Photo by Sascha Steinbach
From my restaurant terrace, I can look out over Grand Harbour towards the fortifications of Valletta, Malta's capital.
Intimidating even now, in the age of aerial assault and cruise missiles, the massive walls must have seemed impregnable when they were first built. Made of the same honeyed sandstone as the island itself, they grow organically out of the rock. It is hard to believe they are the work of mere men and perhaps best not to think of the suffering that went into their construction by slaves under the searing Mediterranean sun.
“After the Great Siege of 1565, the knights swore that Malta would be impregnable and lost no time in building the walls,” says military historian Russell Malone, a regular visitor to the island. “For four months, the future of Christian Europe had hung in the balance as 500 Knights of St. John and 5,000 soldiers – including around 3,000 Maltese – fought off some 30,000 Turks. The Ottoman Empire had been repulsed, but had threatened to come back, bigger and stronger.”
As I eat my lunch, a loud bang bursts from a cannon high on Valletta’s walls. The sound echoes around the harbor, drawing all eyes toward a puff of smoke that disperses languidly in the still air. I am sitting at the foot of Fort St. Angelo, where the defenders had faced daily attacks from the Turkish cannon in a similar position on what was then called Mount Sciberras. No wonder that afterward they threw themselves into making sure this rock would never be a threat to them again, and indeed would be the keystone of their defense.
This Saluting Battery gun sounds every day at noon and 4pm, a tradition that allowed shipmasters to set their chronometers at midday and warn citizens the gates were about to close at sunset. The gates and the walls must have been a welcoming haven for the people of Malta, who knew how fortunate was their escape.
“The Knights’ Grand Master, Jean de Valette – who led the defense during the Great Siege at the age of 70 and after whom the new city was later named – had spent a year as a Turkish galley slave. His soldiers were willing to fight to the death, because they knew what the alternative was. On Gozo, one nobleman killed his wife and daughters before dying himself fighting against the pirates.”
Malta’s history, and particularly the legacy of the knights, drew Dominic Micallef into studying the past. “As a child, when I walked into Valletta I was always intrigued by the high walls,” he says. “That made me curious about history. Here in Malta we are at the center of the Mediterranean, with three important harbors, and whoever controlled Malta controlled the central Mediterranean. So they sought to build fortifications.
We tend to think about the knights because their work is so evident but the fortifications go back into prehistory. It is a deep, completely natural, navigable harbor. It brought the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, one occupation after another.”
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