The City of Bormla  


In the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the islands of Malta are a vivid and unique museum of mankind from prehistoric times to the days of the great Empires, full of architectural jewels and works of art. Malta is world heritage and all those who ruled the Mediterranean either for their seafaring and colonial intentions or for trade.


The topography of Bormla stretches over five conspicuous hills known as Ta’ Pazan, Ta Santa Margerita, Tal-Gonna, Ta’ german and Ta’ Kordin, while the lower reaches of valleys are flooded by sea forming French, Dockyard and Kalkara Creeks. The etymology of Bormla is erived according to old documentation and old cartography from the word ‘ Bir Mula ‘, which means ‘the well of the Lord’. This name was attributed to the area as it was rich in , natural springs of water. As water was of vital importance on an island like Malta it contributed to attract man to inhabit the vicinities from his first days after setting foot on the Island.


The latter was already inhabited during megalithic times and has the only surviving remains of three megalithic structures. These structures yielded the greatest quantity of sherds with cut-out decorations, flint blades and scrapers. Being on a very prominent promontory above the Grand Harbour, two of these structures were destroyed by enemy action during the World War II. The structures, the earliest types of temple units , had several superimposed floors of beaten earth.


Though no structure remains of the Bronze Age, Mycenaean and Egyptian connections were not yet recovered in Bormla, there is an evidence in the Maltese Islands of the activity, even within a short distance of our city.


During the Phoenician colonisation of the Islands as a trading post, the naturally protected bays of Bormla had provided a safe heaven to the vessels on maritime routes. A burial place overlooking Ghajn Dwieli valley, on the sides of Ta’ German and Ta’ Kordin Hills, witness that the area remained a favourite dwelling place. During the Carthaginian and Roman occupation of the island the Harbour facilities of the creek had been enhanced and exploited, but this time activity shifted to the other bay of Bormla, Dockyard Creek at the foot of the valleys between St. Margerita, Tal-Gonna and Ta’ German Hills. Legends say that St. Paul had left the island in 61 A.D. from the wharf where a chapel dedicated to the saint now stands. Remains to witness their activities had been swept away by development and are very rare.


During these days some caves in the area served as places of gathering, prayer and worship. A rock-cut chapel dating from the early Christian or Byzantine era is dug in the cliff side of the present Dockyard Creek, formerly a cosy sandy bay. This triglodithic chapel was formerly dedicated to the Nativity of Our Lord, then to the Virgin Mother who bore Our Inheritance (Jesus Christ), and during mediaeval times to Our Lady of Help. Though documentation of the Chapel stopped up to the late 17th . Century, it was rediscovered while removing of World War II. One of its paintings, of a Sanese or Byzantine style, is now preserved at the local Collegiate Parish Church. The Muslim occupation of the Islands from 820 to 1090 AD prevented the free worship of the Christian community who now had returned to the underground practice of their cult and rites. After 1090 AD, the conquest of the Islands by the Normans under Court Roger bought freedom to the Christians once more. The passage of the Islands through the hands of many feuds and friends of the Sicilian and Spanish Crowns, made the Bormla creek to fit the necessities of various fleets and merchandise. Witness to the high economic and trading activity during the mediaeval period are the names by which a local square and street are known, thus the Old Market Pe (now Gavino Gulia Square) and Bulls Street, where bulls carrying heavy burdens to the market-place and from the quays, were bound. The same street, formerly a valley, was the pathway through which herds were led on their way from vessels to the country side. All this activity gave a quicker step to the development of Bormla. Bormla had become a favourite spot to live in as the creek also had a very abundant sea and provided shelter for sea-going vessels for both local and foreign seamen.


The arrival of the Order of the Sovereign Military Order of Knights of St. John in 1530 AD found with a population of 1200. The establishing of the Order at Fort St. Angelo, contributed to the prosperity of Bormla for another 250 years. During the Great Siege 1565, the Turkish Army pitched its Royal Camp at the top of St. Margerita Hill and placed its cannons and trenches on other prominent sites of the hills of Bormla with the intention of weakening the fortified landfronts of Birgu and Senglea. Many of the houses of Bormla were demolished to prevent their probable use by the enemy. During the days of the Order Bormla had become a favourite countryside resort and had housed many summer residential places and gardens of prominent people of the Order and the Church, one of which had become Inquisitor and Pope Alexander VII.


In 1584, after many efforts, the Bormla community was given the rights of an autonomous parish, following the protests of the populace about the lack of religious services available during the nightly hours, due to the closure of the Birgu Gate after sunset.

Following the experience of the Great Siege and as the fear of further Ottoman invasions neared, the Order thought about strengthening the St. Margerita heights to prevent any enemy attacks which could prove fatal to the Orders vessels which were harboured in the Galleys’ Port (Dockyard Creek) and the fortifications of the other neighbouring cities.


After seeking consultation and expert advice, the Order accepted a design forwarded by the Domenican Vincenzo Maculano da Firenzuola, consisting of a semi-circular enciente with six bastions, curtains, long walls and a surrounding ditch, entirely on Bormla starting from over the ditches of the other two fortified cities. The first stone of these fortifications known as the St. Margerita Lines was laid with due ceremony on the 30th December 1638. These fortifications took 98 years to complete and required a garrison of 700 men.


Following the fall of Candia (Crete) to the Ottomans, the Order thought that another attack would be attempted on Malta. In 1670 Grand Master Nicolas Cottoner employed engineer Valperga to inspect the fortifications. The latter then, submitted a scheme consisting of a vast semi-circular enciente of eight bastions strengthened by Cavaliers (towers) and protected by mezzalunas, a covertway and ditch. These lines known as the Cottonera Lines and entirely built upon the Bormla hills, embraced the St. Margerita Lines and a larger part of Bormla hills, embraced the St. Margerita Lines and a larger part of Bormla with a circumference of about 6 kilometres. These fortifications were supposed to give refuge to some 40,000 inhabitants of the Island, and would have required a garrison of more than 5,000 men. Both lines of fortifications have a series of Gates adorned with triumphant carvings and sculptures in limestone.


Bormla had by time adopted the coat-of-arms of Grand Master Cotoner as its emblem. The same emblem is nowadays the official coat-of-arms of the Bormla Local Council. It shows a cotton plant on an or background. In 1722 Grand Master Marc Antonio Zondadari, seeing the conspicuous defence of Bormla honoured the town by proclaiming it ‘Citta Cospicua’ with the motto “Ingens Amplecituyr Agger’ which means ‘I am embraced by a great bastion’.


During the French occupation between 1798 and 1800 some of the Gates were blocked by the French troops to prevent the easy and uncontrolled entrance of the population laying siege on the Napoleonic army.


The British under Lord Nelson and Captain Alexander John Ball landed at St. Theresa’s Landing Place at Bormla where the HMS Victory was berthed. Two streets bearing the names of both British officials witness the event. A comment by Lord Nelson about the fortifications repeated the opinion of Napoleon that they were very fortunate to find the local population opening the gates for them, as it was impossible to overcome such defences. The British had increased the fortifications with the Verdala Fort in 1853 and St. Clement’s Retrenchment in 1854. In the two bays of Bormla, from the year 1842 onwards, the British developed the Drydocks to cope with the needs of the Royal Navy.


The building of the fortifications and flourishing maritime activities attracted both those Maltese who could enrich their income by providing services or crafts related to the necessities of the Order, and, those who were only seeking shelter or had envisaged a probable opportunity to earn a living.


The decision of the British Admiralty to build the drydock in the heart of Bormla in 1842, had inflicted a heavy blow on the population. Bormla was not only the centre of activity and commerce of the area, but also the haven of fishermen, boatsmen and craftsmen. The development of the dockyard in the two creeks of Bormla, besides raising fear and anger, had been an occasion for more jobs and larger business opportunities. International events played their role at different times by fluctuating the number of employees in the activity at the yard. The decades before World War II saw Bormla at its golden age. Though homing people of different social and educational background, the population was the cradle of the best achievers through all sectors of the elite Maltese society, both on the local and international scene. Bormla was producing the masters of different spheres of society. The whole population was proud of each other’s achievement. Each one according to his means and abilities was striving to place the next gem in the crown of his mother town.


During the First World War, Bormla hospitalised various regiments, but World War II inflicted severe damages and losses to both population and architectural heritage. World War II had forced the population out of Bormla flocking into rural villages. The dockyard had been the main target for the Axis bombings. Houses were raised to the ground and lives were lost, and with them, morale.


The rebuilding of Bormla took long into the fifties, but it did not succeed to attract the whole population back. New buildings were now standing side by side to old ones. These old buildings, either to their lack of facilities or appearance, when compared to post-war constructions, had provided a home to people who had low educational and financial resources.


With the establishing of Local Council in 1994, Bormla is looking forward to regain its status as a city of great commercial, economic, maritime and above all cultural tourist attraction. A plan to develop the obsolete dock in the heart of the historic creek is one of the most important stepping stones.



Some Places of interest in Bormla:-


  • St. Margerita Lines 1638 – 1736, especially St. Helen’s Gate

  • Cottonera Lines 1670 – 1720’s

  • Verdala Fort and Barracks 1853, now a residential area

  • St. Clement’s Retrenchment, now Guzeppi Despott Junior Lyceum

  • The Rest 1854; also the Club of St. George’s FC, the Pioneers of Maltese Football, now seat of the Bormla Local Council

  • Two 16th Century Windmills

  • Military Hospital 1873 and Gunpowder magazine, now St. Edward’s College & Chapel

  • St. John of Aix Chapel pre-1373, relocated 1682

  • St. Paul’s Chapel pre 1590, rebuilt 1741 and restored during 2001-02

  • The Collegiate Parish Church of the Immaculate Conception, parish since 1854, rebuilt 1673

  • The Oratory of the Crucifix 1731, adjacent to the Parish Church

  • St. Theresa’ s Church and Convent 1626

  • Statue of St. Elijah, prophet and patron saint of the local seamen 1818

  • Chapel and Cloister of St. Margaret 1726

  • The Primary School 1880’s

  • St. Joseph’s Old Poor House and Chapel 1818, the complex was partially converted into a luxury house for the elderly.

  • Also recommended a walk tour through streets such as Nelson Street, Alexander Street, St. Lazarus Street and Matty Grima Street.

  • It is recommended that sight-seeing visits through Bormla are accompanied by a well-versed person who knows very well the area and its people. For further details you are encouraged to contact the Bormla Local Council.

  • Bir Mula Heritage Museum, 74 St. Margaret Street, Cospicua 


Events Calendar:


Holy Week events:

  • Palm Sunday, morning, a commemorative procession of Our Lord’s triumphant entering into Jerusalem through the street to the Parish Church.

  • Monday to Friday Last Supper artistic Display of pasta, seeds, flour and salt built works of art at the Domus Pius IX at 12, Matty Grima Street.

  • Ash Wednesday at the St. George’s Band Club, a concert eve of funeral marches and music.

  • Maundy Thursday – late evening, display of the artistic Holy Respitores in local places of worship.

  • Good Friday, morning, display of the statues which will be carried shoulder high in the evening, when an open air procession including life pegeantry of Biblical figures will be accompanied by the local Band with Funerary Marches. Seating facilities for tourists are available, with accompanying commentary in different languages.

  • Easter Sunday, morning, procession with the artistic statue of Risen Christ and Band Marches.

  • First Sunday after 15th August, a Maltese night at St. Margaret Square., with raffle fair on Sunday evening.

  • December 5-8, evenings, feast of the Immaculate Conception holy solemn rites are carried inside the Church while fireworks are let off and bands play on bandstands and through the streets. It is highly recommended to visit the magnificent Parish Church on the evenings of the Feast week, to admire the great works of art produced by local craftsmen during the ages.

Author/Source: John Vella, Bormla Local Council website (1996)