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Exploring the old capital
Exploring the old capital
Mdina, also known as Medina, Citta Vecchia, Citta Notabile is a fortified city, which served as the island’s capital from antiquity, all the way up to the medieval period. Even today, the city is still confined within its walls and has a population of 300. Let’s get into the history, shall we?
The Silent City was founded as Maleth by Phoenician settlers around the 8th century BC, which was taken over by the Romans in 218
BC, becoming known as Melite. Ancient Melite was around three times larger than the Mdina
we know today. At some point following the fall of the western Roman Empire, a retrenchment was build within the city, reducing it to its
present size, to make the perimeter more easily defendable. In 870, Byzantine Melite was besieged by Aghlabids, led by Halaf al-Hādim.
After the city fell to the invaders, inhabitants were killed, Melite was destroyed and the churches were looted. In fact, marble from Melite’s churches was used to build the castle of Sousse in Tunisia. Archeological evidence suggests that the city was a thriving Muslim settlement by the start of the 11th century. However, by 1091, Malta was subsequently incorporated into the County and later, into the Kingdom of Sicily. The city remained to be the capital of Malta throughout the Middle Ages, all the way up until the arrival of the Order of St John, in 1530. The nobles ceremoniously handed over the keys to Mdina to Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L’Isle- Adam, but the Order settled in Birgu, with Mdina losing its status as capital city.
During the 1540s, the fortifications began to be upgraded and in 1551, the city withstood a brief Ottoman attack. During the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, Mdina was the base of the Order’s cavalry and after the siege, fortifications were again upgraded when the De Redin Bastion was built in the mid-17th century. In 1722, newly elected Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena issued orders for the renovation of
the city, during which strong French Baroque elements were introduced to what was still largely a medieval city.
In 1798, Mdina was captured by French forces. However, a Maltese uprising broke out in September, leading to a two-year uprising and blockade and the locals setting up a National Assembly. It worked! In 1800, the French surrendered and Malta became a British protectorate. Today, Mdina is on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and as one can imagine, is one of Malta’s main tourist attractions, hosting around 750,000 a year. No cars are allowed in Mdina and the city displays an unusual, beautiful mix of Norman and Baroque architecture, including a number of palaces. Folk Fe
Things to see in the silent city
ST PAUL'S CATHEDRAL
This spot is a Roman Catholic Cathedral, dedicated to St Paul the Apostle. Founded in the 12th century, it stands on the site where, according to tradition but often regarded as a myth, Roman governor Publius met St Paul, following his shipwreck on Malta. The original cathedral was severely damaged during the 1693 Sicily earthquake, and therefore, it was dismantled and rebuilt in the Baroque style, according to a design by Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafà between 1696 and 1705 and has often been regarded as his masterpiece. Tickets must be purchased to visit the Cathedral, which can be bought from the museum, on the right of the Cathedral.
KNIGHTS OF ST JOHN EXPERIENCE
The Knights of Malta experience takes visitors back to the 16th century, when the Grand Master L’ Isle Adam arrived in the silent city of Mdina and entered the gates of the fortified city. The special sound effects and lighting, coupled with the life-like figures allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the experience, which is tailor-made for the young and old alike, bringing to life both the terrors and the celebrations of what can only be described as an epic period of Malta’s history. The Knights of Malta experience is on Magazine Street in Mdina and is open seven days a week, between 10am and 5pm.
PALAZZO FALSON HOUSE MUSEUM
Discover the second oldest building in Mdina, the 13th-century palazzo, which exemplifies Sicilian-Norman style. During the Middle Ages, the palace was home to Maltese noble family of Capt. Olof Frederick Gollcher (1889-1962) but it has since been converted into a museum of fine arts and antiquities. Each of the rooms display a treasure trove of artworks, including the Alof de Wignacourt medal, which dates back to 1607, 17th century paintings by Nicolas Pouissin, Mattia Preti, Sir Anthony Van Dyck and others, as well as a library with more than 4,500 books. The museum is located on Villegaignon Street and tickets can be found online, as well as at the museum itself.
MUSEUM OF NATIONAL HISTORY
Mdina’s National Museum of Natural History is housed within the former magisterial palace of justice, an impressive and stunning 18th century building, which was designed in Parisian Baroque style for Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena. The museum has extensive collections of geology and palaeontology, as well as an ornithology collection. The highlight is the birds display, which features exhibits regarding the natural habitats of Maltese birds, fish and mammals, with sections dedicated to Malta’s national bird, Il-Merill and national plant, Widnet il-Baħar.