Malta Diary Malta and its walls and bastions – “For sheer concentration and majesty quite unmatched”
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Man and walls. They have worked together since the start of recorded history. Some walls were built to safeguard, protect and keep others out and some were built to keep people in!
The Great Wall of China was built over many kilometres to protect Chinese Dynasties from Mongolian invaders. Hadrian’s Wall across the north of England was built by the Romans to keep out the Picts and the Scots. The Berlin Wall was built across Germany after WWII to keep people IN Communist East Germany and stop them escaping to West Germany! Now US President Donald Trump wants a giant wall between Mexico and the USA to keep the Mexicans out.
Together with all these, Malta also has a claim to have been the most fortified country in the world almost right into the 20th Century. Malta’s walls and impressive bastions were built to protect, safeguard and keep invaders out.
The British architect Quentin Hughes described Malta’s fortifications that, “For sheer concentration and majesty are quite unmatched”.
In his book “The Story of Malta” published in 1893, the author and historian Maturin Murray Ballou wrote that, “There is not a more complete system of fortifications extant, in any part of the world, than the cordon of defence structures in Malta”.
From a military strategy point of view, Major General Whitworth Porter from the British Regiment the Royal Engineers labeled Malta as “The most powerful artificial fortress in the world”.
The question arises that if Malta and Gozo make up one of the smallest countries and nations in the world – why so many protective walls and structures?
The reason of course is Malta’s highly sensitive geographic location in the world at a time when the recorded history of human civilization decreed that the world is centred around the European continent and that the Mediterranean Sea was therefore the most essential sea in Europe.
Slap-bang in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea at a period where the almost exclusively main means of voyaging and travel were ships at sea; at a time when sea voyages were of many days’ duration; at a time when there was of course no refrigeration – Malta was an essential base for rest and replenishment of ships for those that wanted to dominate the southern European region and the north African coast – and hence, the fulcrum of the “civilized” world.
Malta is full of citadels, fortresses, military batteries, towers, defensive redoubts, entrenchments, watch towers and pillboxes and extensive bastions that would have been impossible to scale and remain alive before reaching the top and entering.
It all started off with the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Byzantines, some BC, some AD. These built walls around their important settlements, particularly in the areas that later became Mdina (known as The Walled City and today termed as The Silent City) and the Cittadella in Gozo. These were chosen because they are situated on the peaks of hills, the walls built as defence to supplement the difficulty of first having to climb the hilly terrain.
However, the epic building of walls and bastions goes to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem in Malta when the major developments took place. Driven out of Rhodes by the Ottomans, they were highly determined not to suffer the same fate in Malta. The capital city at the time was Mdina near the central part of the island. This was already fortified.
However, the Knights wanted to be in a seashore locality and they chose Vittoriosa as their headquarters, on the rim of the Grand Harbour, which they fortified together with nearby Senglea.
These development took place in the 15th and 16th Centuries and after the Great Siege of the Ottomans was finally repelled on 8th September in 1565, the then Grand Master, the Frenchman Jean Parisot de la Valette, decided Malta needed a new capital city, a city that straddled the seashore and needed to overlook two harbours and thus a peninsula.
The Mount Sciberras peninsula was chosen as the ideal location and Valletta came into being, highly fortified by bastions all around and the inclusion of a number of forts including St Angelo and St Elmo. Watch towers were also built all around the island coast.
The drill was this: watch towers kept a 24/7 lookout; at the appearance on the horizon of a ship that was determined to be alien and hostile a huge fire would be built, the billows of smoke raising the alarm; farmers and those living outside walled areas would make haste and rush towards a walled city or fortification.
The penalty for being captured would either be death or “recruitment” into galley slavery for men; women and children were transported back to Turkey, the women to be used as prostitutes and servants, the children to be raised in Islam.
After the Knights were ousted by Napoleon Bonaparte and the French, who themselves were ousted by Lord Horatio Nelson and the British at the turn of the 18th Century, the British constructed a number of forts and pillboxes to serve as important sea lookouts.
The era of the importance of bastions and walls in Malta and Gozo dwindled with the aerial innovation which rendered them pretty useless and even more today when at the touch of a nuclear button, Malta and Gozo would disappear off the face of the earth!
It’s a daunting thought!
“A liar has s short span of life”
A phrase normally used to describe a person after they have been caught out telling lies. It signifies you can lie today, lie and lie again, but eventually you will get caught out and exposed.