Places Of Interest
Malta might be a tiny Island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, but if you think you are going to see everything on your first visit, then you are mistaken. Malta has over 7000 years of history and every place visited has a story behind it.
VALLETTA - CITY OF KNIGHTS
Valletta, the capital was built by Jean de la Valette, French Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, after the epic siege of 1565. It dominates the island’s historic Grand Harbour - one of the finest natural ports in Europe. Within its limited boundaries is reflected some of Malta’s rich heritage of archaeology, history, architecture, art and culture. On the arrival of the Knights in 1530 Valletta was still a rocky hill called Xibberras and Vittoriosa was the centre of all harbour activities.
It was the magnificence of its palaces and other treasures that led Sir Walter Scott to describe Valletta as “The city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”. Valletta, Malta’s capital, is a 16th-century rarity that has changed little over the centuries. It was planned for military purposes and its walls are also bastions and fortifications. Valletta is also packed with churches and palaces. There is no city quite like it in the world. The knights used to the call it ‘the humble city’ and the Maltese call it ‘Il-Belt’.
The foundation stone contained this inscription in Latin: “Fra Jean De La Vallette, Grand Master of the Hospitaller Order of Jerusalem, mindful of the danger of which, a year before, his Knights and the Maltese people were exposed during the siege by the Turks, having consulted the heads of the Order about the construction of a new city and the fortifying of the same by walls, ramparts and towers sufficient to resist or to repel or, at least, to withstand the Turkish enemy, on Thursday the 287 March 1566, after the invocation of the Almighty God, of the Virgin Mary, of Patron St John the Baptist, and of the other Saints, to grant that the work commenced should lead to the prosperity and the happiness of the whole Christian community, and to the advantage of the Order, laid the foundation stone of the city on the hill called Sceberras by the natives, and having granted for its arms a golden lion on a red shield wishes it to be called by his name, Valletta.”
Five years later, the city was complete — planned by an Italian military engineer, Francesco Laparelli, a colleague of Michelangelo; built in the main by his assistant, Maltese architect Gerolamo Cassar; and named for the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John who initiated the plan, Jean Parisot de la Vallette.
If the Knights of St. John, who built the city, had had their way, most of their original buildings— including palaces—would have been all together, campus-style. But military need dictated that they be located strategically, inland or on the shoreline, within the district that each grouping of Knights was responsible for defending. So a visitor in Valletta comes upon them throughout the city.
The cost of the city was enormous, for the Order was determined to create not only an impregnable fortress, but a city of architectural magnificence and a Baroque masterpiece.
The city’s character still reflects the nature of the Knights — an unusual amalgam of an aristocratic disdain that tended to isolate them from any but their own, and a doctrinal Christian humility that kept them dedicated for seven centuries to the welfare of pilgrims and other travellers.
Inside the fortification Valletta is a city of superbly decorated churches and palaces. Malta is a limestone island, and every house, every building, is of golden limestone. Throughout, on buildings grand and humble, enclosed balconies of painted wood proclaim the city’s Renaissance birth.
Among the original buildings are the auberges, convents, or inns in which young Knights lived collegiately and where travellers could find food and shelter. Many of the palaces built by the Knights are now government offices and include the Prime Minister's residence and Parliament.
The Knights’ major hospital, the Sacra Infermeria, is Valletta’s conference centre; the Palace of the Grand Masters is the seat of Parliament and the President’s office. St. John’s Co-Cathedral contains elaborate carvings in stone, the inlaid, multicoloured marble tombstones of the Knights, and Caravaggio’s famous “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist”.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ARCHAEOLOGY
The very important collections covering Maltese archaeology are housed in the Auberge de Provence, Valletta, one of the inns of the Knights of St. John. Collections of prehistoric pottery, sculpture, statuettes, stone implements and personal ornaments recovered from the Maltese megalithic temples and other prehistoric sites are exhibited. Typical examples of tomb furniture of the Punic and Roman periods are also displayed.
The National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta - now under major renovation with UNESCO’s technical and financial assistance - will, when completed, house a comprehensive overview of Malta's past, from the arrival of people in the fifth millennium BC, to the building of Valletta in the 10th century.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
This 18th century palace houses paintings, sculptures, furniture and other exhibits connected with the Order of St. John. Works by Domenico di Michelino, Carpaccio, Perugino, Tintoretto, Reni, Valentin, Mathias Stomer, Preti, Tiepolo, Favray and Vernet are permanently displayed. A section is specifically reserved for works by Maltese artists. Occasional exhibitions, together with concerts and lectures are also held here. In the monetarium a unique collection of coins and medals may be viewed by appointment.
ST. JOHN’S CO-CATHEDRAL & MUSEUM
St. John’s Co-Cathedral, formerly the Conventual Church of the Order of St John, is historically and artistically one of the most important monuments on the island. It was built between 1573 and 1577 to the design of Gerolamo Cassar, chief engineer of the Order. The “Beheading of St. John”, Caravaggio’s masterpiece, hangs in the Oratory. Inside the Cathedral is a hymn of light and colour to the glory of the ‘Monks in Armour’ and their patron Saint Sr John. Scenes from the life of the Saint are depicted by the famous artist Mattia Preti along the whole length of the ceiling. The side chapels serving the various langues into which the Order was divided are of magnificent artistry. In the crypt there are buried the Grand Masters of the Order who died before St. John’s was built. The museum houses a unique collection of Flemish tapestries, silver objects and church vestments.
PALACE OF THE GRAND MASTERS
These last four hundred years this palace has been successively known as the Grand Master’s, the Governor’s, the Governor-General’s and the President’s Palace. The Palace in Valletta is equivalent to any royal or presidential palace in Europe. The Magisterial Palace was completed in 1574. It contains portraits of the Grand Masters of the Order and European monarchs, much interesting furniture, and other works of art. A unique collection of Gobelin tapestries hangs in the Tapestry Chamber and the main hall is decorated with frescoes by Perez d’Aleccio, depicting episodes from the Great Siege. The decoration on the ceiling of the corridors is by Nicolo Nasoni. Many of the State apartments are decorated with friezes depicting episodes from the history of the Order. On view are works by Ribera, Van Loo and Batoni.
Many old prints of Neptune lording it over the Island’s Grand Harbour are still in existence. As the Grand Master was also the head of a religious order, his palace was the meeting place for the Order’s
Supreme Council, where the venerable Superior and thirty six bailiffs of the Grand Cross heard advocates plead their parties’ cases. Keeping with the military aspect of its princely inhabitants the palace looks austere on the outside belying the interior’ magnificence.
For 160 years of British colonisation the Palace was the residence of His Britannic Majesty’s representative. Later in years the succession of retired soldiers only used it as their offices, residing at the other delightful magisterial palace of San Anton, in the garden-village of Attard.
In 1974 Malta became a republic and the Grand Masters’ Palace became the residence of the Maltese President. The President of Malta now receives the credentials of foreign ambassadors accredited to the Island in the same room that the Grand Masters of St John did hundreds of years ago at the Ambassadors’ Room.
The Armoury of the Knights is in two halls in the Palace where arms and armour of various periods and description are displayed. In the armoury one finds a collection of European weapons; and it is surprising that so much has survived the Great Siege.
UPPER BARRAKKA GARDENS
The Upper Barrakka is situated near the Auberge de Castille and Leon, the Prime Minister’s office. This site commands a magnificent view of Grand Harbour, one of the finest harbours in Europe. From its terrace one can enjoy the unique view of Fort Ricasoli, Fort St Angelo, Senglea, Vittoriosa and Kalkara and Marsa Creek.
AUBERGE DE CASTILLE
Auberge de Castille was the official seat of the Knights of the Langue of Castille, Leon and Portugal. The auberges, or inns, of the Order were intended mainly as the residences of Knights who did not have a home of their own in Malta, and for the reception of persons of distinction who, in their travels, found themselves in Malta and in need of hospitality. The Langue of Castille was one of the most powerful of the Order, and its Head was the Grand Chancellor.
A nearby church, dedicated to St James, was the Langue’s church. The Knights of the Langue of Castille, Leon and Portugal were responsible for the defence of part of the fortifications of Valletta, known as the
Bastion of St Barbara. It is situated at the top of the highest point of Valletta and originally looked on a wide open space and on the rolling country beyond, giving it a unique beauty unsurpassed by any other
building in the city.
The original Auberge was built by the renowned Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar in 1574. It was extensively re-modelled and virtually rebuilt by another Maltese architect, Andrea Belli, in 1741. The Auberge has a central courtyard, the rooms on three sides being approached through arched corridors, with the fourth side screening the main apartments in the piano nobile.
The building is the finest work of eighteenth century baroque architecture in Valletta. The facade is rich, yet not over-decorated, and its proportions - and especially its fenestration - are particularly pleasing. Ornamentation is concentrated in the crowning cornice, the window mouldings and surrounds, and above all, in the riot of clustered sculpture of the very rich central focus.
The principal apartments are reached through an external flight of steps from Castille Place and a magnificent staircase which possesses - both in concept and execution - a rare degree of architectural excellence. The building was damaged during the siege of the French forces (1799 - 1800) as well as during the Second World War.
Following the departure of the Knights of St. John, the Auberge de Castille served as the headquarters of the French occupation forces between 1798 and 1800, and as British Army Headquarters after 1800. It became the Office of the Prime Minister in 1972.
Adjacent to Auberge de Castille there is Palazzo Parisio, which has a chequered history. Its outstanding fame is that Napoleon Bonaparte lived in it from 14th to 20thJune 1798 after his occupation of the Islands and before he set out for the conquest of Egypt.
The Manoel Theatre was originally built as a Court Theatre by Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena in 1731. The theatre was officially opened on 19th January 1732 with the performance of Merope by Maffei. In 1812 the name of the theatre was changed from Teatro Pubblico to Teatro Reale; and in 1866 was changed again to Manoel Theatre after the Grand Master who built it.
When the Opera House was built in 1866, Manoel Theatre was serving as a dormitory for beggars and destitute; but when the Opera House was burnt down in 1878 the beggars were turned out and once again grand opera was presented in the Manoel Theatre pending on the restoration of the Opera House.
Through the years it has enchanted all who have visited it including actors and architects, with its old world charm. Plays and opera’s are often held here. It is believed to be the oldest theatres in Europe and it is still in operation.
NATIONAL WAR MUSEUM
This museum is housed within the walls of historic Fort St. Elmo. The permanent exhibition contains an ever-increasing collection of war relics which range from Malta’s historic Gladiator aircraft, baptised “Faith”, the George Cross awarded to the island for bravery by King George VI in World War II, to various weapons, uniforms and service vehicles.
VALLETTA OPERA HOUSE
The Valletta Opera House was a very architecturally impressive building situated metres from the main city gate. During the last world war it was severely damaged and since then pulled down and never rebuilt. A. Samut Tagliaferro wrote in the Sunday Times of Malta in 1965 - “Coming suddenly upon this building for the first time, one experience a shock of surprise. It is obviously British that one might well be in London, or Manchester, or Liverpool, were it not for the whiteness of the stone, which alone tends to dispel the illusion.”
The building was commenced in 1860 and its cost was approximately 60,000. Edward Middleton Barry, the architect, prepared the design in England. The Opera House was officially opened in 1866 with the splendid glittering performance of Bellini’s I Puritani. Seven years later the interior was gutted by a disastrous fire. However, the rebuilding followed the original design and Valletta had for many years a fine, spacious auditorium on the classical model with five tiers of boxes encircling the seating in the stalls.
MEDITERRANEAN CONGRESS CENTRE
This building was originally the hospital or “Sacra Infermeria” of the Order of St. John. It was constructed in 1574 under Grand Master de la Cassiere and achieved fame as one of the foremost hospitals of the period in Europe. Food was served by the Knights themselves on silver plates, specimens of which, together with ceramic pharmacy jars, may be seen at the National Museum of Fine Arts. The restoration and conversion of this edifice into a first class conference centre in 1976 won the “Europa Nostra Award” for Malta. The exhibition Hall, formerly the Great Ward of the hospital, which measures 161 meters long, is believed to be one of the longest halls in Europe. The main conference hall, seating 1,400 people was destroyed by fire in 1987 and has since been rebuilt. The excellent 40 minute audiovisual show, the Malta Experience, covering 5,000 years of Maltese history, is housed in this centre.
The last major structure built by the Knights of Malta in Valletta before their departure from the Island is the Public Library called the ‘Bibliotheca Publica’. The National Library has on show unique historic documents, with various illuminated manuscripts in glass cases. There are also priceless archives of the Order of St John and 60 incunabula, ie books printed before 1500.
It contains also the original records of the Knights of St John (1107-1798) and of the suppressed “Universita” of Malta. The “Universita” which was the constituted civil authority represented by the Jurats’ who were at the head of Municipalities of the islands, is known to have existed in 1283, during the reign of Peter of Aragon. The archives contain over 7,000 manuscripts, volumes and records.
FORT ST. ANGELO
This fort is the oldest of all the forts in Malta and is situated in the town of Birgu (Vittoriosa). Reliable historians state that it was built during the Arab occupation of Malta between 828 and 870. In 1400 the only armament of Fort St Angelo consisted of one cannon, two three-pounders and a few iron mortars.
The Grand Master of the Order I ‘Isle Adam strengthened the fort and in 1533 the Grand Prior of Toulouse added a bastion to it on the side of Kalkara Creek. Fort St Angelo was the residence of the Convent and in 1541 Grand Master D’Homedes built a cavalier, from the top of which the Knights could overlook Marsamxett Harbour. La Valette built a battery almost level with the sea which proved very effective during the Great Siege of 1565. It served also as a state prison for the order and it was here that in 1581, Grand Master de la Cassiere was kept prisoner by the Knights. Knights and Maltese soldiers who fell gloriously during the 1565 Siege and victims of the plague in 1676 were buried in Fort St Angelo. On September 8 each year the Maltese visit this cemetery to pay tribute to those heroes who gave their life in order to save Malta and Christian Europe from being conquered by the Muslims.
FORT ST. ELMO
St Elmo was rebuilt after the Great Siege of 1565 and occupies the whole point of Valletta, commanding the entrance to the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour. The original fort with the same name was erected in 1448 and fortified in 1551. Fort St Elmo was the stronghold during the Turks during the Great Siege of 1565 but was raised to the ground with all its defenders killed.
Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (1601-1622) and Ramon Perellos (1697-1721) assisted in strengthening the Fort and further works were carried out as late as under the British occupation of Malta in 1880.
The National War Museum is housed inside Fort St Elmo.
FORT ST. MICHAEL
Fort St Michael was completely dismantled after the war and was converted into a public garden. This fort played a very important part in the Great Siege of 1565. It was built on the peninsula jutting out into the centre of the Grand Harbour. Fort St Michael was erected during the rule of Grand Master D’Homedes from a design of the Spanish Engineer Pedro Pardo in 1551.
The Fort was named after St Michael because, according to a legend, it was the commemoration of the appearance of St Michael on Mount Gargano on the guns of Fort St Michael were it was mounted.
Fort Ricasoli was built on the extreme point of an angular peninsular to defend the entrance to the Grand Harbour on the South. On this very site the Turks erected a battery which proved very effective during the Great Siege. The small fort was built in January 1629 to prevent the escape of slaves from the Grand Harbour. The present fort was constructed in 1670 at the expense of Fra Giovanni Francesco Ricasoli. Grand Master Nicholas Cottoner provided funds for the maintenance of the Fort. The money was derived from his property consisting of a block of buildings erected on the site originally set aside for the Auberge d’Angleterre in Merchant Street.
The fort was greatly improved and strengthened by Grand Master Raymond Perellos in 1698. The fort was damaged during the heavy bombing of the Island during World War II and has been partially restored.
This huge fort occupies a great part of Manoel Island jutting out from Sliema and dominates the whole of Marsamxett Harbour. It was built in 1726 during the rule of Grand Master Antonio de Vilhena. It has been considered as one of the finest forts in Europe. Intended as an addition to the defences of Valletta, its walls are solidly built and enclose a large square surrounded on a three storey building, large enough to hold a garrison of five hundred soldiers.
Grand Master Vilhena not only paid for its construction but provided funds for its maintenance and for supplies of ammunition. Its chapel, which was dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, the Patron Saint of the Grand Master, was destroyed during the war and it was never rebuilt.
Fort Tigné is the smallest fort on the island. It was built in 1792 on a design of Chevalier Tigné, after whom it was named. Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan paid for the construction of the fort. It was the last work carried out by the Knights of St John. It is situated at the entrance of Marsamxett Harbour at Point Dragut.
OUR LADY OF VICTORY CHURCH - Valletta
When the city of Valletta was inaugurated in 1566 a chapel was built where the foundation stone was laid by Grand Master La Valette. It was dedicated to the Nativity of Our lady. The victory over the Turkish armada occurred on the 7 September 1965, the eve of the birth of the Virgin Mary. Later La Valette dedicated the same chapel to Our Lady of Victory to commemorate the end of the Great Siege. At a Chapter of the Order held in 1566 it was decided that 8 September would be solemnised with great solemnity each year to commemorate the defeat of the Turks.
Grand Master La Valette died on 22 August 1568 and was buried in this church. His remains together with those of Grand Master Pietro del Monte were transferred to the Crypt of St John’s Co-cathedral when work on this magnificent edifice was completed.
ROYAL MALTA UNIVERSITY
The University started as a Jesuit College established in 1592 by Pope Clement VIII with authority to confer degrees in philosophy and theology. The Faculty of medicine originated in a School of Anatomy and Surgery founded in 1674 by Grand Master Nicholas Cottoner. In 1769 Grand Master Emmanuel Pinto de Fonseca - with authorisation from Pope Clement XIV - raised the college to the status of university and authorised the conferring of degrees in the Faculties of Arts, Law and Theology. Another decree - Maxima Utilitas dated January 16, 1771 - gave instruction that the conferring of degrees must be the obligation of the Protector of the University, who was a Knight of the Grand Cross appointed by the Grand Master. The same Pontiff instructed that new graduates were to make Profession of Faith in the presence of the Inquisitor.
During the French occupation of the Island in 1798 the university was suppressed and replaced by a Superior School. Immediately after the beginning of the British occupation the University was reopened and Canon F.S. Caruana was appointed Rector.
It is the oldest university in the Commonwealth outside Britain. It originally stood in the older part of Valletta, but the site became too cramped and it decided to find a new location which would give it the space needed for all its activities and for future expansion. A hilltop site with views of Valletta and Sliema creek was found and the construction commenced in 1963. The new campus has every modern facility including a magnificent library and a number of scientific and technological laboratories. The University of Malta is an autonomous body.
This building in the corner of Merchant and St John Streets was the Civil and Criminal Court of the Knights of St John. Its artistic facade was carved by the Sicilian Maestro Gian. The architects were Francesco Zerafa and Giuseppe Bonnici. It used to have a Chapel but in 1855 it was used for other purposes. The building was the residence of the Castellano or the President of the Court and who was appointed by the Grand Master. Adjacent to it was a prison.
THE SACRED INFIRMARY
This impressive building was erected by the Grand Master de la Cassiere in 1575 and extended during the rule of Grand Master Rafael Cottoner. The hospital consisted of six large wards. During the French occupation of the island the Sacred Infirmary was used as a military hospital and subsequently as a wine store. Under the British rule, it once again was used as a military hospital.
St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral was built with the support of Queen Adelaide, the widow of King William IV. During her visit to Malta after a long illness, she became aware that the Anglican community had no place of worship. She acquired the Auberge of the German langue, had the site cleared and built a neo-classical Cathedral. Its spire is 200 feet high and its organ came from Chester Cathedral in England.
THE GRANARIES - IL-FOSOS
These silos for restoring grain are situated between the Valletta main gate and the Church of St Publius Floriana. The large stone caps protruding above ground surface cover a complex and bell-shaped underground stage space and each cover is cemented and rendered airtight. Grain and wheat can last for years in these granaries, and they can hold thirty to forty quarters of grain. These granaries were used mainly during emergency situation and they proved very useful during World War II.
THE THREE CITIES
Across the Grand Harbour, to the south of Valletta, are the historic fortified towns of Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea, commonly referred to as the three cities of Cottonera. The collective name is of comparatively recent origin. It was thought that Napoleon, in the best Gallic fashion, divided Malta into administrative Departments. When the Knights came to Malta in 1530 they chose Vittoriosa - or Birgu as it is more commonly known by the Maltese - as their headquarters. They preferred it instead of inland Mdina because it commanded sheltered anchorage for their ships.
The Knights built seven auberges, which were completed before the great Siege of 1565, but only four survived during World War II. Being in the dockyard area, the city, along with neighbouring Senglea (l-Isla) and Cospicua (Bormla) were under constant air attack from the enemy planes and a large section of it was completely destroyed.
Named after Grand Master de La Sengle, Senglea was nearly completely rebuilt after the heavy bombing during World War II.
Situated at the Old Naval Bakery of the British Naval Headquarters at Fort St. Angelo, the Museum relates Malta’s maritime history from early times to the present day. Exhibits include 2 ceremonial barges of the Grand Masters Wignacourt and De Vilhena, several models of sailing ships and galleys of the Order of the Knights of St. John, and a number of authentic guns and cannons.
The Folk Museum is housed in the Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa, formerly the seat of the Inquisitions in Malta. A section of the building contains interesting specimens of tolls, objects of devotion, etc. of a bygone age. Of special interest, (also located at the Palace) are the judgement hall, the private apartments, and the dungeons.
Mosta Dome is justly famous and was designed by the Architect Grognet de Vassee - a Maltese architect famous for his Atlantean of the Maltese Islands. The cost of this splendid building was paid by the peasant farmers and the pitkali - the farmers’ middlemen - of Mosta. All the villagers gave their labour over a period of thirty years.
The structure commenced in 1832, the new walls erected around the original church which was then demolished and brought out stone by stone, through the doorways of the magnificent new edifice. The work was not completed until 1863. The magnificent dome - the third largest in the world - was constructed without scaffolding. It seems incredible that Angelo Gatt, the gifted Maltese master-mason who directed the building operation could neither read nor write.
In the sacristy there is an unexploded Italian bomb, which penetrated the dome during World War 2 and reached the crypt. It just perforated the dome while the church was filled with Maltese attending Mass. The people of Malta attribute the survival of their beloved bomb and the people of Mosta to the intervention of Our Lady.
THE HYPOGEUM - Paola
This ancient underground monument was discovered in 1902 when some houses were being built on the site. It was dug 11 metres below street level to serve mainly as a sanctuary. The Hypogeum consists of a system of caves, passages and cubicles cut into the stone, similar to the interiors of megalithic temples. Parts of the burial and temple chambers of the Hypogeum are believed to date back to 2400 B.C. and no part of it is thought to be more recent than 1800 B.C. A large number of human bones, together with fragments of pottery and valuable ornaments, where discovered in the cave. The objects found can be seen at the Valletta Museum.
MEGALITHIC TEMPLES - Tarxien
The remains of numerous temples erected in the Fourth and Third Millennium B.C. are unique in the world. There are three temples in all forming a rough cloverleaf pattern, with massive walls, strange carvings and sacrificial altars. Stone idols, animal representations carved in relief, stone tablets, altars and screens decorated with spirals and other patterns, fire places, ornamental niches and oracular chambers enhance the attraction of these magnificent sanctuaries.
GHAR DALAM (Cave of Darkness) - Birzebbuga
This cave is a depository of semi-fossilised remains and extinct species such as dwarf elephants, hippopotami and deer. These animals are not found in Malta now but they roamed the island some 250,000 years ago, ostensibly when it was still part of the Africa land mass. For generations, a grotto not far from the small town known today as Birzebbugia, was used by shepherds as a sheepfold. Little did they think that a few feet of earth under their animals’ litters hid the very ancient history of their island. And then, one day in 1865, Arthur Issel, an English scientist, came to the archipelago looking for fossils.
Apart from confirming certain geological knowledge, the grotto of Ghar Dalam provided the very oldest evidence of man’s presence on the island. The rock of the Maltese Islands consists of alluvial deposits from the tertiary era about fifty million years ago. As they hardened, these deposits imprisoned a vast number of shells, as can be seen from walking along the sea shore, particularly below the cornice at Sliema. A million years ago, at the beginning of the ice age, a gigantic erosion caused by torrential rains channelled the ground and began to form the relief. Scientists claim that at this epoch - the Pleistocene - the Maltese Islands were joined to Sicily and Africa and that the separation from Africa took place first. It is worth noting that, whereas the sea between the archipelago and the African continent sometimes reaches depths of 400 fathoms, between Malta and Sicily it never exceeds 70 fathoms. At that time the Mediterranean was a vast pastureland with large trees, bushes and marshland grass in which birds and other large winged creatures, freshwater tortoises, elephants, hippopotamus, and many other vertebrates roamed about in search of food.
Excavations in the grotto of Ghar Dalam, which is about 140 meters long, resulted in the discovery of an impressive quantity of the remains of animals of all sorts - herbivora such as antelopes, carnivora such as bears, wolves, and hyenas, and above all elephant and hippopotamus. The two last-named species of mammal are distinguished by the fact that they are dwarfs; the smallest is no bigger than a Saint Bernard dog. On the other hand, a swan of gigantic size was also found.
These astounding discoveries, which are specific to Malta, proved that 250,000 years ago the island was still connected to Sicily but cut off from North Africa. The remainder of Europe was covered with an ice cap, and in retreating towards warmer regions the animals had been trapped in this dead-end. Being unable to reach the further shore, they degenerated for a large number of generations before becoming finally extinct. It should not be forgotten that there were elephants in North Africa in Roman times and lions in the Atlas mountains at the end of the last century.
For a long time it was believed that there was proof of the presence on the island of Neanderthal man, who lived about 100,000 years ago, since human teeth characteristic of prehistoric man were found in the grotto. Unfortunately, one day a dentist extracted a tooth from local inhabitant and found it was exactly the same! The doubts which then arose were later confirmed by modern scientific methods of analysis. Nonetheless, it was the grotto of Ghar Dalam which furnished the first clear evidence of human presence in Malta. About 3800 B.C. shepherds, probably from Sicily, arrived; at all events, their pottery is very similar to that found at Stentinello near Syracuse.
ST. PAUL’S BAY
St Paul’s Bay is one of the most popular Summer holiday resorts in Malta and increasingly popular as a residential area. Although scholars debate whether St Paul was in fact shipwrecked in this beautiful bay - the wind and waves directions would make Mellieha Bay a much more likely location - most Maltese accept the tradition and accept that this is where it happened in 60 A.D. So the tiny St Paul’s Island at the mouth of the bay has a huge marble statute of the apostle, and the precise spot where St Paul, St Luke and their companions made their historic but hazardous landing is marked by a church. The southern shore of St Paul’s Bay terminates in Qawra point, to the south there is Salina Bay whose salt pans date from the 16th century. Salt-making was a lucrative monopoly of the Grand Masters.
HAGAR QIM & MNAJDRA - Qrendi
Qrendi, another Maltese typical village, is noted for its quarries. There are three Churches - the parish church of St Mary, St Catherine tat-Torba and that of St Saviour. An unusual feature of this village is the octagonal Cavalier Tower. About a kilometre to the northwest is an important prehistoric site: Hagar Qim (Standing Stones), an impressive set of temples built in 2800 B.C. This site was covered with earth up to 1839 and most of the standing blocks bear the marks of the farmers’ plough.
In the same village of Qrendi there are other Neolithic temples called the temples of Mnajdra. Entirely built of globigerina limestone, they contain the largest single stone used in any of the temples in Malta. Mnajdra also shows, by the way it was constructed, that several rooms were roofed as in Hagar Qim. A collection of objects, obtained from these ruins in 1908 and now housed in the Valletta Museum, indicate that the age which Mnajdra flourished was not different from that of Hagar Qim and the Ggantija temples in Gozo.
BLUE GROTTO - Zurrieq
Wied iz-Zurrieq is an outlet to the sea, where one can have a swim in the blue sea, or else visit the Blue Grotto and the surrounding coastline by a trip on the “dghajsa”, a traditional Maltese fishing boat. The Blue Grotto is famous for the clarity of the water and the brilliant colours around the rocks in the caves. Many tourists cannot resist taking a dip in the water when visiting the Grotto.
The Blue Grotto is about 40 metres in circumference and reaches a depth of 26 meters. The cavern faces the East and the early morning rays of the sun light up the entire cavern giving a unique spectacle. There are also some stalactites in the cave. Legend has it that there is a tunnel which connects the Grotto with the Church of St. Catherine.
VILLAGE OF CHURCHES - Zurrieq
Zurrieq has many churches and chapels. The parish church, built between 1643 and 1659, is dedicated to St. Catherine and it contains many works of famous artists. An old chapel, located in “Hal-Milieri” is an example of Gothic style buildings. Other churches that can be found in Zurrieq include: Tal-Lunzjata; San Gakbu; tal-Kuncizjoni; San Bartilmew; San Luqa; Sant’ Andrija; Sant’ Agata; Santa Marija (tal-Baqqari); Santa Marija (Ta’ Bubaqra’); San Leo; and San Gwann.
The Turkish forces invaded Malta in 1565 from the shores of this village. In 1798, the Knights surrendered to Napoleon’s troops who also landed here. In this harbour lies the largest fishing fleet of the island. To the west of this picturesque village the Knights built a massive fort of St Lucian to protect the bay from Turkish attacks.
THE CHURCH OF OUR LADY OF GRACES - Zabbar
The majestic church of Zabbar, dedicated to Our of Graces, was originally part of the parish of Zejtun. On the 23 December 1615 Bishop Baldassere Cagliares raised it to the status of a parish church at the request of the villagers.
The building of the present church started on 1 May 1641 on the initiative of the parish priest, Dun Francesco Piscopo. It was completed in 1696 on the design of an eminent Maltese architect Tommaso Dingle. However the structure of the church was modified in 1738, when the facade was renewed, two belfries added and an underground burial place was excavated. The church was consecrated by Bishop Vincenzo Labini on 31 October 1784.
THE NOBLE CITY OF MDINA - The Whisper City
Mdina, the old capital of Malta, is a typical medieval town situated in the centre of the island. The “Silent City”, as it is known, commands a magnificent view of the island and although it is fully inhabited, silence reigns supreme. Nobody knows exactly how old Mdina is. It could have been a Bronze Age village built on this hilltop site. It was known to the Greeks as the Melita (Honeyed One), and was Malta’s capital city until the building of Valletta. It was here that Publius, the leading citizen, welcomed St Paul in AD 60 and was later made the first bishop of Malta.
Mdina is the old capital city of Malta. The history of Mdina is as old and as chequered as the history of Malta itself. Its origin can be traced back more than 5,000 years. There was certainly a Bronze Age village on this site. It is one of the few remaining Renaissance fortified cities in Europe and in many ways, unique.
Over the years, the city had different names and titles, Melita (which was also the name of the island) and Citta Vecchia (the old city) depending upon who was ruling the island and which role Mdina was playing in the overall power-game. No name or title, however, characterises the city of Mdina so accurately than "Citta Notabile" - The Noble City. Even from a distance, you can sense that "nobility". This most historical Maltese city is quiet, majestic and sombre. However, Mdina also has tremendous warmth, personified by the friendliness of its people.
The Phoenicians built a city wall around Mdina and parts of Rabat around 1,000 B.C. They named the City "Malet", which loosely translates as "shelter" or "protected place", the same name used for the harbour and island itself. Following the Phoenicians, the Romans called the island "Melita", a derivation of the Phoenician "Malet".
It was, however, the Romans who made use of the Mdina plateau and built a town which was three times as big as the present day. Under their rule, the city prospered. Famous poets and politicians of the time, like Cicero, Livy and Diodorus Siculus, described Melita as a town with beautiful buildings and possessing a generous lifestyle. The many relics testify to the style and wealth of the inhabitants. Even today, buried within the walls of simple peasant houses, one can see traces of the stone from ancient Roman pillars and columns, used by the villagers as a cheap source of building material!
It was during this period that St Paul was shipwrecked in Malta in A.D. 60 and was looked after at the Mdina Palace of Publius, the Chief Leader, who was became the first Bishop of Malta.
The city received its present name, Mdina, from the Saracens who took over the island in 870 A.D. For reasons of defence, they separated Mdina from Rabat by a deep moat, and surrounded the hilltop section of the city with new, stronger walls and bastions. They called this part of the city "Mdina" which roughly translates as "the city surrounded by walls". They named the rest of the city "Rabat", which means suburb. From this time on, Mdina has barely changed. Its structure and street plan is the same as 1,000 years ago.
In 1090, Count Roger the Norman landed in Malta and was hailed as a liberator as he entered Mdina. Count Roger set about reconstructing the Cathedral which had fallen into ruins during the Arab occupation. This newly magnificent church was dedicated to St Paul, officially mentioned in documents not earlier than 1298.
After the Normans, Malta and Mdina had a rather chequered history. By marriage and heritage, it fell under the ownership of different rulers, none of whom really felt responsible for the island and its people. One had other concerns than to care for that "bleak rock". The local Maltese nobility, having concentrated on Mdina due to its excellent defence possibilities, had to fill this vacuum more and more. Mdina gained importance, especially since the Viceroy of Sicily had granted Mdina the right of internal autonomy, the arm of which was the so-called "Universita". The "Universita" was an assembly of nobles under the chairmanship of the "Capitano della Verga", the "Captain of the Rod", a position which was frequently held by the most powerful Maltese noble family, Inguanez.
During the time between the arrival of the Normans in 1100 A.D. and the knights in 1530 A.D., some of the finest buildings in "siculo-norman" style were built in Mdina, some of which are still to be seen today.
After the Great Siege in 1565, the Order of St John decided to build a new capital city – Valletta - and in 1568 Mdina became known as the Citta Vecchia.
With the founding of Valletta in 1566 the importance of Mdina decreased, especially since the Knights had usurped many of the rights of the "Universita". Mdina became the "Citta Vecchia", the "Old City". Despite the rising security on the island, Mdina's population decreased. Everybody wanted to move to Valletta. Attempts were made to stop this migration, but without much success. Grand Master Lascaris finally decided to give up the city once and forever. He planned to destroy the fortifications, dismantle the valuable bronze cannon, and leave the few who wanted to stay to their fate, just in case there was a renewed attack.
However, Lascaris had not taken into account the women of Mdina. When the soldiers attempted to dismantle the cannons, they were ferociously attacked by the women, with brooms and flails, until the Grand Master and his troops were forced to retreat.
From this point on, Grand Master Lascaris became an object of hatred to the women, as he had already incurred their displeasure by prohibiting women to wear masks at carnival time.
In 1693 an earthquake caused considerable damage to the Island especially to Mdina. Most of the buildings were razed to the ground, including the Cathedral, of which only part of the apse remained. Grand Master Vilhena inaugurated an extensive re-building program which included the rebuilding of the Cathedral, reshaping the main entrance and the reconstruction of Vilhena Palace, now the Museum of Natural History as well as moving the “Universita”, the office of local administration, to Palazzo Giuratale
By 1694 the reconstruction of the Cathedral had already begun, and became Lorenzo Gafa's masterpiece. The demolished houses in front of the Cathedral gave way to St Paul's Square of today. The Magisterial Palace, situated in front of the Cathedral was reconstructed in a magnificent baroque style, and served as a summer residence for Grand Master Vilhena. Everything, from walls to bastions and fortifications was reconstructed and refurbished.
Not wanting to be outdone by the Knights, the local nobles also started to reconstruct their palaces and houses, attempting to re-establish their status and rights in the town. Thus, Mdina rose again in all its previous splendour, although she never regained her former importance as a political and cultural centre.
In June 1798, the French drove out the knights from Malta, without a single battle, partly due to the fact that over two thirds of the Knights were also French, and therefore refused to fight their fellow countrymen.
Malta surrendered without a shot being fired, as the French had vowed to respect the religion of the Maltese, the right of self-administration or the property of its inhabitants. But despite their promises, the French "confiscated" everything of value from churches and palaces, to fill the war coffers of Napoleon.
The Maltese were furious, and when the French dared to pillage the Carmelite Church of Mdina, the locals stopped them by sheer force. The French General, Masson, was hurled from a balcony. With Masson dead, there was no turning back. The bells rang out the alarm from every belfry, and riot spread, quick as the wind, from city to city, village to village. The French were forced to flee behind the walls of Valletta. From here, they resisted the Maltese aided by a small troop of English soldiers, who came to Malta's assistance when the Maltese asked Lord Nelson to help them out. The French finally surrendered in 1800.
The British, the last foreign rulers of Malta, dissolved the "Universita" forever, and they turned Valletta into the political and commercial centre of the islands. Mdina is now the "Silent City", and its vast walls, closed doors and steps which lead nowhere, have become the symbols of the nobility's chosen reserve. Mdina, the Old City, is a city of all times.
THE MDINA CATHEDRAL
The 11th century Siculo-Norman Cathedral was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. The present Cathedral was built by Lorenzo Gafa four years later and is believed to stand on the site originally occupied by the house of Publius, the Roman Governor, at the time of St. Paul’s stay on the island. Publius eventually became the first Bishop of Malta. The Cathedral Museum contains various art treasures, including a fine collection of Durer woodcuts, paintings and a collection of very rare coins.
CARMELITE CHURCH & CONVENT - Mdina
The church and convent of the Order of Carmelite monks was built in 1570 in the city of Rabat. In 1659 the Carmelite Fathers transferred their church and convent to the church of the Blessed Virgin Della Rocca in Mdina. The bells of this church signalled the upraising of the Maltese insurgents against the French in 1798. During the French rule of Malta the commission nominated 2 September 1798 to sell and auction the tapestries and other valuable objects which were found in the Carmelite Church. The alarm was raised and the people of neighbouring villages rushed to Mdina. Messengers were sent to all villages to announce the rebellion at Rabat to ask for help. The response was overwhelming and soon the French troops were driven out of Mdina and few months later the French rule came to a humiliating end.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
Situated at Vilhena Palace within Mdina, this museum houses seven sections comprising both local and foreign collections, including skeletal anatomy, fish, insects, birds, shells, fossils and geology.
If you wish to see craftsmen at work at the Mdina glass factory at Ta’ Qali. You can see the glass as it is blown and taking shape in the most beautiful colours that are unbelievably attractive.
MUSEUM OF ROMAN ANTIQUITIES - Rabat
Evidence of the wealth and magnificence of Malta during the Roman rule (218 B.C. --- 870 A.D.) may be seen here, including some fine mosaics.
ST.PAUL’S GROTTO - Rabat
Tradition says that St. Paul lived in this cave during his three-month stay on the island after his shipwreck in 60 A.D. The Grotto lies beneath the Parish Church dedicated to the same saint. Grand Master Emanuel Pinto ordered a marble statute of the Apostle Paul to be placed in the middle of the grotto entrance. The statute was carved in Rome and is attributed to Bernini.
ST. AGATHA & ST. PAUL’S CATACOMBS - Rabat
These catacombs in Rabat are typical of the underground Christian cemeteries which were common in the fourth century A.D. The characteristic feature of the Maltese catacombs is the presence of round tables known as “agape tables” carved from stone with slanting sides on which mourners reclined to take part in a farewell repast. St Paul’s catacombs is a maze of narrow passages, dates back to the 4th and 5th centuries and contains very interesting carvings. There is ample evidence that this town had a large Christian community during the Roman rule.
BUSKETT GARDEN - Dingli
This beautiful garden boasts a vast citrus orchard and vineyards. Buskett (little wood) is the thickest wooded area anywhere in the island of Malta. Towering over it is the Verdala Castle which Grand Master Hugh de Verdala built for himself in 1586.
VERDALA PALACE - Dingli
This castle is situated on a hilltop overlooking Buskett Garden. It was built by Grand Master Verdala in 1588 as a summer residence. Following recent restoration works, this historic building is now used as a Government Guest Palace. It is open to the public on Tuesdays and Fridays.
SAN ANTON GARDENS - Attard
There is no doubt that the most beautiful public garden in Malta is San Anton Garden in Attard. The Palace and the gardens were built and established by the Grand Master Antoine de Paule who was in charge of the Island from 1623 to 1636. These gardens, containing a wide variety of plants, shrubs and trees, were planned by the Grand Master in the 17th century. Annual fruit, flower, vegetable, fur and feather shows and fairs are held here. The Grand Master bequeathed the Palace and Garden to the Order of St John. The Palace is now the residence of the President of Malta. Trees and shrubs from all over the world had been collected to flourish in the Maltese sun.
SLIEMA - ST. JULIAN’S - PACEVILLE
Sliema (with neighbouring St. Julian’s/St. George’s area) is the largest and most modern town in Malta, - a fashionable residential area and a noted resort. It has a 4.8 mile (7.7 km) long seaside promenade which is one of the most frequented spots on the island. It offers an important and lively shopping centre with cafes and restaurants, the largest group of hotels in Malta, a number of night-spots, including the palatial Casino, popular beaches and bathing establishments with facilities for water sports.
THE YACHT MARINA
Yachts of various nationalities take advantage of the available mooring amenities which include water, telephone, electricity, weather forecasts, ship-to-shore radio, chart depot and supplies. A dockyard consisting of seven modern slipways is in full operation and has facilities for slipping, repairing, converting and servicing for yachts of all sizes up to 50 tonnes.
THE AQUEDUCT - Attard/Birkirkara/Santa Venera
Wignacourt Aqueduct is a long series of arches that crop up at Attard and skirt the whole of Birkirkara’s southern limit to end further down at St. Venera. These arches were devised to carry tapping water sources around Rabat and convey the precious water to the then new city of Valletta, where it was much needed by the growing population.
At one point this aqueduct used to cross the Valletta-Rabat road, and up to the Second World War there stood a magnificent arch carrying the heraldic arms and fleur-de-lys of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. An inscription recorded the magnanimity of Wignacourt who had funded the whole project. Water was to be brought from a group of Springs near Dingli down to Fort Elmo. The water was turned on for the first time on 21 April 1615 from a fountain specially built for the occasion in the Palace Square. Today that same fountain is still to be seen in St Philip’s Gardens, Floriana.
In just twenty years Valletta, a city without an adequate supply of water, became one with enough water for drinking purposes, water to fill up the tanks and wells, and also water for the fountains that adorned it.
THE OLD RAILWAY STATION - Valletta to Mdina
The railway in Malta opened amid scenes of great celebrations on the afternoon of 28 February 1883. The line ran from Valletta to the ancient capital - Mdina. It was a single track except for Birkirkara Station, which was then one of the stations en-route where the track was double to allow trains coming from opposite directions to overtake. The two carriages were four wheeled wooden vehicles which steel chassis. Their capacity was for 44 passengers - 26 in the third class and 18 in the first class. The journey began from an underground station at Valletta near the main gate to Floriana, Hamrun, Santa Venera, Msida to Birkirkara station. From here to Balzan station and another stop at San Anton and Attard and finally stops at Mdina terminal.
The railway prospered until the introduction of tramway in 1905 with its three lines namely Valletta to Zebbug, Valletta to Cospicua and Valletta to Birkirkara, but this form of transport ceased its operation in 1929 when the Malta Motor-Bus Company introduced a more modern way of transport. After World War I motor-cars began to be imported in a steady stream and their growth forced the closure of the Railway in March 1931. The old Birkirkara station building is temporarily housing the offices of the Birkirkara council until the new premises, now under construction are ready to be moved into.
THE WINDMILLS - Birkirkara
Very near to the last market stalls in Birkirkara is one other reminder of the past: the cylindrical tower on a cubic base was a building that, up to the early years of this century, housed one of the several windmills then still turning and grinding around Birkirkara’s vicinity. Another historical windmill is on the road to Naxxar. This has been restored and is currently being used as the venue for modern art exhibitions by local and foreign artists. The place itself is being managed by local artist Gabriel Caruana, a veteran ceramist who has achieved considerable reputation here and abroad.
MORE WINDMILLS - Zurrieq
TRADE FAIR - Naxxar
Naxxar and Gharghur are both farming villages overlooking Mosta. Naxxar is the venue of the Annual Trade Fair held in July. According to some historians, Naxxar was the first village to accept Christianity. Its parish is dedicated to Our Lady of Victories and it is the work of Tommaso Dingli (1616) with later additions. Both villages command fine views across the cliff-like ridge. The Knights recognised the defensive attributes of this ridge by building watch towers along the crest. One of these towers, it-Torri tal-Kaptan, at San Pawl tat-Targa, lies between Naxxar and Gharghur. In the middle of the 19 century the British built the Victoria Lines along the ridge. At San Pawl Tat-Targa a little to the west of the hill called Telgha t’Alla-u-Ommu (the hill of God and His Mother), one can see some of the mysterious cart ruts.
THE ‘DE REDIN’ TOWERS
The continuous attack of Barbary Corsairs forced the Order of St John to supplement then defences of Valletta and the Three Cities with the erection of a number of forts and watch towers. These watch towers were built mainly around the coast to hold back unexpected attacks by. By day, large red flags were hoisted while by night bonfires were lit on the flat roofs as a warning of an imminent danger.
Under the Order there were 23 towers erected by various Grand Masters. Wignacourt, Lascaris and Garset built ten and De Rohan built the remaining thirteen. Few of them still stand, alone and aloof on the heights of the barren cliffs. They have been left to the mercy of time and to the tastes of vandals.
Ghajn Hadid Tower - partly destroyed by earthquake in 1856
Ghallies Tower - still standing
Qalet Marku Tower - still standing
Madliena Tower - private property
San Giljan Tower - converted into a restaurant
It-Torri l-Abjad - converted into a restaurant
Benghisa Tower - destroyed by British services in 1939 due to its interference with the field of fire of modern guns.
Xorb l-Ghagin Tower - partly destroyed
Imwiegel Tower - still standing
Delimara Tower - destroyed by British services in 1939 due to its interference with the field of fire of modern guns.
Zonqor Tower – collapsed
Tal-Hamrija Tower - still standing
Bubaqra Tower - converted into a farmhouse.
The word Bingemma is constructed from Bin, the abbreviation of Iben (son of) and Gemma (a woman’s name). There are three places that share the same name.
The first is a piece of high ground, surrounded by the hills between Mtarfa and Mgarr. A place that according to a Maltese historian Abela, ‘is full of caves and old, forgotten tombs’. The second is known as Il-Blokka ta’ Bingemma, which is a narrow passage situated between Borg in-Nadur and Dwejra. The third Bingemma is in Gozo and is another piece of high ground sloping on both sides from a height of 120 metres, and it is situated between Nadur and San Blas.
THE EGG CHURCH - Mgarr
The Parish Church of Mgarr (Malta) has been called “The Egg Church” because it was built with funds raised exclusively from contribution from villagers of one egg per ten laid by their hens. Certainly, the Dome is which is distinctively graceful is designed in the shape of an inverted egg.
Most of the sandy beaches are to be found to the north of the island, but equally enticing rock beaches are characteristic of the Sliema and St Julian’s, and other spots like Peter’s Pool at Delimara. The water is crystal clear everywhere and a paradise for underwater fishing.
|SANDY BEACHES||ROCKY BEACHES|
|Armier Bay||Anchor Bay|
|Bahar-ic-Caghaq||Bugibba (St Paul’s Bay)|
|Carmelites Bay (St. Julians)||Delimera Bay|
|Ghadira Bay (Mellieha)||Kalafrana Bay (Birzebbugia)|
|Ghajn Tuffieha Bay||Marfa Bay|
|Golden Bay (Ghajn Tuffieha)||Mistra Bay|
|Imgiebah Bay||Paradise Bay|
|Marsaskaala Bay||Qaliet (St Julians)|
|St Georges Bay (St Julians)||Qui Si Sana (Sliema)|
|St Thomas Bay||Qawra Point (St Paul’s Bay)|
|Gnejna Bay||Sliema Sea Front|
|Xemxija Bay (St Paul’s Bay)||St Paul’s Bay|
|Xghira Bay (Zabbar)|
|Wied Iz-Zurrieq Bay|
|Ghar Lapsi Bay|
|San Blas||Dahlet Qorrot|
|St Mary’s Bay|
|San Niklaw Bay|
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