The Azure window, known as Tieqa tad-Dwerja on Gozo Island, collapsed into the sea during a storm in March 2017. The limestone structure was world-famous and had featured in films, and TV shows, such as Game of Thrones. What lessons can be learnt about coastal heritage – should they be preserved, or should they be allowed to decay?
The Azure window was a limestone arch found on the island of Gozo in the Matlease archipelago which is located in the central Mediterranean Sea - it consists of three inhabited islands: Malta, Gozo, and Comino. Much of the cultural heritage of the island of Gozo is a reflection of fascinating geomorphological processes.
The hole that formed the ‘window’, this limestone arch, was carved in the cliff over a period of about 500 years as a result of erosion from the sea and rain. Over the last 30 years this process has sped up as a result of strong storms which caused heavy erosion at the base of the arch, causing it to widen. A large slab of the window disappeared from the left side of the formation in April 2012, which the window collapsing fully into the sea in March, 2017.
How are cracks, caves, arches, stacks, and stumps formed? Take a look at Time for Geography’s helpful tutorial (YouTube) 2016
This iconic structure was a well-visited tourist attraction, visited frequently, and until recently tourists were able to walk along the window. It was reported in 2013 that geologists thought the Azure Window was likely to survive for decades, but more recently concerns about the arch had begun to grow. In 2016, the government prohibited people form walking across the arch, making it an offence punishable by a fine of £1,233. However, it is suggested this was not enforced properly, with visitors still walking along the arch days before it finally collapsed. As seen here, some visitors even jumped from the arch, causing further erosion.
In March 2017 heavy storms caused the pillar, and subsequently the arch, to collapse into the sea, the final push after many years of erosion – including those from sea swells (under and over ground).
Malta's Azure Window collapsed into the sea (YouTube) 2017
Malta’s famous Gozo Azure Window arch collapses into the sea (The Telegraph) 2017
Malta's Azure Window collapses into the sea (BBC) 2017
'It's heartbreaking': Maltese mourn collapse of Azure Window arch (The Guardian): 2017
After the Azure Window: Malta's many natural wonders (CNN) 2017
Malta’s famous Azure Window rock formation collapses (The Metro) 2017
Azure Window © Flickr
The Azure Window was distinct geomorphological feature that was culturally significant for Malta as a nation, in terms of tourism, but also through media representations for which the Azure Window provided a backdrop and unique setting. For example, the window had recently featured in Game of Thrones (YouTube) 2017
There was much controversy surrounding the decision to either ‘allow’ nature (coastal geomorphic processes) to take its toll and see the Azure Window to collapse, or whether the government could intervene and protective engineering measures be set up to protect the coastal feature from environmental change. This would have been particularly difficult, given that rising sea levels are likely to put more spectacular features at risk of erosion, and changes in coastal geomorphology is likely to be more rapid as the climate warms and storms intensity.
Human geographer Professor Caitlin DeSilvey, at the University of Exeter, has suggested that it is perhaps time to stop viewing heritage as a loss as a failure, but instead as part of a necessary, even natural process of change. Decay, argues DeSilvey, could be managed through policy, particularly in context of such changing global climate. This is often difficult as decay and disintegration, whilst potentially ecologically productive, is intimately linked to people’s experience and feelings around places.
Five UK coastal wonders to see before they go the way of Malta (The Conversation) 2017
Get in the sea – should we allow coastal heritage sites to fall to ruin? (The Guardian) 2017
Heritage sites cannot be preserved and should be allowed to decay (The Telegraph) 2017
DeSilvey, C. (2017) Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. Minnesota Press
Geographer Caitlin DeSilvey: Exploring the cultural significance of material change (YouTube) 2014
Gozo, Malta © Flickr
So what happens next for the Azure Window? It has been reported that visitors are leaving one star and negative reviews on Trip Advisor which has promoted the Maltese tourist industry to reassure visitors that there is still much to see on the island in order to maintain and promote the tourism industry which, In 2017, the direct contribution to GDP in Malta was 1,278.5mn (euros). Further to this, the loss of arch has become an underwater opportunity. The collapsed arch now sits at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, and is attracting tourists’ divers inspecting the arch’s new life in the sea. Drivers are reported to have said: “the big white rocks with fresh cracks and brittle structure look really impressive (…) the whole structure is quite complicated with the canyons and narrow passages”.
The Azure Window area as it looks now © Flickr
Travel and Tourism Economic Impact 2017 – Malta
Azure window receiving one star reviews for collapsed Azure window (The Telegraph) 2017
Collapsed Azure Window is the hottest new dive spot in the sea (The Telegraph) 2017
Sometimes called an island group or island chain, is a chain, cluster or collection of islands, or sometimes a sea containing a small number of scattered island.
This occurs when waves force their way into cracks in the cliff face. The water contains sand and other materials that grind away at the rock until the cracks become a cave.
Objects, materials and rituals of historical value
Geological heritage – comparable to other forms of natural heritage, and often view in terms of cultural heritage too.
A stack or sea stack is a geological landform consisting of a steep and often vertical column or columns of rock in the sea near a coast, formed by wave erosion.
If permission allows, show students the photos of the Azure Window as featured in Game of Thrones. Ask them to note what special features they can see in the landscape. For example, noticing the geomorphological features, the colour of the rocks and other coastal features. Do pupils know where this is? Now show them a picture of the Azure Window and explain that in March 2017 the arch disappeared and the lesson today will explore why and answer the question ‘should we save coastal features that are eroding anyway?’
What is a sea arch? Students should research how sea arches are formed, and annotate their findings with the locational knowledge of Malta and the particular environmental factors at play.
Place the following statement: ‘The Azure Window could not, and should not have been, saved’ on the board. Students should debate this, taking into account the environmental, social, cultural and economic heritage of the window for the island of Gozo.
Coratza et al (2016) Bridging Natural and Cultural Values of Sites with Outstanding Scenery: Evidence from Gozo, Maltese Islands, Geoheritage, 8 (1) 91-103
Landscape systems: A Level overview (2015)
Can GIS help to converse fossils on the Jurassic Coast? (2010)
Ask the Expert: Coastal Erosion (2013)
Podcast: shoreline change and sea-level rise in Ghana (2017)
Valuing Place: The RSA Heritage Index (2016)
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