Blog on Life Travel historic sites in Malta and Gozo

The Maltese Islands: Historic sites in Malta & Gozo

One of the things Malta is known for is the historic sites on the Maltese Islands, that have been discovered for us to be able to experience different times of history for ourselves. There is practically anything for anyone to find.

All photography in this article belongs to Alex Turnbull.

Historic sites in Malta

Valletta

Valletta referred to as Il-Belt in Maltese, the capital city of Malta is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This fortified city is located between two harbours, Marsamxett Harbour (Sliema, Msida, Gzira, Msida and Pieta) and the Grand Harbour (facing the Three cities).

There are two main ways to enter the capital, by car and boat. There are ferries that travel across both harbours and are probably the quickest and the most enjoyable means of transportation to the city.

Blog on Life Travel Malta Auberge Castille ph Alex Turnbull
Auberge Castille in Valletta

The Three Cities

The Three Cities refers to three fortified cities which look towards Valletta and have the Grand Harbour in between. The Three cities are Birgu, Senglea, and Cospicua. Birgu is the eldest of the Three Cities and has existed since the Middle Ages. Senglea and Cospicua, as the capital, were founded by the Order of St. John in the 16th and 17th centuries. All the cities are enclosed within the Cottonera Lines, also known as Valperga Lines, which is a fortification built in the 17th and 18th centuries to add outer defenses. The fortification was built by the plans of Antonio Maruizio Valperga on four of the five hills of Bormla.

Birgu was settled back in the time of the Phoenicians, however, the Birgu we know today dates back to the Order of St. John. It was also the city that was initially chosen to be the capital of Malta, instead of Mdina in 1530 when the Order of St. John arrived. After the invasion of Gozo in 1551 by the Ottoman Empire, Senglea was built as well as Fort St. Michael in Senglea. Fort St. Angelo in Birgu was built where the ancient Castrum Maris once was.

In 1565, during the Great Siege, the cities were besieged and when the siege was lifted, Birgu was given the title of Citta Vittoriosa and Senglea the title of Citta Invicta. After the siege, Valletta was built and in 1571 became the new capital of Malta. In 1722 the town of Bormla was given the title of Citta Cospicua, translating to The Conspicuous City, by Grandmaster Marc Antonio Zondadari.

Today there is the Maritime Museum in Vittoriosa in Birgu. It is the largest museum in Malta and is set in Malta’s first industrial revolution building. It has exhibited such as the largest Roman lead anchor in the world which weighs 4 tons, a large working 18th-century ship of the line instruction model, 60+ full-sized Maltese traditional boats, and many other inspiring artifacts.

Blog on Life Malta Valletta Grand Harbour

Manoel Island

Manoel Island is a small island that is slightly connected to the mainland of Malta and is in the city of Gzira. Manoel Island is located between the Marsamxett Harbour and the Lazzaretto Creek.

Blog on Life Travel Manoel Island and Sliema coast from above
Manoel Island

In 1570 the island had been acquired by the cathedral Chapter of Mdina and was called L’Isola del Vescovo or Il-Gzira tal-Isqof translating to The Bishop’s Island from Maltese. In 1592, after the plague outbreak, a quarantine hospital was built called Lazzaretto. The hospital was built using wood and was taken down after the disease passed. In 1643, Grandmaster Lascaris from the Order of St. John bought out the island from the church for the cost of some land in Rabat and built a permanent Lazzaretto to try and control the occasional influx of the plague as well as cholera from the visiting ships. Lazzaretto became the initial quarantine centre for passengers from quarantine ships.

Blog on Life Travel Manoel Island main gate from sea

Between 1723 and 1733, it was given its name after Portuguese Grandmaster Antonio Manoel de Vilhena who built a fort on the island by the plans of Rene Jacob de Tigne. It is said to have been modified by his friend and colleague Charles Francois de Mandion, who was also buried beneath Fort Manoel. During British rule, the use of the Lazzaretto continued under the governorship of Sir Henry Bouverie. During World War 2, Manoel Island and its fort were used as a naval base by the Royal Navy’s 10th Submarine Flotilla.

Mdina

Mdina, also known as the Silent City is on the tentative list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is a fortified city located in the northern part of Malta. It served as the capital of Malta from antiquity up to the Medieval period, until the arrival of the Order of St. John. The founders of the city were the Phoenician settlers and it was called Maleth in the 8th century and later renamed Melite by the Romans. Melite was much larger than today’s Mdina, and the size of the city was reduced during the time of Byzantine or Arab occupation. At a later period, the city was renamed to its present name, Mdina, which has Arabic roots from the word medina. Once the capital of Malta became Birgu during the Order of St. John, Mdina went through a decline until the early 18th century, when it acquired Baroque features whilst still maintaining its Medieval touch.

Domus Romana

The Domus Romana is the remains of a Roman house which is located between Rabat and Mdina. It dates back to the 1st century BC and was an aristocratic townhouse that stood, at that time within the city of Melite. In the 11th century, a Muslim cemetery was built on the remainder of the domus. In 1881, archaeological excavations were made, and discoveries of well-preserved Roman mosaics, statues, and other artifacts were found, as well as remains of the Muslim cemetery. The site is currently open to the public as a museum.

Ghajn Tuffieha Roman Baths

The Roman Baths in Ghajn Tuffieha were discovered in 1929 during works that were being done to cap a freshwater spring. It may explain why in the past these baths were built in this area, as such baths need constant flows of large amounts of water. The site, like many others, was supervised by Sir Themistocles Zammit. The site presented a full seen of the Roman baths including; the Tepidarium, Frigidarium, and Caldarium, as well as small rooms which may have been used as changing rooms, bedrooms, or dormitory.

Mosaic decorations found in all the rooms revealed the use of coloured marbles and stones and the use geometric patterns. The corridors and latrine paved with ceramic lozenge-shaped tiles, lengths of which are just less than 10 cm. UNESCO sponsored the restoration of the site’s mosaics in 1961. Rooms were built to shelter and protect the remains. In 2007 the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development also granted funding to study the area, as well as to create facilities suitable for visitors.

San Pawl Milqi

Another site with ruins from the Roman period is the San Pawl Milqi, a translation from Maltese Welcoming St. Paul. The site contained ruins from a Roman agricultural villa and a pagan temple. Currently, there is a Christian chapel which stands on where once stood a temple dedicated to the Greek god Apollo and a Roman villa. In accordance with a religious tradition, the villa was where the first bishop and at the time governor of Malta, St. Publius, welcomed St. Paul after his shipwreck. There is no archaeological evidence to support this religious tradition and is considered as something which was simply passed on from mouth to mouth. Current evidence traces the Christian worship only to the chapel which was built in the 14th century. The chapel was used till 1616 until it was replaced by a church dedicated to the welcoming of St. Paul.

From tombs that were found, there is evidence that the site was in use during prehistoric times as well as during the Maltese Bronze Age. Small structures were found dating back to the Phoenician-Punic period. During the Roman period, there was evidence of the trapetum, anchor points, and at least two presses, which are used for the production of olive oil. The ruins of the villa do not indicate any particular characteristics of richness, nor by size or décor, unlike the Domus Romana in Rabat and Mdina. The villa was also reduced in size due to a thick fortification wall which was erected in 3 AD by the Romans, against invaders.

Catacombs

St. Paul’s, St. Agatha’s, and St. Augustine’s catacombs, Rabat

St. Paul’s catacombs located in Rabat, reflect the features of Malta’s early Christianity archaeology. In 1894 the site was thoroughly investigated by Dr. Antonio Annetto Caruana. The clearing of the underground system showed tombs dating to 3 to 8 AD and over 30 hypogea in the entire St Paul’s and Agatha’s complex, of which 20 are open to the public. The catacombs of St. Paul, St. Agatha, St. Augustine, San Katald, and others all form part of a large cemetery that was once found outside the ancient Greek city of Melite, which is now split between Mdina and Rabat. The Romans prohibited burials within the city walls, so the deceased were placed in underground complexes as such, outside the city walls.

Ta’ Bistra catacombs, Mosta

The Ta’ Bistra catacombs are located between what was Melite and the Salina harbour and are the largest set of tombs and catacombs found in the region of the ancient city. A record of these catacombs was made in the late 1800s, but only in 1933 were excavations made, by Captain Charles Zammit. In 2004, 2013 and 2014, more time was spent discovering the site. These catacombs date back to 1,700 years and reflect a paleochristian period. The site is 90 meters long and has 57 tombs which are found in 16 chambers. The project of excavating and studying this site was funded by the EU under the Cultexchange project of the Interreg IIIA programme, which falls under the Archaeotur project.

Tal-Mintna catacombs, Mqabba

The Tal-Mintna catacombs located in Mqabba is a hypogea complex that dates back to 4 AD. The catacomb contains three dug side-by-side hypogea, which originally was accessed through separate stepped shafts but then was joined with narrow passages. All the hypogea have interconnecting galleries and window tombs. The window tombs bring together both punic and Christian traditions, making it unclear whether the burials were originally Christian or were converted to Christian use later, however, they are decorated with carved scallop shells and decorated pilasters. One small hypogeum has an altar flanked by a large pillar with carved relief, another with engraved illustrations. The central hypogeum offers one of the best-preserved examples of a triclinium Agape Table, which dates to the late Roman burials.

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