There is archaeological evidence indicating that Mdina was occupied as early as 4,000 B.C. The Phoenicians, who called the town Melita, are believed to have first fortified the location around 700 B.C. The hill where Mdina lies is the highest point in Malta and located in the center of the island, far from attacking ships. It has hills on all sides making it a good location for a fortress or castle. The Apostle St. Paul was believed to have lived in the city after he was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 A.D. During the time of Roman control, Malta was a province of Rome and the Governor built his residence at Mdina. It is believed that St. Paul converted the Roman Governor Publius to Christianity after preaching to him. The Cathedral that was built in the 16th Century rested over the ground that was once Publius’ residence.
As you can see in the photo above, Mdina has a good natural defensive position on the hilltop. The tour bus drove up and around the back side of Mdina to a convenient parking lot just outside of the main gate. I snapped this photo (below) of the main gate and imagined what it must have looked like during the time of the knights. The walled city is basically one giant castle and the city is contained within its high walls. In front of the main gate, the people in the photo below are walking across the bridge that spans the moat.
The Saracens conquered Malta in 870 A.D. and renamed the town Mdina, which roughly translated means “the city surrounded by walls.” They increased the size of the walls and bastions and widened the moat. Much of the architecture that is seen in Mdina is from the Fatimid period that lasted from 999 A.D. until Christianity was restored after the Norman Conquest in 1091.
… Mdina Gate, the city’s main entrance…
Following the Norman invasion, the Maltese nobility ruled Malta with internal autonomy. The Emperor Charles V did not want to maintain the costly Maltese and decided to “donate” Malta to the Knights of the Order of St. John who were tired after wandering around Europe looking for a new home. The Maltese nobility were not happy with the idea of surrendering their authority to the Knights and after some bargaining an agreement was made wherein the Knights would rule Malta but would swear respect for the internal autonomy of the Maltese nobility within the walls of Mdina. The Maltese nobility would also be protected by the Knights from attack by pirate ships. The keys to the city were turned over to the Grand Master of the Knights who made their base of operations in the port of Valletta.
During the Ottoman invasions and the conquest of the island of Rhodes, the Knights of Rhodes fled to Malta. The Ottoman Turks arrived and besieged Malta in 1565. The Ottomans fielded as many as 65,000 soldiers against 2,000 Maltese and 500 Knights. The battled raged for 3 months and despite their best efforts, the Ottomans were not able to breach Mdina. During the battle, each morning, an Ottoman prisoner was hanged (executed) from the walls of Mdina further demoralizing the attackers. While the exact numbers of soldiers on each side varies depending on the author, at least 130,000 cannon balls were fired on Malta’s defenses during the siege. The tide of the Ottoman advance ended at Malta. Had it fallen, Sicily and Italy would have been at threat of invasion. The “Great Siege of Malta” is seen as the turning point in the Ottoman advance in the central Mediterranean.
Once inside the city walls, it was like taking a step back into the centuries. I applauded the rain and the low season as I was free to run about the ancient castled city without so many tourists cluttering up my photos. It seemed to be a maze of never-ending alley ways, gates, walkways, and small courtyards. A few times I came back to the same spot and then ventured down a new path to discover more of the buildings as they shared their history with me. There was a solemn stillness to the city and I could see why they called it the “Silent City.”
A great earthquake in 1693 destroyed a large part of the city. Much of it was rebuilt in Baroque architecture by Grand Master Fra Antoine Manoel de Vilhena around the year 1725. The French, under Napoleon, conquered Malta in the late 18th Century and imposed draconian rule over the Maltese. After looting several cathedrals, the Maltese, who were fanatically religious, rebelled and riots broke out. One of Lord Nelson’s officers, Captain Alexander Ball, blockaded and eventually captured Malta. It remained a British Colony until 1964 when it gained its independence.
I continued to roam around the streets of the ancient city unescorted. As a history aficionado, I really soaked up the atmosphere and enjoyed the beautiful architecture and ancient buildings.
I saw many horse-drawn carriages in the old city. Except for the 500 residents, a few business owners, and the fire and police, cars are prohibited from the city adding to its quiet and tranquil charm. The clop-clop of the horse shoes on the old stone roads added a rustic feel to the city. I watched as tourists rode around the city just as they did hundreds of years ago.
When I finally worked my way to the far side of the city, I could finally see the tall walls that protected Mdina from invaders throughout the centuries.
From a tall rampart I had a beautiful view of the Maltese countryside.
Near the city wall I spotted quite a bit of graffiti. Some of it was quite old and dated to over 200 years. I wonder, at what point does graffiti become part of the history of a place? 200 years, 500?…
After a long mid day of trekking around Malta and Mdina, I decided to have lunch. For my European friends, this would be no big deal, but to my fellow Americans, especially those from the West Coast and its relative “infant” history, eating lunch in an 800 year old building just has a certain ambiance that can’t be explained – just felt. As I sat inside Fontanella eating, I tried to imagine the sound of so many Knights as they drank ale and told war stories much like the soldiers of today do…
Mdina was home to many beautiful gift shops that sold jewelry, hand blown glass, and all sorts of other tourist items. I made sure to pick up my obligatory post cards & then looked at some of the fine shops. I was quite impressed with the intricacy of the glass items that were on display and on sale.
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