As most of you already know, Malta is an archipelago of seven islands in the Mediterranean Sea roughly 50 miles south of Sicily. It is really a pair of two large islands, and five smaller ones with a unique and exceptionally old fireworks tradition. Each year from August 8th until August 15th Catholic feasts are celebrated there, culminating in one main event: the Assumption of Mary. The celebration of this feast comes with a myriad of of specialized fireworks: “Irdieden” (Malta’s version of the Catherine wheel), beraq shells, and wonderful pyromusicals accompanied by a rainbow of colored shells. More often than not, the biggest caliber shells used during these festivals are 10” cylinders (1.8 meters high!) and 19” ball shells—plenty big to light up the entire sky.
Each Maltese town is separated into two different clubs: blue ones and red ones. Each club has its own fireworks factory for production, and interestingly enough, they not only create the fireworks they use, but also create everything necessary for their production and presentation: From “Black match” (a type of crude fuse) to Kraft-paper (sometimes called paperboard and produced from chemical pulp), to stars and flash powder, etc.
Passion is perhaps the most profound ingredient the Maltese build into every one of their vivid fireworks shells. That same degree of passion also goes into their displays as well. Perhaps nowhere else in the world will you find shells made like the cylindrical miracles created in Malta: quality and perfection are the indelible ingredients, and the knowledge to create them has been passed down for generations. The precise timing of the multi-break shells created in Malta’s fireworks factories is mindboggling, and the pattern shells they produce are absolutely incredible. When you visit Malta and see their fireworks displays for the very first time you can easily understand why so many people refer to Malta as the “fireworks capital of the world.”
Four typical Maltese fireworks
The Irdieden, also known as a Maltese wheel or St. Catherine’s wheel, is basically this: wheels of various sizes containing lances and fountains. The lances produce the colors in the wheels, and the fountains are used to create individualized patterns. The most fascinating of the irdieden are the gear-created movements that provide a 3-D effect and make them all the more amazing to watch. The wheels themselves are built from wood, and that includes each gear and mechanism that creates the interesting variety of wheel movements. Pyrotechnic motors provide all of the force necessary for rapid rotation.
During the August feasts, it seems like irdieden are posted almost everywhere. In Mqabba and Qrendi several small ones are generally ignited, then bigger and more complex irdieden are ignited in Qrendi on August 15th (their most special day). In Haz-Zebbug, the factories fill an entire road with Catherine wheels—small wheels to exceptionally large wheels, complete with amazingly complex gear work. This year a new record was set and we were there to witness the event: A Maltese wheel
set the new “longest duration” record for a Catherine wheel—over 15 minutes! That is amazing considering that the wheel was only lit once and everything after that was all connected using only black match.
The final wheel we got to see on August 15th was a great one! It showed just how versatile and creative master pyrotechnicians can be using only a few wooden gears, several wheels and some colorful fireworks. This wheel was set off digitally and contained red fountains, lances, mines and even some very loud firecrackers! Look at the following video and you’ll see it almost appears as if a flower is continually opening and closing:
Another thing to love about Malta, is when their irdieden perform perfectly, the people who designed and built it stage a small party around them in celebration!
Beraq shells and colored display shells
The term beraq is used to describe small explosive “inserts” that detonate all together or in timed sequences in aerial shells. They can be a single shell, a multiple shell or can even be timed to break separately. The “break” propels projectiles outward in a pattern (similar to the way a chrysanthemum shell propels stars). Some shells even contain multiple “inserts” that are specifically timed to create complex patterns or rings. These shells are fired during both daytime and nighttime. They are all about timing, and the delays inside the inserts are handmade—NOT electrical. The most common beraq shells consist of three different breaks and a bottom shot. Each of the three breaks consists of multiple ring inserts. As amazing as it sounds, sometimes they place six (or more!) consecutive rings inside just one single-break beraq shell!
Beraq shells shot at nighttime are spectacular because of their vivid colors. At the heart of the beraq shell, rings of colored stars are added. The colors are exceptionally bright and saturated and generally expand into beautiful patterns. For example: a red triangle may expand outward from within a green disk. Not all colored shells contain beraq, however, pattern shells, as an example, do not. The possibilities are endless, though! We’ve seen hearts change color three times in the air, and stars, and sharks, and spirals! We’ve even seen a hunting eagle as the pattern! Our personal favorite: the spiral ghost shells (which you can see at the end of this short video:
Pyromusicals on Malta
As we mentioned before, on the 13th and 14th of August Malta puts its amazing pyromusicals on display. Pyromusicals are obviously shot almost everywhere else in the world, so what makes Malta’s so special? The answer is, without a doubt, the Maltese single shots. These phenomenal single shots are completely handmade by master pyrotechnicians right here on the islands (and the recipes are handed down for generations), and they change color using color-changing stars up to four times.
On the 13th one pyromusical was lit from the rooftop of one of the clubhouses where a “red band club” was situated in Mqabba. This marvelous display contained 3000 single shots that ignited in less than four minutes! This enormous number of single shots use abbreviations as descriptors, like: ESI (01:33 minute) or VSM, which stands for viva Santa Marija (01:43 minute). There is also a Celtic cross (04:20 minute) and a sort of helix (04:26 minute) that can also be seen
On the 14th of August there was an equally enormous display of single shot shells and beraq shells. The theme this year was “The Fountain of Light,” and they created this makeshift fountain using a circle of 18 well-positioned single shots all mounted at precise angles in the center of a large shooting area. This created a wonderful 3D fountain effect that was made entirely from single shots supported by numerous beraq shells and big ball shells. You can see this colorful feat halfway through the following video:
Overall, the fireworks expertise on display in Malta is mind-blowing. If you want to see world-class beraq shells perfectly timed with deeply saturated colors—all part of perfectly choreographed pyromusicals—then Malta should be your next vacation location.
A special thank you to Josef, the current director of the St. Mary fireworks factory and current president of the Malta Fireworks Association. He was gracious enough to give us an informative tour of both the shooting areas and the St. Mary’s fireworks factory.