Fort St Angelo, Birgu

Fortifications - Introduction

Man has always felt the fundamental need to protect and defend himself, his family and his home by building strong walls around him. In Malta, the first evidence of human communities protected by walls is from the Bronze Age (c. 1200 B.C.E.), where we find a small number of small villages built on hills which would give a natural defensive advantage to the inhabitants.  However, the first truly fortified city is from the Punic-Roman era.  This city, known as Melite, was quite large, surrounded by strong walls and towers.   Similar to this city, was another in Gozo; but both were abandoned in the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire and their walls were taken apart,  in order to build two, much smaller, medieval towns – Mdina and Castello (the Ċittadella) of Gozo. 

The arrival of the Order in Malta in 1530 set in motion a new rapid process of urbanisation in the Grand Harbour and the construction of fortified cities.  In two and a half centuries, five fortified maritime cities were built, surrounded by around 25 kilometres of ramparts and bastions – Birgu (Vittoriosa), Isla (Senglea), Valletta, Bormla (Cospicua) and Floriana.  During this time, the Knights did not abandon the ancient cities of Malta and Gozo and worked to fortify them with stronger, more modern bastions – which led to the rebuilding of the two medieval cities.

The reign of the Knights came to an end in 1798 with the invasion of Napoleon and later the British domination.  These changed the Baroque character of the fortified cities in the areas around the Harbour to a more industrial one.  As the shipyard industry grew and spread, the bastions were broken down to make space for the docks and naval installations.  The bastions were hidden by the steel structures of a new industrial world – cranes, chimneys, pipes and electricity poles.  Many of the gates built in a Baroque style were dismantled or widened to accommodate traffic.  By time, the cities began losing their unique qualities.  This process was accelerated further by the destruction brought during World War II and the subsequent reconstruction. 

Today, these historic, fortified cities are besieged by these modern developments which are suffocating them. 

Fortunately, they still enjoy many of their original qualities and the visual impact created by the bastions which surround these towns. Today, we understand that the architecture of these fortified cities, of the bastions, as well as of the buildings inside the walls, is unique and precious and therefore important not only for our identity and culture as Maltese, but also for our tourism industry.

This article is intended to celebrate the beautiful and unparalleled qualities of some of these fortified cities in our country and thus foster more appreciation for this unique patrimony.

Stephen C. Spiteri Ph.D
Restoration Unit within the Works Division
Islands 1978 – Lithograph – Credit: Norbert Attard