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Survey of Mdina land defences uncovers surviving mediaeval wall

An artist`s impression of how the mediaeval defence walls of Mdina would have looked, showing the main wall, megateichos, the parapet, fasil, and the outer wall, antemurale. Sketch by Stephen C. Spiteri

An artist`s impression of how the mediaeval defence walls of Mdina would have looked, showing the main wall, megateichos, the parapet, fasil, and the outer wall, antemurale. Sketch by Stephen C. Spiteri

A surviving considerable section of a double wall, built in mediaeval times, which formed part of the defences of Mdina, has been uncovered by author and researcher Stephen C. Spiteri.

Mdina fell into rapid decline with the building of Valletta, and by 1658, it was in such a bad state of repair that the Order of St John was toying with the idea of abandoning the old fortress or else razing it to the ground, Mr Spiteri, superintendent of bastions at the Ministry of Resources and Infrastructure, said in an interview.

However, the Maltese strongly opposed that idea.

Mr Spiteri, who has penned several books on the fortifications of the Knights of St John, including "Fortresses of the Knights", said the thorny question of the defence of Mdina continued to preoccupy the Order of St John throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

"The true revival of the old city came with the arrival of French military engineers in the early 18th century. Mdina owes its final form, including fortifications and gateways, to the works undertaken under the direction of the order's resident military engineer, Charles Francois de Mondion.

"The knights felt the need to fortify Mdina because it formed part of the network of communications with the outside world via Gozo and then on to Sicily.

"Before the building of Valletta, the Order had stables in Mdina. In fact, the cavalry from Mdina had gone to attack the Turkish camp in Marsa during the Great Siege of 1565," he said.

Although the system of fortifications at Mdina was thought to have been built completely by the Knights of St John, Mr Spiteri recently discovered that the walls of the land defences were but a cover to the walls built during mediaeval times.

Until recently it was thought that nothing much remained of mediaeval architecture in the old city, he said.

Like many fortified towns of the mediaeval period, a considerable part of Mdina was enclosed within a set of two walls, the outer wall, called megateichos, and the lower outer wall, known as antemurale.

The space between the two rampart walls is known as fasil. A recent survey of the land defences of Mdina, undertaken by Mr Spiteri, has shown that a considerable section of such a double wall has survived and is partly visible, particularly the outer wall which incorporates Greeks Gate.

The best preserved stretch of the outer wall, including its platform is at the back of the De Redin bastion, close to the Bacchus Restaurant.

Mr Spiteri hit on this discovery while carrying out 'detective work' with Mario Farrugia, executive director of Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna.

Another intriguing discovery made by Mr Spiteri and Mr Farrugia was the remains of gun loops dating from the mid-1400s to the 1500s. Each gun loop consists of a large limestone block with a central semi-circular opening that once constituted the lower part of a porthole through which guns could be fired.

"The gun loops and the remains of the wall should be studied further to see how deep the foundations are, apart from seeking other details that could shed light on that period. Moreover, they should be protected from encroaching houses.

"The authorities should continue investigating the city's ancient past hopefully with excavation works along the ramparts," said Mr Spiteri.

Much information is coming to light following excavation works undertaken by the Archaeology Services Cooperative under the supervision of the Museums Department and funded by the Mdina Rehabilitation Committee.

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