spotlight on: birgu

Birgu, also known by its title Città Vittoriosa (“Victorious City“), is an old fortified city on the south side of the Grand Harbour in the South Eastern Region of Malta. The city occupies a promontory of land with Fort Saint Angelo at its head and the city of Cospicua at its base. Birgu is ideally situated for safe anchorage, and over time it has developed a very long history with maritime, mercantile and military activities.

Birgu, also known as Città Vittoriosa, is a fortified city on the south side of the Grand Harbour, in the South Eastern region of the island.

One of the three cities, situated in the Harbour, are enclosed with five kilometres of fortifications, built at the end of the 17th century.

The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Angevines, Aragonese and the Order of St. John have all contributed to the development of Birgu. The latter even made Birgu the capital of Malta during the 1500’s. The city was fortified in the 1530s and strengthened further in the 1550s, in preparation for an attack by the Ottoman Empire. This included the construction of the Castle of St. Angelo, a large fortification, separated from the city by a narrow channel.

Before the arrival of the Knights of St. John in 1530, Birgu was already a maritime city, due to its ideal position. Birgu was the site of major battles during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 and despite the city almost being captured by the Ottoman army, it was recaptured by the Knights.

Reinforcements from Sicily arrived a month later and the Ottomans abandoned the siege. By 1571, the Knights transferred their convent to the new capital city of Valletta and Birgu was given the title Città Vittoriosa, Italian for ‘Victorious City.’

The inquisition came to Malta in 1575, and ended in 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte expelled the inquisition. The Inquisitor’s Palace is open to the public and one may still visit the original rooms, which served as tribunals, torture chambers, prison cells and the piano nobile.

During this time, the Grand Harbour area was blockaded by Maltese rebels, aided by Britain, Portugal and Naples.

birgu and isla

Photo: James Bianchi

The French eventually capitulated by 1800, and Malta became a British protectorate. The Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet established its base in Birgu and remained stations until 1979.

In recent years, due to an agreement made by the Maltese government with Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the Catholic Order of Knighthood returned to the island. The agreement, which has a duration of 99 years, grants the Knights of Malta exclusive use of Fort St. Angelo.

some spots in birgu worth visiting

fort st. angelo

fort st. angelo

Photo: james bianchi

A bastioned fort, dominating the Grand Harbour. Originally built in the medieval period, as a castle called the Castrum Maris (Castle by the Sea). It was rebuilt by the Order of St. John, and called Fort St. Angelo, between the 1530s and the 1560s and was best known for its role as the Order’s headquarters during the Great Siege.

The Knights remodelled the building extensively with the construction of a series of artillery platforms, which marked the introduction of the bastioned system of defence into the Maltese Islands. A major reconstruction to designs of Carlos de Grunenbergh took place in the 1690s, giving the fort the appearance we see today. The Fort is open to the public, Monday-Sunday, between 9am and 4:30pm

malta maritime museum

malta maritime museum

Housed within the Old Naval bakery, the museum charts 7000 years of the Islands’ maritime history, ranging from prehistory to the present day. Having started from nothing in 1988, without a single artefact, today, the museum boasts a collection of over 20,000 artefacts. This collection was acquired by the constant search for, identification and acquisition of artefacts related to the museum’s mission.

Visitors can take a look at exhibitions such as the largest known Roman anchor in the world, the earliest known exvoto on the island, the largest ship belonging to the Order of St. John, the largest collection of cannons in Malta and the Napoleonic figurehead of the 110 gun ship HMS Hibernia, a 1950s working marine steam engine, just to name a few. The museum is open Monday-Sunday, between 9am and 4:30pm.

inquisitor's palace

The inquisitor's palace

Photo: Heritage Malta

Throughout its five centuries of history, the Palace always hosted high-ranking officials, representing the main powers on the Island, who ultimately, ensured its survival. Mgr Pietro Dusina arrived in Malta in 1574, as the first General Inquisitor and apostolic delegate of the Islands. He was offered the palace as an official residence, by the Grand Master.

Almost all successive inquisitors sought to reform the palace, as they all shared the same cultural values of clerical baroque Roman society, and by the mid-18th century, they had succeeded in transforming the building into a typical Roman palace. The Palace is open to the public, Monday-Sunday, between 9am and 4:30pm

the church of st. lawrence

the church of st. lawrence

Photo: James bianchi

In the ‘Rollo’ of the benefices of the churches and chapels on the Maltese Islands, held by Bishop de Mello in 1436, a total of 12 chapels are mentioned. The Church of San Lorenzo a Mare was one of them.

When the Order of St. John first settled in Malta, the Church of St. Lawrence was used as their first conventual church in Malta. It served its purpose for 41 years, from 1530 to 1571, until the Knights were transferred to Valletta. In 1941, the church was bombed by a German air raid, with both the sacristy and the chapter hall having been destroyed.

During the same year, the chapel of the blessed Sacrament was destroyed and in 1942, the dome too. The chapel was re-built in 1951 and the dome in 1952.