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Malta’s picturesque Grand Harbour in the capital city Valletta is a magnificent natural port. It is rated to be one of the largest natural ports in Europe, as well as the world. Naturally, it has a central role in the history of the Islands, highlighted more when the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem began their sojourn in Malta in 1530.
By then, various habitations had already taken root on the inner rim of the Harbour and later became known as the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua (not then known by those names) and Kalkara, as well as Marsa (from the Arabic word that means ‘port’) which was generally known as the landing stage of the harbour.
Although at the time the capital city was Mdina, this was well inland and the Knights decreed Vittoriosa to be their new headquarters.
The Ottoman Great Siege revolutionised the life of the harbour area. After the Ottoman invaders were vanquished and driven off on the 8th of September of 1565, the changes were dramatic. Victory had been achieved under the bravery and genius of the leadership of the Order’s Grandmaster, Jean Parisot de la Valette.
He wisely figured that having repelled the Ottoman invaders once was no guarantee they would not invade again. Thus he decreed the island should have a new capital city, built on the harbour’s outer rim and straddling two harbours, the Grand Harbour and the port of Marsamxett.
On 28th March 1566, la Valette laid the city’s first foundation stone (today the site of the Chapel of Our Lady of Victories). The Grandmaster was certainly not a man to let the grass grow under his feet. The building labour force resource at the time was not enough to ensure speedy construction, so 4,000 Sicilians were engaged to come to Malta to supplement the construction force.
On 18th March 1571 the new city was officially inaugurated as Malta’s capital city. Sadly, Grandmaster la Valette did not survive to see his new gem but appropriately the city was named after him and became Valletta and the Knights transferred all their langues (these were palaces of residence for the Knights from different areas i.e. Bavaria, Italia, Castile, Aragon, France etc) as well as administrative palaces, including the Grandmaster’s Palace.
Two important points have to be made. Although the Order of the Knights had a reputation of war and conflict their basis was medicine and hospitaliering … in fact the proper name of their Order was the Hospitalier Order of The Knights of St John of Jerusalem – with origins from The Crusades (and later the originators of the St John Ambulance Brigade and the Red Cross). The Knights were normally relatives of Europe’s royal houses.
This enabled the Islands to become famed as a centre of professional medication which later spread over the two World Wars – particularly the First when Malta became known as The Nurse of the Mediterranean for the medication of British and ANZAC wounded victims of WW1.
Following the death of Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette he was succeeded by Jean de la Cassiere who ordered the construction of a large infirmary to care for the medications of the Knights and their galley crews involved in various marine conflicts with the Ottomans around the Islands.
One of the building’s main attractions was a hall measuring 155 metres in length, referred to as the ‘Great Ward’. Known as the Sacra Infermeria, it was at the time considered to be one of the best hospitals in Europe capable of accommodating around 900 patients.
Later, under the reign of Grandmaster Nicholas Cotoner, the School of Anatomy and Surgery was established in the infirmary, and was the early precursor of the Medical School now at the University of Malta in Msida. When the Knights left the island in the late 1700s and the French took over, a number of structural changes were implemented in order to improve the hospital’s sanitation.
Between 1800 and 1918, the hospital was used by British military forces as a station hospital, particularly suitable due to its proximity to the Grand Harbour, where the sick and wounded were brought in from their ships. It was after the end of WWI that the Sacra Infermeria stopped being used as a hospital, and instead housed the Police Headquarters until the start of WWII, during which time the building sustained disastrous damage.
Gradually and many years later, the old hospital was reconstructed and restored, and inaugurated as the Mediterranean Conference Centre in 1979, as it is known today. Its various halls, stages, equipment and facilities have made it a top venue for local and international events, surrounded by remarkable views of the Grand Harbour within a truly historic setting.
Now on an investment of €2.5 million the large and spacious roof with an area of 1,300 square metres has been renovated and converted into a large open air bar and restaurant, fronted by the magnificent views of the Grand Harbour. This complements a larger project that includes a virtual museum and updated technology.
Last year conferences staged at the Mediterranean Conference Centre attracted 15,000 persons and overall, 167,000 visitors visited to appreciate the grandeur of the whole building. It is a venue for large and major events including international conferences and concerts but this year has sadly suffered from lack of patronage because of the pandemic,
“We are all in one sea”
An expression to signify that all people and all countries are facing the same problems and challenges – without exception.