The Three Cities, Malta



The modern city of Vittoriosa is made up of the old “Three Cities,” of Birgu, Cospicua, and Senglea. It is a fortified city lying on two promontories to the south of the Grand Harbour, with Birgu to the East and Senglea to its West. The third city, Cospicua, joins the others together on the landward side.


The area inland of the twin peninsulas was known as Burmula to the Phoenician Punic settlers from Carthage, meaning “High Place,” due to its elevation. A Temple dedicated to the Goddess Astarte was built at the tip of one peninsular, now the site of Fort St Angelo, which was later dedicated to Juno by the Romans when they built a settlement there. Afterwards the Byzantines occupied the islands from 395 CE until they were taken over by the Saracens in 870 CE.


The first Norman presence was in 1127 under Count Roger. In 1283 the Spanish built the first church, San Lorenzo-a-Mare, dedicated to the Aragon martyred saint, when they occupied the fortress of Castello a Mare.


When the Knights of St John arrived in 1530 they described Birgu as a small defenceless poor town, but realised that the locality was vital in the control of the Grand Harbour. They intended moving the capital there from Mdina, whose inland location was not suitable for their naval requirements. The existing fortification of Castrum Maris, which stood on the headland jutting out into the harbour was reinforced and accessed by a drawbridge from the city, was renamed the Fortress of St Angelo. The Fortress of St Michael was built on the Senglea peninsular, and the capital of the island was moved there from Mdina until 1571. In 1540, due to his split with the catholic state, Henry VIII disbanded the English Knights of St John, therefore the Auberge D'Angleterra in Birgu is the only one on Malta.


On the northern side of the Grand Harbour, a watchtower first built by the Aragonese in 1488 was reinforced in 1533, and named after Erasmus of Formia, Saint Elmo, but due to many threats from the sea by 1552 it was decided to demolish the tower and build a star fort in its place.


Malta came under frequent attacks by Barbary Corsairs and Pirates, as well as by the Turks who had driven them out of Rhodes, and many islanders were taken as slaves. This culminated, in 1565, in what was to become known as the Great Siege. Fort St Elmo withstood a massive bombardment from Turkish cannons on high ground overlooking the fort, the small force of defenders being reinforced by troops crossing the channel from Birgu.


The siege lasted 28 days before the fort fell, only nine of the defenders managing to escape by swimming to safety across the Grand Harbour. The delay however enabled the two fortresses at Birgu and Senglea to be strengthened, and reinforcements to sail from Spain. The remaining Turks were driven off the island or massacred. Following the Great Siege of 1565 Birgu was renamed Vittoriosa, “The Victorius One,” and Senglea called “Citta Invicta.” To further strengthen their position, the Knights built the city of Valletta, named after the Grand Master, and in 1571 made it the new capital of Malta.


When the Inquisition arrived in 1574 they were offered a palace by the Knights, which over the years they turned into a lavish baroque Roman palace. A new church was built on the site of the church of San Lorenzo-a-Mare, which was used by the Inquisitors, and the present building which was started in 1681 became the Collegiate Church of St Lawrence.


Naval warfare had carried on for two centuries between the Ottoman Turks and Christian Europe, both sides capturing property, and slaves. Jewish slaves were used to build Valletta and were not freed until the arrival of Napoleon.


During the mid 17th century Candia (Heraklion on Crete) came under attack from the Ottomans, which was to become the longest siege in history lasting 21 years. When Candia finally fell in 1669 the current Grand Master on Malta, Nicolas Cotoner, knowing that the fortifications of Birgu were outdated, and fearing an imminent attack, set about improving the fortifications. He was responsible for the construction of the Cottonera Lines south of Vittoriosa defending the landward side of the city, and likewise the Floriana Lines defending Valletta. The Main Entrance to the city was over drawbridges and through a complex of three gates set at right angles with killing grounds between. He also saw over the construction of Fort Ricasoli, to guard the harbour entrance along with Fort Elmo.


When Napoleon arrived with his fleet in 1798 his stay was brief, but he still had time to abolish the ruling Inquisition, the Order of St John, and free all the slaves held by them. The French garrison however surrendered to the British blockade in 1800, and the Royal Navy were to stay in Birgu until 1979.


Cottonera Marina


Main Gate Bastion


The Advance Gate


The Couvre Porte


Gate of Provence


The Collegiate Church of St Lawrence


The Inquisitor's Palace


The Auberge D'Auvergne et Provence


The Auberge D'Angleterra


Triq Pacifiku Scicluna


Edward VII Letterbox




Malta Tour