Curious about all those towers and fortifications found across Malta and Gozo? What are they there for? Why were they built? Discover the story behind them in the article below.
zStanding sentinel atop cliffs, hills and outcrops, a handful of ghostly medieval defense towers serve as a reminder of Malta’s Heritage.
Constructed by the Knights of St John in the 17th century, these towers are scattered across Malta, Gozo and Comino. Eagle-eyed Mediterranean travellers will find them familiar; the Knights of St John first built them on the Greek island of Rhodes, having originally taken the idea from Sicily. Only one historical power could inspire such fear in the hearts of Europe’s Christian rulers – the Ottoman Empire and their terrifying Corsair pirates.
Malta, a strategically-positioned and well-equipped island, had long been the prize coveted by belligerent outsiders. In 1565, it was the Ottomans’ turn to try their luck, launching a massive siege. They lost, but most of Malta’s fortifications were destroyed. Subsequent raids and far-too-close-for-comfort fleets demonstrated that Malta’s coasts were woefully exposed. All it would take was one more attempt, and the whole archipelago might become the next vassal of the Sultan.
The Grandmaster at the time, Martin Garzes, realised this. In his lifetime, he commissioned a report that revealed Malta’s extreme vulnerability. But it was in death that he proved most determined – he left a considerable sum of his own money to build Gozo’s first tower at Mġarr (completed in 1607).
Seeing sense in Garzes’ plans, his successor Alof de Wignacourt also personally funded systematic construction of these towers. From 1610, six short and stout mini-castles would survey the seas, raising a smoke or fire signal if trouble was spotted. The network ran all the way along the north coast, allowing urgent messages to be transported faster than any man on horseback. That’s not the only function they served, either – each tower was equipped with a cannon, providing the first line of defence in any attack.
Wignacourt’s towers got their first test in 1614, when Halil Pasha sailed onto the scene. He’d already pillaged the southern part of the island and was heading for the north with 5,000 men. Halil attempted to land in St Paul’s Bay, but the tower there (now known as Wignacourt Tower) fired cannon shots, scaring his ships away. Unfortunately, the Ottomans simply made landfall at neighbouring Mellieħa Bay, which was unguarded. Malta suffered yet another raid, but it had shown that Wignacourt’s towers worked. Now all the Knights had to do was build more of them.
The Order began to finance the construction of coastal towers and fortifications. Wignacourt’s successor, Lascaris, built ten more towers to plug the gaps Wignacourt had left – including at Mellieħa. Most of them were taller than their predecessors, enhancing their role in communication. Lascaris even built one inland, so the walled city of Mdina wouldn’t miss out on the latest news.
Perhaps Malta’s most iconic towers, however, were the 13 watchtowers built between 1658 and 1659. Fluted at the base, before rising to a sturdy two storeys, these golden bastions were the brainchild of Grandmaster De Redin – a military man as much as a religious one. Concerned the islands still had weak points, he ensured that each tower could be seen by two of its neighbours, so there’d be no delay in raising the alarm. Each was to be manned by four soldiers, all armed. The towers were Malta’s first message to seaborne threats – try us, at your peril.
Thankfully, no such invaders came. By the end of the 18th century, the towers were obsolete. By the end of the 19th, all but one were decommissioned – the Madliena tower remained in service to the British Army right up until the end of World War 2. The other towers have lived interesting lives, counting police stations, telegraph offices, and even restaurants among their occupations.
Now, there’s an effort to restore all of these fascinating towers to their former glory. Having painstakingly resurrected Saint Mary’s on Comino and Wignacourt Tower, Din l-Art Ħelwa (the Maltese National Trust) recently turned their attention to Sciuta Tower on the south coast. Sciuta, along with many others, is now open to the public – just make sure the flag is flying, so you won’t be mistaken for an unwelcome invader.
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