Zejtun is one of the largest and oldest towns in the south of Malta, and one of significant importance and considerable charm. The town’s origins go back to Roman times although remains of even more ancient antiquity are found very close to the town in the important (but closed off until further notice) archaeological site at Tas-Silg which includes the traces of an early Phoenician sanctuary.
Zejtun takes its name from the Arab word for olive oil ‘zejt’ and the town was once an important olive oil processing centre. Evidence of this is an olive pressing structure found in the remains of a Roman villa in the grounds of the town’s school. Zejtun was once made up of a number of hamlets but had grown large enough by the Middle Ages to merit becoming one of Malta’s first ten parishes by 1436.
Contrary to most Maltese towns where an older parish church was demolished to make way for a new one, Zejtun proudly retains its old church of Saint Catherine – more popularly referred to as Saint Gregory. This church, now at the edge of town, is an atmospheric and important one as it features Malta’s first crude attempt at dome building as well as Gothic arches and a later Baroque doorway – a strange mix but one which strangely works very well. The church is the starting point for a pilgrimage held on the first Wednesday after Easter – after which pilgrims traditionally make their way to Marsaxlokk for a first swim of the season.
When it came to building a new parish church, Zejtun spared no punches. The present day church of Saint Catherine dominates the town in all senses. It is one of the largest parish churches in the island – often referred to as the cathedral of the south. The church was built between 1692 and 1720 and its construction was entrusted to Lorenzo Gafa – arguably the most important architect Malta has ever produced. The church has lavish decoration and a good sample of works by local artist Francesco Zahra (1710-1773). Zahra was Malta’s most important native painter of the mid-18th century and his style wonderfully captured the spirit of the late Baroque. The church is the venue for two important yearlyl events. The annual feast of Saint Catherine is held on the third Sunday in June, whereas Good Friday sees a large pageant with statues from Christ’s passion taking place in the streets around the church. A small parish museum is located next to the church.
Wandering through some of Zejtun’s older quarters is a pleasure. Just north of the parish church there is a wealth of such streets dotted with chapels, corner niches and humble old dwellings rubbing shoulders with more impressive palaces and other houses belonging to the town’s better heeled citizens. Look out for such streets as Triq il-Kbira, St Lucian and St Angelo Streets, St Catherine Street - which contains Grand Master Perellos’ private summer residence, and the curiously named Habel ix-Xghir which opens off 13th December Square behind the church.