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Your Guide to Malta and Gozo - Mdina

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Citta' Notabile




A proto-society may have existed on the Rabat plateau as long ago as the bronze age. It was under the Phoenicians however this settlement thrived and evolved into a town - they called it Maleth. The city flourished under the Romans; according to Greek historian Diodorus Siculus writing in the First Century, Melitae, as it was known in Roman times, was embellished with many "fine buildings"; sadly, few of these majestic structures have survived, although the Domus Romana, with its intricate mosaic floors attests to a glorious Roman past.

The subsequent history of Melitae is shrouded in mystery, and writings and archaeological cues are too scant to shed much light. Several small-sized catacombs outside the city walls suggest that in Byzantine times, a significant Christian community exisited within Mdina or its environs.

Tha Aghlabid Arab invaders renamed the city Medina, or Mdina.

In Medieval times, fief holders – often Noble families from Sicily or Spain – would take up residence in Mdina. A Jewish community never completely achieved integration with the regular inhabitants of the city, partly because intermarriage was barred. Although historians have been unable to specify an exact date, it appears that in the Middle Ages, the perimeter of Mdina was reduced to enclose the area that it does today.

Mdina was not of much interest to the seafaring Knights of St. John. Its defensive bastions were in a state of disrepair, and at any rate outdated. The Knights based their headquarters in Birgu whose proximity to the harbour better suited their requirements. Funds were henceforth channeled towards the fortification of Birgu and later, Valletta. Mdina became a mere shadow of its former self.

The Governorship of Mdina – or the Universita' – insisted that the defence of Malta still came under its jurisdiction, as had been the case prior to the arrival of the Order. The Knights would not relinquish this crucial role, but largely granted the Universita' the administration of Mdina's fortifications and some other coastal defences.

In 1566, Laparelli drew up plans for the repair and upgrade of Mdina's defences but it appears that his suggestions went largely unheeded, perhaps due to lack of funding. Mdina's decline continued unabated. The early 17th Century was Mdina's nadir. By 1645 there was a consensus that the defence capacity of Mdina was slight and a number of structures, including the Bastions of St. Peter and St. Paul were on the verge of collapse. Fate did not seem to favour the bastions, as a scheme by Grand Master de Redin to personally finance their reconstruction under the supervision of Blondel fell through with his death in February 1660.

Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena saw to the rebuilding of much of the city and its fortifications after the devastating earthquake of 1693. Soon after his election, he ordered trenches to be dug around city walls to help stave off any Turkish invasion, at the expense of the Universita'. He also built his Magesterial Palace that bears his name until today and relocated the main gate to its present site.

Repair works on the Despuig bastion were undertaken in 1739, whilst St. Paul's bastion underwent an upgrade between 1745 and 1750.