Mdina, also known as Città Vecchia, is the oldest city in Malta, often called the Silent City. However, there was nothing “silent” about it when it was still a lively city in the past, especially in the time before the Knights, when it was the main city of the island. The nobles, the clergy, the craftsmen and much of the population of Malta used to live in Mdina. The city’s walls provided shelter to all of the island’s inhabitants during the frequent attacks from corsairs.
Mdina was built far away from the sea, on a high hill, so that from its bastions and towers, any enemy who would dare attack could be clearly visible. With the invention of cannons, fortified cities could no longer rely solely on high, straight walls, to resist the destructive force of these new weapons. A ditch around the walls no longer provided adequate defence and changes had to be made in the design of the ramparts and towers surrounding cities. The new ramparts or city walls, in the form of bastions had now to be thick and strong enough to endure the tremendous impact that could be inflicted by cannon bombardment.
They had also to be sturdy in order to carry the weight of the cannons. The cannons were placed in embrasures and would open fire on any enemy besieging the city. Most probably, Mdina took its current shape during the Byzantine or Arabic period, when the Roman city and the bastions around it were reduced to their present size. In those times, the walls used to be built high and straight, so that the enemy would not be able to climb up. On the rear side of Mdina, towards North, one can still see the original bastions from the Arab era.
In Mdina, today, we find the best examples of medieval architecture and building still existing in Malta. Some of the principal medieval buildings like the Cathedral dedicated to St Paul, were partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. These were dismantled and rebuilt in a Baroque style.
When the Knights of the Order of St John arrived in Malta in 1530, they only found two defensible sites: Mdina, with its medieval ramparts, and the Castrum Maris at the tip of the Birgu peninsula, which later became known as St Angelo. The Knights chose to settle in Birgu, because it was ideally poistioned and was an excellent natural harbour. From the beginning, the Knights started to remodel this small village, changing it to a city surrounded by bastions.
Birgu is Malta’s first maritime city. By surrounding Birgu with walls and new, strong bastions, the Knights quickly transformed it from a small suburb around a medieval castle to a Città Nuova (a New City). These bastions were secure enough to resist the fierce Ottoman siege 35 years later. The resistance offered by this city against the Turks’ fierce attacks earned it the title of Città Vittoriosa – the Victorious City.
In the area of land between the two lines of fortifications, the bastions and the spaces between them, i.e. the barrel-vaults and casemates, were given to poor people as housing. In 1798, there were 350 families living in the casemates of the Cottonera bastions.
In 1670, Grand Master Nicola Cotoner started the construction of a much larger new line of fortifications. Their main purpose was to prevent the enemy from approaching Bormla, Birgu and Isla. This line of fortifications, in the shape of a semi-circle, is around eight kilometres long.