The historical importance of Malta’s Grand Harbour

The historical importance of Malta’s Grand Harbour

History in ruins: the medieval watchtower reduced to rubble during World War II, with the Victory Monument standing defiantly in Vittoriosa’scentral square.History in ruins: the medieval watchtower reduced to rubble during World War II, with the Victory Monument standing defiantly in Vittoriosa’scentral square.

In September 2007, the Government launched its Vision of the Grand Harbour in an interesting illustrated brochure highlighting the area’s potential as an exceptional tourist attraction, offering a cornucopia of heritage, tradition, culture and architecture.

The regeneration of the Grand Harbour and its fascinating hinterland has for decades been a pious hope, particularly of those living in the Inner Harbour area.

With apologies to the great English poet William Wordsworth: “Earth has not anything to show more fair” than the visual impact of the Grand Harbour viewed from the sea, particularly at daybreak, with its massive fortifications, stately palaces and magnificent marinas, on which the Knights of St John erected impressive edifices as an ostentatious manifestation of their artistic and aesthetic refinement, their military might as well as their opulence.

This spectacle is sorely missed by most visitors to Malta today. Before the advent of air travel in the immediate post-war period, visitors had no other option but to approach the island via the Grand Harbour, dominated by the capital city of Valletta, which will be the European City of Culture in 2018.

In an illustration in an academic study about Lord Byron, Malta’s capital city, viewed from the sea, is described as “remarkable for the prodigious strength of its fortifications which present from the sea an appearance of unconquerable power”.

This fact was not lost on Malta’s rulers, especially the Knights and later the British, who did their utmost to impress visitors, particularly the influential and well-placed travellers on the Grand Tour.

The Grand Harbour’s fascinating hinterland, showing the Knights’ massive fortifications with the lofty cavaliers of St James and St John.The Grand Harbour’s fascinating hinterland, showing the Knights’ massive fortifications with the lofty cavaliers of St James and St John.

Unfortunately, the many thousands of tourists who visit the Maltese islands every year through the airport are sadly entering Malta via the back door.

Perhaps this article will open a window of opportunity for these visitors to experience layers of history as they unfold during a pleasant boat trip from the Inner Harbour area in Cottonera, Sliema or Valletta.

When the Vision project is completed, visitors may also be able to enjoy walking along the projected promenades stretching from Ricasoli to Bighi, then along the charming Kalkara Creek, stopping for a short while at the pristine Post of Castille, through the newly discovered Sally Port at Xewkija.

The present promenade takes you to the Vittoriosa battlements and on to the elegant yacht marina, currently the prestigious location of the annual vintage race for international classic yachts.

From the yacht marina, in the shadow of the adjoining historic Castrum Maris (Castle by the Sea), more commonly known as Fort St Angelo, past the towering spires of the Maritime Museum, till one reaches Dock No. 1 in Cospicua, with the ornate Knights’ stores lining it.

Strolling to the Macina, one reaches Senglea Wharf, the birthplace of adventurers, admirals and intrepid explorers, with a magnificent view of historic Vittoriosa Marina.

At Senglea Point, one may loiter to see the magnificent, colourful boats at the Regatta Club, and then move on to French Creek, overshadowed by Corradino Heights. One may then resume the walk below Floriana bastions, past the exciting Valletta Waterfront and elegant Pinto Stores, ending up below St Elmo in Valletta.

Malta’s Grand Harbour is undoubtedly one of the finest deep sea harbours in the Mediterranean. In the past, its central position made it an indispensable landfall on the sea routes between Europe and Africa, and an essential coal station between Gibraltar and the Far East, particularly after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

The Mediterranean has been described as the Cradle of Civilisation, or the Sea of Man’s Fate, and the sea that washes three continents, namely Europe, Africa and Asia.

Malta’s geographical position with its superb Grand Harbour, at such a strategic crossroads in the Mediterranean, had a great influence on world affairs out of proportion to its size

Malta’s importance stems from its position which, even in Homer’s time, that is, about 800BC, was looked upon as the ‘navel of the inland sea’.

The tides of history that have flowed over the Mediterranean have left an indelible mark on the Grand Harbour, guarded for many centuries by the imposing promontory of the Castrum Maris.

This time-weathered castle, now being restored to its former glory, has watched so much of Western history pass through it in the struggle between different nations to dominate the whole Mediterranean region.

In recent history, the Castrum Maris and its suburb once again asserted their impressive role when the last British establishment stationed on HMS St Angelo left Malta on March 31, 1979.

To commemorate this auspicious event, a monument was erected on the exact site where the Order of St John had landed in October 1530 to take possession of the Maltese islands.

San Lorenzo-a-Mare, the first conventual church of the Order (from 1530 to 1571).San Lorenzo-a-Mare, the first conventual church of the Order (from 1530 to 1571).

This episode was rekindled 20 years ago when, in 1992, while Prof. Dominic Fenech was preparing his scholarly contribution, Birgu During the British Period, for a two-volume publication Birgu – A Maltese Maritime City, he asked the late Dom Mintoff, Prime Minister in 1979, why Vittoriosa was chosen as the site of the Freedom Monument commemorating the end of British rule.

Mintoff’s typical reply arguably underlines the Grand Harbour’s centrality in major national events: “Vittoriosa was chosen because it was the city that was occupied by foreign forces to turn Malta into an abject island fortress until our times. It was also the city from where the last foreign contingent was made to depart by a four-year-old Republic of Malta, neutral and non-aligned after a long and arduous struggle.”

More recently, Fort St Angelo, the towering citadel in the middle of the Grand Harbour, was the focal point of Malta’s celebrations to mark EU membership in 2004.

The choice of St Angelo as the central point to commemorate Malta’s EU accession recognised this historic fortress as the enclave where the first sparks of European culture germinated in the 13th century during the process of re-Christianisation of the Maltese islands.

It portrayed in microcosm a broad swathe of westernising influences that were being felt on the island in the early 13th century. The influx of merchants, sailors and traders from Pisa, Genoa, Venice and Spanish ports in the late medieval period, who took up residence in the Inner Grand Harbour, created a cosmopolitan admixture that introduced traditions, feasts and customs from the Western world.

Unfortunately, in my student days, the Grand Harbour’s direct impact on Malta’s history, art, culture and architecture was given scant recognition.

Undoubtedly, St Angelo offers an important landmark in this respect; an Anjevin document of 1274 testifies to this enclave’s claim to European sophistication at a time when the rest of the island, with the notable exception of Mdina, in many respects was more North African than European.

The implication and significance of this Anjevin inventory at the Archivio di Stato in Palermo has already been discussed in detail by local medievalists. Musicologists trace the beginning of our recorded musical history to events that occurred in Fort St Angelo.

According to this Anjevin inventory, among the objets d’art that embellished the church of St Angelo were two antiphonaries in Aquitaine notation that are now, presumably, among the rare exhibits at the Mdina Cathedral Museum – undoubtedly the oldest musical records in these islands.

The attraction of the Grand Harbour and its castellan, ensconced in the safety of the massive fortifications of St Angelo, drew to Malta’s shores famous personalities from the European mainland.

It is reliably recorded that the first-ever concert of European music was held in one of the large halls of this fort, when over 800 years ago the famous troubadour Pietr Vidal visited the Castrum Maris in 1204 to sing the praises of the beautiful Grand Harbour and the castle’s keeper Enrico Pescatore, a wealthy and powerful overlord from Genoa.

Furthermore, 200 years ago, the shores of the Valletta marina in the early British period were also inspirational in the outburst of neo-classicism prevalent in Malta at the time, as the unique and exquisite beauty of the Acropolis marbles, known as the Elgin marbles, lay in transit to London along the ornate Pinto Wharf.

The greco-mania that reigned over the island’s intelligentsia at that time was inspired by the exceptional sculptures and architecture of these relics from Athens. This euphoria was immediately expressed in the erection of the exquisite monument in neo-classical style, built in 1810 at the Lower Barrakka to honour Sir Alexander Ball, the first British High Commissioner in Malta.

A few decades later, the British built Bighi Naval Hospital in the neo-classical idiom specifically and ostentatiously at the entrance to the Grand Harbour on the Kalkara promontory, employing Maltese master masons then engaged in the building of the neo-classical Mosta Rotunda.

Many historians suggest that the name Malta is derived from the Phoenician appellation Malet, meaning ‘a safe haven or secure harbour’. And surely it was for the first recorded settlers, the Phoenicians, in about 1,000BC, who arrived from the distant shores of Lebanon.

To these intrepid merchants it was an ideal trading outpost on the dividing line between the eastern and western basins. Here they built their galleys in the complete safety of Porto delle Galere (Galley Creek), now Dockyard Creek.

After the founding of Carthage, a Phoenician settlement in North Africa, the Grand Harbour assumed greater importance being on the trade route between North Africa and Sicily.

Like other superpowers in different epochs, the Carthaginians fully utilised the Grand Harbour for their fleet in their struggle against the Romans during the Punic Wars.

Subsequently, realising its importance, the Romans captured Malta. Evidence of their long sojourn remains scattered all around the Grand Harbour.

Its intensity has recently been revealed at Marsa (an Arabic word for harbour), where huge stone slabs along the inner quay, dating from the Roman period, have recently been discovered at Sciatt il-Kwabar, meaning Fresh-Water Crab Quay, in a marshy area reputed for its fresh-water perennial springs.

From the earliest times, it became clearly evident that Malta’s geographical position with its superb Grand Harbour at such a strategic crossroads in the Mediterranean, had a great influence on world affairs out of proportion to its size. At the risk of being criticised for hyperbole, I maintain that any nation intending to dominate the Mediterranean had first to capture the Grand Harbour, or neutralise its activities, as General Erwin Rommel experienced to his regret during World War II in his North Africa campaign.

The Castrum Maris is the ideal place for a visual presentation of The Grand Harbour Experience, with its unique architecture, majestic halls, chequered history and historical connections with famous personalities

Because of its strategic importance, the Grand Harbour with its hinterland of Cottonera was a specific target, suffering an incessant aerial bombing in the war. Almost its entire urban population was evacuated to the inland towns and villages, in the process causing a social revolution from which Cottonera has not yet completely recovered.

The importance of the Grand Harbour was not lost on the British, who complimented the massive fortifications around the harbour with a line of fortifications known as the Victoria Lines, built in the latter half of the 19th century. This confirms Prof. Denis De Lucca’s assertion that the Grand Harbour “was Malta within Malta”, an asset that brought over to Malta the very best military engineers in the Western world, among whom Francesco Laparelli, Baldassare Lanci, Giovanni da Ferenzuola, Antonio Maurizio Valperga, Charles François de Mondion, René Jacob de Tigné, and lastly Bartolomeo Genga, whose name is included in Giorgio Vasari’s Biography of the Most Renowned Painters and Architects of the 16th Century.

The Castrum Maris fits in perfectly within the scheme to further revitalise the Grand Harbour. The Castrum Maris is the ideal place for a visual presentation of The Grand Harbour Experience, with its unique architecture, majestic halls, chequered history and historical connections with famous personalities like Pietr Vidal, Gonsalvo Monroy, Grand Master Jean de Valette and the world-renowned Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, all lending themselves for re-enactments on site.

It is also perfectly equipped for international concerts, drama and exhibitions on the lines of similar manifestations in less impressive castles in Europe.

Whatever the future holds for this gem of our fortifications, whether it is administered by Heritage Malta or as a joint venture with private enterprise, St Angelo should not be simply a museum piece but a living edifice of our great maritime history.

To be concluded.

The author gratefully acknowledges the use of the archives of the late Marquis Anthony Cassar de Sain.

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