Aerial View of Mdina

Mdina

Malta’s old capital, the Silent City, Ċitta' Notabile, some of the names Mdina has been given during its amazing history which spans thousands of years but also different empires and civilisations.
 
It is not yet clear whether the Temple Builders were present on the hilltop now occupied by Mdina but recent archaeological excavations have revealed remains from the Bronze Age. Through ancient written sources we know that the city was known as Melite and was occupied by the Carthaginians. Phoenician tombs have been widely found in areas surrounding Mdina, especially on the next hilltop at Mtarfa. The  Romans conquered Malta from the Carthaginians in 218 BC.
 
Back then Mdina was much larger, its walls enclosing an extensive area of Rabat. In fact part of the ancient Roman ditch is located behind the main church in Rabat while a Roman country villa, the Domus Romana and Roman Christian catcombs have been located just beyond the current walls of Mdina.  It is highly likely that the city was reduced in size during the time of the Byzantines. The latter were defeated in battle by the Arab forces who changed the name of the city to the one by which it is still known, Mdina.
 
After the Normans conquered the Maltese Islands back into the Christian fold in 1090 AD, various noble families settled in Mdina however Malta’s destiny was far from settled. The Maltese Islands passed to the German Hohenstaufen dynasty which was defeated by the Angevins from France. The Angevins were later defeated in the Battle of Malta by the crown of Aragon. The Maltese noble families gained particular importance after a Royal Charter dated 20th June 1482 from King Alfonso V confirmed the right of the Maltese to excercise local power over the islands.This gave the Maltese Islands a degree of independence, setting up a local government, the Universita' and the Consiglio Popolare, or local Council, which could deliberate local affairs but  had no legislative power.
 
When the Knights of St John arrived, this self-governing power was lost, which caused a great deal of resentment among the the nobles; in fact they sent a representative to protest to Viceroy of Sicily. Since Mdina’s fortifications were quite inadequate and the Knights needed to be close to their gallies in harbour, they opted to defuse the situation by making Birgu their base, leaving the nobles to their splendid isolation in Mdina. It was only after the highly destructive earthquake of 1693 that the knights of St John moved in and left their imprint through the remodelling of Mdina.

The Mdina gate was built under the patronage of Grandmaster de Vilhena of the Order of St John in 1724. Mdina’s fortifications had been been ignored for a long period of time but after the great 1693 earthquake, Manoel de Vilhena took the opportunity to imprint the Order’s image on Mdina, commissioning French Engineer Charles Francois de Mondion to remodel the old city and its defenses.

On the left hand side of the gate in the wall there are the remains of the older drawbridge gate dating to Mdina’s Arab age. This gate led to a labyrinthine entrance to the old city: all those who entered had to zig-zag through a narrow passage before entering the citadel, which would allow the defenders to ambush invaders if they managed to penetrate past the gate.  

De Redin Bastion rises out of the deep moat beneath the bridge. This bastion system forms part of Malta’s fortifications which were among the most advanced of their day as in addition to having their own resident European engineer, the Knights would regularly call to Malta leading European fortifications experts to advise on the strengthening of the fortifications. At the back of the main gate there is a lunette sculpted in high relief shows the three patron saints of the city: Saint. Publius, Saint. Paul and Saint Agatha. There are also the arms of the city and of the Inguanez family. The Inguanez were for many years the Governors of Mdina.

The Vilhena Palace also known as the Magisterial Palace was constructed by Grandmaster de Vilhena in 1722 on the site of the medieval Arab entrance into Mdina which once housed the medieval local government of the Universita'. The design of the building is one of the best works by the Order’s French resident engineer, de Mondion and hence, in 1726 this Mdina palace was built in the Parisian Baroque style.  the Vilhena Palace also served as a hospital during the 1847 cholera outbreak and continued to serve as a hospital for tuberculosis patients until the early 20th century.

Since 1973 the Palazzo became the National Museum of Natural History, today managed by Heritage Malta. This life and earth sciences museum is the national repository of biological specimens  presenting themes such as human evolution, insects, birds and habitats and marine ecosystems. 

Opposite this at St. Publiuis Square the Torre dello Standardo signal tower was built in the early 18th century replacing an older 16th century tower. The arms of De Vilhena and the city of Mdina were put on the tower after its remodelling. A signal fire on this tower would send a warning to a chain of towers in the surrounding towns and villages, warning the population that enemy corsairs were sighted approaching Malta.

At Misraħ il-Kunsill there is the Xara Palace, currently a hotel, which dates from thefifteenth century. Adjoining Xara Palace you can witness Herald’s Loggia where the Town Herald use to read the proclamations issued by the Universita', that used to manage the island’s local affairs in the fifteenth century. Opposite the Xara Palace the facade of the Corte Capitanale, which forms part of the Vilhena Palace looks down on the square. This building used to house the Courts of Justice, its statues of Mars, the God of war, and Justice, reminding the population that  the Order would not hesitate to impose order through justice or the sword. Today the Corte Capitanale houses the Local Council of Mdina.

The chapel of St Agatha dates back to 1410 but in 1693 it was also damaged during during the earthquake. The chapel was rebuilt on the design of Lorenzo Gafa and opened in the presence of Grand Master Adrien de Wignacourt  in 1695. Commemarative medals were buried in the masonry to mark the event. The nunnery  of St Benedict was founded in the fifteenth century in the location of a previous hospital of St. Peter. The monastery has undergone many modifications during the years but the architecture is predominantly Baroque.

The present imposing portal in Triq Villegaignon is a 19th century creation however various artefacts have been unearthed from the gardens of Casa Inguanez, which are largely attributed to the Roman Melite period. The Inguanez are Malta’s oldest aristocratic family, parts of the Palazzo dating back to the 14th century. Casa Testaferrata, the residence of the Marquis of St Vincent Ferreri. He was another member of the Maltese nobility who was given this title in 1716 by King Philip V of Spain

The Banca Giuratale was built in 1730 as the new ‘home’ of the Universita'. The portal on the top of the doorway is richly decorated with armour, arms and flags while trophy sculptures on each corner of the building are made up of symbols of the Knights’ military power. 

In the square next to the Banca Giuratale one finds the house used by the chief magistrate. Casa Gourgion stands on the upper left corner of the square, boasting a beautiful ceramic roundel. Next to it a Victorian neo-Gothic house dating to the British period, contrast strikingly with the rest of the buildings. The square is dominated by St. Paul’s Cathedral, a baroque twin-belfried cathedral was rebuilt in 1702, after in 1693, the previous Romanesque Cathedral dating back to the 13th century, was badly damaged by a violent earthquake that wiped out much of Sicily. The new cathedral was designed by Lorenzo Gafa, a very well known Maltese architect who designed several churches around the Maltese Islands in Baroque style. This square was created when several streets and houses were cleared to create an open square in front of the cathedral appropriate to the size and splendour of the church.

The Archbishop Palace was constructed after the earthquake of 1693. However, Mdina had been the seat of the Bishop from the 16th century. The French General Vaubois dined here in 1798 as the guest of his conquered enemy. The Cathedral Museum is housed in an 18th century palace built as a diocesan seminary by Bishop Alpheran de Bussan and designed by Andrea belli. The museum collection includes objets d’art, Cathedral archives, archives of the Inquisition and those of the old Universita'. 

From the bastions of Bastion Square one can view most of Malta, from Paola to Valletta, Sliema and Mosta with the very visible Rotunda church dome, said to be the third largest in the world. St Paul’s Bay and Mtarfa are closest, Mtarfa being the nearest hill to the left which  is thought to have been the burial place when Malta formed part of the Roman Empire. 

Palazzo Falson dates from 1495 and was build by Admiral Falson. When the knights of St John arrived in Malta in 1530, Grandmaster Isle Adam was received in this house. On the outside of the facade of the building you can observe the beautiful double windows, divided by slender calonettes; they date from the 15th century Mdina Palazzo Falson which was bought by Captain Olof Frederick Gollcher in 1927. 

The Carmelite Church and Convent is remembered for the important historical event of 1798. The revolt against the French was started when the French were about to auction the tapestries and other artifacts taken from this Church and the ringing of the Carmelite church bells are known to have signalled the start of the resistance. The present church was built in 1659 on design of Francesco Sammut, however Lorenzo Gafa is known to have been involved. The altar-piece of the 'Annunciation’ was produced by Maltese artist Stefano Erradi.

The original Palazzo Santa Sofia was a one storey building, but in 1939 another floor was built imitating late medieval style. The ground floor was mostly used for stores, stables and the kitchen.On the side of Palazzo Santa Sophia in St Sophia Street you can witness a siqifah. The 'siqifah' is an arched passageway tunnelled into massively built ground floors of buildings and leading into the courtyard or 'cortile domorum' area, round which houses were normally built. In this case the 'siqifah' opens into the narrow street thus bisecting the building into two areas.

St Roque Chapel was constructed in 1728 and is sometimes known as the chapel of ‘Our Lady of the Light’. St Roque was invoked especially in the times of diseases such as the plague.  At that time St Roque’s chapel was located near the entrance to the city but it was demolished during Vilhena’s replanning of the city and relocated to its present location.

At the corner between Mesquita street and Gatto Murina street stands the the 14th  century Gatto-Murina Palace. The double windows together with their scupltured hood moulds can be noticed. Mesquita Square contains also a number of 17th century houses. In this square you can notice that some houses have a Muxrabija. 
 
St. Nicholas Chapel was built in 1550 and was rebuilt to the designs of Lorenzo Gafa in 1692. St Nicholas is a very popular saint in the eastern Orthodox religion and this part of Mdina was frequented by residents of Imdina hailing from Greece who were mostly occupied in humble occupations like garbage collection which was strictly regulated in order to avoid disease in the citadel.

Magazines Street is named because of the storehouses in the street that used to house weapons and ammunition. Once in Magazines street you will notice the ‘hole in the wall’, which is of recent construction. Through this tunnel you can see the old Valletta-Mdina railroad station built outside Mtarfa in 1890. 

Greek or slave’s gate as it is known, was also built by Vilhena during the remodelling of Mdina in 1727. It seems that de Mondion did not order the demolition of the old gate but added a new Baroque skin onto it. The gate is called ‘Greeks’ gate’ due to the Greek community that lived in the southwest of the city in the 16th and 17th centuries. St. Paul is commemorated in the inscription on Greek’s gate.
 
Photos by Mark Spiteri.


The main gate to Mdina built after 1693 by De Mondion using the Baroque style
The main gate to Mdina built after 1693 by De Mondion using the Baroque style
De Redin Bastion rises out of the deep moat
De Redin Bastion rises out of the deep moat
De Redin Bastion rises out of the deep moat beneath the bridge
De Redin Bastion rises out of the deep moat beneath the bridge
The remains of the older drawbridge gate
The remains of the older drawbridge gate
At the back of the main gate there is a lunette sculpted with the three patron saints of the city: Saint. Publius, Saint. Paul and Saint Agatha
At the back of the main gate there is a lunette sculpted with the three patron saints of the city: Saint. Publius, Saint. Paul and Saint Agatha
The Vilhena Palace also known as the Magisterial Palace
The Vilhena Palace also known as the Magisterial Palace
Today the Vilhena Palace houses the National Museum of Natural History
Today the Vilhena Palace houses the National Museum of Natural History
The Torre dello Standardo
The Torre dello Standardo
The Corte Capitanale
The Corte Capitanale
The chapel of St Agatha
The chapel of St Agatha
The nunnery  of St Benedict 1
The nunnery of St Benedict 1
The nunnery  of St Benedict 2
The nunnery of St Benedict 2
The Banca Giuratale
The Banca Giuratale
Casa Testaferrata
Casa Testaferrata
The Casa Gourgion and the Victorian neo-Gothic house
The Casa Gourgion and the Victorian neo-Gothic house
Balconies on a house at the Triq Villegaignon street
Balconies on a house at the Triq Villegaignon street
Close up of the balconies on a house at the Triq Villegaignon street
Close up of the balconies on a house at the Triq Villegaignon street
Alley leading to Xara Palace from St Paul's Cathedral
Alley leading to Xara Palace from St Paul's Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral 1
St. Paul’s Cathedral 1
St. Paul’s Cathedral 2
St. Paul’s Cathedral 2
The Archbishop Palace
The Archbishop Palace
The Cathedral Museum
The Cathedral Museum
Part of Bastion Square
Part of Bastion Square
Bastion Square
Bastion Square
The view from the Bastion overlooking Mtarfa
The view from the Bastion overlooking Mtarfa
Another view from the Bastion Square
Another view from the Bastion Square
Another view from the Bastion Square showing the bastions under restoration
Another view from the Bastion Square showing the bastions under restoration
A close up view of the Mosta Church the Rotunda from Mdina bastions
A close up view of the Mosta Church the Rotunda from Mdina bastions
Palazzo Falson
Palazzo Falson
The Carmelite Church and Convent 1
The Carmelite Church and Convent 1
The Carmelite Church and Convent 2
The Carmelite Church and Convent 2
Palazzo Santa Sofia
Palazzo Santa Sofia
The 'siqifah' an arched passageway
The 'siqifah' an arched passageway
A typical alley in Mdina
A typical alley in Mdina
Another alley in Mdina showing a closed passageway on the left wall
Another alley in Mdina showing a closed passageway on the left wall
Street to St Nicholas Church
Street to St Nicholas Church
St Nicholas Church
St Nicholas Church
Part of Magazine Street
Part of Magazine Street
At the beginning of St Peter's Street from Magazine Street there's another chapel dedicated to St Peter of chains
At the beginning of St Peter's Street from Magazine Street there's another chapel dedicated to St Peter of chains
Greeks' Gate
Greeks' Gate

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