A dockyard, docking facilities and the importance of repair and maintenance of seacraft have always been a priority in the Maltese Islands. The confluence of marine activity have always determined the development of these islands in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea – particularly at the time when the whole Mediterranean area was seen as a major determining factor of domination, safety and security.
The Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (now known as The Knights of Malta) were fully cognisant of this and one of their first actions when settling in Malta in the late 13th Century, early 14th Century, was that a dockyard was highly needed to maintain their vessels in an area that was prolific in military conflicts to control the sea traffic of the Mediterranean Sea.
Fortunately Malta was endowed with a spacious Grand Harbour, one of the largest in Europe, and the Knights settled on using the inner and eastern part of the Harbour as the location for their much-needed dockyard. This is what became known as the Cottonera Area, around the then small villages of Cospicua, Senglea, Vittoriosa and Kalkara which resultantly grew considerably because of the presence of the dockyard and the employment it provided.
Down through the centuries Malta’s dockyard facilities began to grow and grow and when Malta requested and was accepted to become part of the British Empire in the early 17th Century, the Dockyard became of prime importance to the British Authorities.
This was simple to understand. Britain relied on its enormous naval power to control the Central Mediterranean region and its Mediterranean Fleet was phenomenally powerful.
The Malta Dockyard flourished and at one time employed almost 30,000 Maltese and Gozitan employees working in shifts that covered 24/7. It had an Apprenticeship Scheme and was a primary target for would-be employees. Many became accomplished electricians, plumbers, sheet metal workers, galvanisers and all the required skills and trades required.
Naturally enough, during the height of World War II – because of the presence of the dockyard in its midst – the Cottonera area was continually and constantly bombed by Germany and Italy, aimed at destroying Britain’s naval fleet in the Mediterranean. This caused thousands of its inhabitants to abandon their homes and seek shelter residences in the northern part of Malta and Gozo that experienced less bombing.
As a passing by coincidence when my late father Frank spent some time as a Primary School teacher at the Sliema Primary in the early 1950s his task was always to teach a class of boys to achieve success in their Dockyard Apprenticeship examinations.
After the departure of the British in 1979 the Malta Drydocks fell into Government hands and then private hands before shutting down and then re-opening again. In the meantime, the enormous China Dock had been added to handle ever-growing vessels like freight ships, container vessels and liners.
This has led in recent years to attention being given to what is classed as an ‘Underground Cathedral’ an enormous underground reservoir that was constructed by the British over 120 years ago that has also been described as “a Gem” and has four different storey levels. The reason for this is to create water pressure and ease the flow of water.
This was constructed at Luqa and is an architectural beauty. The reasoning behind this construction was for emergency reasons such as a fire emergency at the highly-important Dockyard.
It is a naturally-lit arched expanse capable of storing ten million gallons of fresh water (almost 45 million litres) and restoration works are in progress for restoring this underground construction of great beauty.
This reservoir had been overlooked for many years until the country’s Water Services Corporation decided to take it in hand and restore it. For the first time photographers were allowed to go underground and take pictures.
They were simply amazed by the beauty of the structure and expert photographer Daniel Cilia was quoted as remarking “one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the experience to photograph; Malta and Gozo never cease to amaze me”.
Fresh water has always been a prime necessity for small islands that have often had to survive the dry rigours of a scorching Mediterranean summer, meaning that frequently during June, July and August experience little or no rainfall.
The work of the Corporation is therefore two-fold, that of totally restoring the reservoir and simultaneously having a stand-by cache of 45 million litres of fresh water.
It is also becoming a prime visiting site for the public to experience the beauty of “Malta’s Underground Cathedral” during organised tours organised by Heritage Malta.
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“Beautiful in the cradle – beautiful in the window”
Used as a compliment on the birth of a baby girl – beautiful in her cradle and will be beautiful when she grows up and stands at her window to attract passer-by suitors.