The history of the urbanisation of the harbour area begins with its fortification, initiating with the construction of the Castrum Maris in medieval times, providing security to the inhabitants as up to that time there were no coastal defences. Within the confines of the castle grew the settlement called Birgu which, it is said, is a corruption of the word ‘borgo’ or settlement.
The arrival of the Knights transformed Birgu from a town to a city – as in fact it was the only town which did not fall under the administration of Mdina but was ruled by the castellan. The Knights transformed it by enclosing it with defensive walls, turning it into their headquarters and rendering it more important than Mdina, begining the process of the fortification of the harbour area.
Between 1530 and 1560, the Knights kept on improving Birgu’s fortifications culminating in the Great Siege when it withstood the brunt of the Turkish attacks, especially after the fall of St. Elmo. As a result of the heroic resistance offered to the Turks, Birgu was named ‘Vittoriosa’, the victorious one.
After the Great Siege, Birgu’s fortifications were repaired. However, the construction of a new city on Mount Sceberras, in the years following the Siege, led to the loss of Birgu’s importance. After the building of the new lines of defence of Firenzuola and Cottonera, this fortress also lost most of its frontline defensive value. It was only in the 18th century, that Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena ordered the walls and bastions of Birgu to be updated and rebuilt.
The Birgu that we see today was designed by the French military engineer Charles François de Mondion. Among other things, he added a main entrance with three gates in a Baroque style and rebuilt the imposing bastions of the Post of Castile, which overlooks Kalkara bay.
Six km long including ten large bastions and seven main gates, this line of defence was named Cottonera Lines, after the Grand Master who commissioned them. However, the project was too ambitious, and the system of bastions, as planned by the Italian engineer, Antonio Maurizio Valperga, was not completed. By 1680, when Grand Master Cotoner died, the building of the bastions had impoverished the Order and the new Grand Master ordered the work to be stopped.
In the beginning of the 18th century, there was some talk of starting again. However, by 1724, only the conversion of San Salvatore Bastion into a small fortress, Fort San Salvatore, had been undertaken. The Cottonera Lines were still incomplete in 1798.
During the British reign, Birgu suffered huge damage when a large gun powder magazine (deposit) exploded, causing a whole bastion overlooking Isla to collapse. Even greater destruction was caused by the Second World War. The main ditch was transformed into a complex of shelters which were dug in the rocks under the bastions in order to shelter the people of the area from aerial bombing.
Nowadays, Birgu is once again being given due attention as the first maritime city of Malta and the fortress which resisted one of the biggest sieges in history.