Malta was the strategic centre of many wars. Centrally located in the Mediterranean Sea, the islands were ideally suited as a springboard between continents in wartime. Now superfluous, but significant at the time, was the defence system that Malta had. You can still see this strongly in the landscape, especially when you fly over the islands.
You will see several fortresses, especially around the main port of Valletta. These fortresses date back to the time when there were knights in Malta. These knights had the best architects to keep the quality and construction of the fortifications at a high level. Today, these structures are still among the best military defences ever built in Europe.
Valletta harbour and the three cities
The defences around the main port provide protection for the military shipping fleet. The bastions around Valletta’s natural harbour extend over an area of 25 km. If you happen to be in Valletta at night as a tourist, you can see the bastions beautifully lit up. The bastions contrast spectacular with the lights at night, which gives the city a romantic appearance.
Mdina and its walls
The city of Mdina dominates the heart of Malta. This beautiful walled city is partly protected by the construction of narrow alleys, but also by the walls that tower high above the houses and buildings.
On Gozo, the sister island of Malta, there is a counterpart of Mdina: the Cittadella. Victoria’s Cittadella dates back to the Bronze Age, around 1500 BC. The Cittadella was originally the Acropolis of the Roman city of Gaulos. In the Middle Ages, the Cittadella functioned as a castle and in the 15th century, the knights built a wall around it and expanded the Cittadella with suburbs, now the city centre.
Unfortunately, the walls were not high enough for the Ottomans, who plundered the Cittadella in 1551. Today, the northern walls still have the same shape as in the Middle Ages. For a long time, there were plans to tear down the walls, but that never happened. Since the British Empire, the walls have lost their military status (1868). The Cittadella is now on the World Heritage List of Malta.
Several watchtowers were built around Malta, a remarkable example is the well known the ‘Red Tower’. The watchtowers are accessible to tourists. The towers are strategically placed and most of them are still standing and have been renovated. During attacks on Malta, soldiers could communicate with each other through these towers and defend the island.
St. Agatha Tower (the Red Tower) / Mellieha
Located in the north of Malta, this tower is clearly visible on a hill with its bright red colour. The tower overlooks Mellieha Bay on one side and the channel between the islands and the northwest coast of the archipelago on the other. This tower also served as a guard post and is on the militia list of 1417. Originally, the tower is known for the altar it contained, dedicated to Saint Agatha. This was a Christian martyr who was revered as a symbol against invasions.
The tower was an excellent means of communication between the watchtowers on Comino, Gozo and Malta. It was called the Red Tower because it was painted red, probably to be easily recognized by the sentries in Mdina and Naxxar. The tower’s original stone is also red, unlike the white towers that exist in Malta, such as those in Gnejna and Armier Bay. The tower was then painted extra red so that ships could easily recognize it from the sea.
Funding for the tower came from Grandmaster Wignacourt, but was recovered from the people through taxes. The same Grandmaster also financed the white towers, but the red tower was the largest ever made. The red tower was seen as a necessity when the Ottomans tried to storm Malta from the sea via Mellieha Bay.
The Victoria Lines
A well-known defence system is the Victoria Lines. This wall was built by the British in the 19th century and served as a military defence. The lines are 12 km long and used to contain batteries, redoubts, forts, and infantry lines. It also further divided Malta into north and south. It is a complex network of linear fortifications and unique in military architecture. The Victoria Lines were intended to stop invading forces in the north of Malta, to preserve the military fleet in the Grand Harbour.