By now, you probably know that our tiny island nation of Malta is steeped in history and culture. From the Romans to the Arabs to the Order of Saint John to the British, colonizers who occupied our country left their mark – be it architectural, linguistic, culinary, or what have you.
The varied legacies of our past come together in arguably their most concentrated form in the Three Cities, the name for the three fortified towns of Birgu, Senglea, and Cospicua, which lie on the eastern side of the Grand Harbour, opposite the capital Valletta.
Birgu, also known as Vittoriosa, has been around since the Middle Ages, while Senglea and Cospicua were founded by the Order of Saint John, the multinational Catholic military order that ruled Malta from 1530 until 1798.
Fun fact: Under the Order of St. John, Birgu was the de facto capital of Malta until Valletta was built and officially became the capital in 1571.
Useful fact: Cottonera is an alternate name for the Three Cities – something you should know if you’ll be attending AUM this fall!
Let’s take a few moments to survey the top five historical sites in the Three Cities:
Fort St. Angelo
Recently restored and opened to the public, Fort St. Angelo was originally built as a castle called Castello Al Mare during the Medieval Period. It was redesigned as a fort by the Order of St. John, which gave it its current name.
The fort is best known for serving as the Order’s headquarters during the famous Great Siege of Malta in 1565, when the Ottoman Empire invaded our islands.
Due to its strategic position, the fort has consistently played a crucial role in Malta’s history.
Malta Maritime Museum
For those of you who love the sea and the multitude of vessels – from rickety to sturdy and dependable – with which humanity has sought to travel its length and breadth, this one’s for you!
The Malta Maritime Museum showcases the country’s maritime history, from ancient times to the present day, within its Mediterranean and global contexts. It has a whopping 20,000 artifacts in its possession, many of which are on display at any given time. The collection includes an assortment of seafaring vessels, uniforms, anchors, cannons, weapons, paintings, and much more.
Somewhat fittingly, the museum is housed in the former Royal Naval Bakery, built during the 1840s for the Mediterranean Fleet, which formed part of the (British Empire’s) Royal Navy.
Also known as the Sacred Palace, the Inquisitor’s Palace is located in the heart of Birgu. It was the seat of the Maltese inquisition for 224 years!
The Inquisition was established in Malta in September 1574. In addition to serving as the general inquisitor’s home and base of operations over the years, the Palace housed the Maltese Inquisition’s tribunals and prisons.
This building is one of the few surviving palaces of its kind in the entire world! Did we mention that it’s the only one open to the public?
Malta at War Museum
Calling all World War II history buffs – here’s something you’ll appreciate!
The Malta War Museum is dedicated to covering all aspects of Malta’s participation in the Second World War. Its collection consists of memorabilia such as weapons, medals, uniforms, and other items. You can also watch original footage of the war itself, such as “Malta G.C.” (1943), a propaganda film that is the first ever documentary on the Maltese Islands.
Interestingly enough, the museum is housed in an 18th-century army barracks which served as a police station and civil defense center during the war. Not only that, but it sits atop a massive underground air raid shelter.
Notre Dame Gate
As you stand before it, let your sight linger on this imposing multi-level structure, historically the main gate of a string of fortifications called the Cottonera lines.
The Notre Dame Gate was built in the Baroque Style in 1675. Due to being situated at the highest point of the Cottonera area, it was used to send signals to Valletta and other coastal defenses on the eastern side of Malta.
BONUS: The Cities Themselves
Every moment spent wandering about the streets of the Cottonera area immerses you further in a life-sized historical model of Maltese urban life. Every turn of a corner will feel like traveling back through time, bringing you surprises galore. After all, the Three Cities played a vital role in weaving together the strands of Malta’s variegated story – much of which receives expression through the country’s architecture.
For those of you who love snapping photographs of urban areas redolent of history and culture, the Three Cities are an absolute must!
Here at AUM, we give our students a taste of Maltese and Mediterranean history through our courses as well as through outings and several hands-on activities. This way, our students can experience what they learn first-hand. Meanwhile, if you have any questions about Malta and its history, our resident history professor will be more than happy to help you out.