nearly always present. Her eyes shine and are open wide to the wonder of the world. They seem to light upon each creature we come across. She is not squeamish about picking them up either. Patrick is a near lifelong vegetarian and has instilled in his children a love and respect of the natural world.
Each time we think we have explored all the caves we come upon another section. There are places filled with rubble which must be where the British placed their dynamite. I tell Patrick as we explore, how easy it is to imagine people living here. It does not take any stretch of the imagination, in some places the nooks appear even cozy.
‘Christ. I could sleep here,’ I tell him.
‘That can easily be arranged,’ he replies.
Izzy attacks the caves like an expert. She is firecely independent and unafraid to lead the way, climbing first through some of the narrow holes we encounter. At times Patrick has to dissuade her from tackling the more precipitous ledges.
As we leave the site and drive home I ask Patrick why this place is so unknown. (This was the first time either of us had visited the site.) There were no signs to it. There is no plaque there. It appears on no maps.
Patrick says that perhaps there is a discomfort associated with the fact that until so recently there were Maltese people living in caves. He tells me about a place he visited recently in Italy in the Pulia region called Matera. A fascinating, elaborate system of caves in which people were living as recently as 50 years ago. It was known as La Vergogna Italia(the shame of Italy).
I ask him why he thinks this is and he says in his eloquent, considered manner,
‘It is the normal situation of people who were recently poor to think this way.’
He also points out that Malta possesses some truly remarkable historical sites. The temples of Mnajdra, Ġgantija and Ħaġar Qim. The hypogeum. These are structures that predate the pyramids, so perhaps there is a reticence to acknowldege such relatively fresh history.
I am intrigued by the story of Ix Xuxana. I like to imagine them as a rebel figure, with wild hair, wielding a musket or rifle and sticking it to the colonizing Brits.
Patrick and I discuss the word hemaphrodite. Like troglodyte is seems wildly dated, but most of the scant information I’ve been able to find on the caves and Ix Xoxana seems to have been written in the 1800’s when these terms would have been in use.
I spend the rest of the day in a stew of my own excitement. Amazed that on such a small island there are still places like these caves that I haven’t yet visited.
I send my cousins pictures of our excurison.
Antonia (Patrick’s wife): Oh my! Amazing. I’ve never been.
Veronica: Hey hey you did it! Looks fantastic.
And then Mike, Paula’s husband all the way down under pipes in,
‘The intrepid three. Love it!’
He’s right. Today we are.
Later, I am beside the bombed out remains of the old opera house in Valletta. It was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in WW2 and has never been rebuilt but its tall pillars remain and I drink with friends in their shadow. Old friends. Friends with whom I share history.
But history is such a strange and fickle thing, when startling facts like those my cousins and I have pieced together this week go largely unrecognized.
I raise a glass with my friends, my smile is wide, my face not broad enough to accommodate it. I drink to their health and they to mine, and then I raise my glass again, for Ix Xuxana and the lost cave dwellers of Għar il-Kbir.