MALTA DIARY: Gozo’s Cittadella – born in the Bronze Age and still going strong
Malta and Gozo’s hills are few, their pinnacles providing a vantage point that in each respective island give a view of the whole island. At the height of marauding Ottoman piracy between the 12th and 16th Centuries they were very obvious sites for fortified defences and as early warning surveillance points. The Knights of Malta constructed towers around the coasts that would light bonfire beacons to warn of an impending Ottoman vessel approach and records have it that during one raid the Ottomans carted away the whole of Gozo’s population which in those days would have been more than a few hundreds.
Mdina in Malta and The Cittadella (meaning small city) were both constructed as fortified bastion cities in which people from the surrounding country areas could quickly retire behind fortified stone walls (often together with their animal herds) to avoid the clutches of the invaders. Mdina was later sidelined when Valletta was built as the new capital city on the Grand Harbour shore.
However, their histories go far beyond the time of Ottoman piracy and obviously they served the same defensive propensities and naturally one finds such fortified cities on hills in the nearby neighbouring island of Sicily, all sternly supervised by a commanding cathedral or church, being the focal point of Christian defence.
Gozo’s fortified Cittadella is a city within a city as it is a central point of the island’s capital Rabat, also known as Victoria, in the 18th Century named after Britain’s Queen Victoria, a name still popularly used today.
During the last five years, extensive restoration work has been carried out on The Cittadella, a time spanning two different rival governments, initiated by one and finished off by the other. Such transitions are normally a source of political litigation with both claiming to have “achieved” the restoration. However, in this case, the transition is to the credit of both governments having been started by one and finished off by the other, and largely recognised as this by both.
The ball was set rolling by the Nationalist Party Government that initiated the project for an estimated €14 million restoration project, 85% of which came from EU Funding. With a change of Government to a Labour administration in 2013 the extensive work continued unabated and was inaugurated last week by Prime Minister Dr Joseph Muscat who snipped the customary ribbon.
It is now expected that The Cittadella will be nominated by Malta as one of the world’s UNESCO Heritage Sites because its whole history spans over 3,000 years as proven by findings during excavations which established that the first known habitation in the area was in 1,100 BC during the Bronze Age and continued into the Roman occupation of Malta and Gozo era.
A number of utensils, pots and pans from the Bronze era were excavated and then the Roman wall which came much later. Housing was compacted within the fortification walls and a number of old grain silos were found, naturally used during times of siege.
The structural and environmental restoration based around the majestic Gozo Cathedral dedicated to The Assumption now also provides a Visitors’ Centre complete with all data information, a heritage museum, and restored war shelters. The confines of The Cittadella also houses the Gozo Court building as well as the Cathedral bell tower which guarantees a totally obstructed view of all Gozo and a large stretch of Malta.
The whole area has now been pedestrianised, is suitably equipped with a number of coffee shops and restaurants and an external parking area.
Natural to places like this there is of course the stuff of legends complete with tragedy and romance. During one 16th Century siege by the Ottomans, one of the defenders was the Frenchman Bernard Dupuo also known as Bernardo da Fonte or de Opuo (it was then quite normal to have a kind of dual French-Italian nationality used according to requirements!).
The Ottomans breached the fortifications and started taking prisoners to be trafficked as slaves. Dupuo was determined this would not be the fate of his family. He killed his wife and two daughters to avoid their being taken as slaves and continued to fight against the invaders until he met his own death. A street is named after him in The Cittadella and a plaque locates the house his family and he were said to have occupied at the time of his “no surrender” decision.
Those who want to take a closer look at The Cittadella should view the Facebook website: https://www.facebook.com/cittadellagozo/?fref=photo