Centre of the island of Malta
Completely surrounded by bastions 185 metres above sealevel. Believed to be the 7th city on this site, the first of which, being of neolithic times perhaps some 6000 years old.
Mdina, known also as Città Notabile or Città Vecchia, is the old capital of Malta. Mdina is a medieval walled City situated on a hill in the centre of the island. Punic remains uncovered beyond the City’s walls suggest the importance of the general region to Malta’s Phoenician settlers. Mdina is commonly called the “Silent City” by the Maltese and visitors alike. The City is still confined within its walls, and has a population of about 320 but it is contiguous with the village of Rabat, which takes its name from the Semitic old Sicilian word for suburb, and has a population of over 11,000.
History of Mdina
Mdina was inhabited and possibly first fortified by the Phoenicians around 700 BC. The Phoenicians called it Maleth. The region benefits from its strategic location on one of the island’s highest points and at maximum distance from the sea. The Romans made full use of the Mdina plateau and built a town which was three times as large as the present day city. Under the Roman Empire Malta became a Municipium and the Roman Governor built his palace in Mdina. At the time Mdina was known as Melita. Tradition holds that the Apostle St Paul resided in the city after his historical shipwreck on the islands. Much of its present street plan reflects the Fatimid Period which began in 999 AD until the Norman conquest of Malta in 1091 AD. The Normans surrounded the city with thick defensive fortifications and widened the moat.
Under the Normans and successive ruling dynasties, Mdina experienced enthusiastic reforms. Malta’s Nobility, who lived inside the walls of Mdina had to increase military protection from frequent pirate attacks, and to withhold the needs and administration of Malta.
During the medieval period the Viceroy of Sicily had given the right of internal autonomy, which performed through the Universita, but the Maltese Nobles revolted against their Sicilian Lord Monroy because of injust laws he had introduced. As a result for the courage shown , the King of Spain who was the Islands ruler gave the title of Citta Notabile to the City of Mdina.
Malta passed to the Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in 1530 AD. Mdina hosted the public ceremony in which each Grand Master swore an oath to protect the Maltese Islands and the rights of his subjects. During the Siege of St. Elmo and Birgu by the Turks, Mdina made a big contribution to the final victory through their Sicilian connections, and by organizing raids against the Turks, who frequently swarmed across the island to find something to pillage and ravage.All desperate attempts by the Turks to caputre Mdina failed.
A strong earthquake in 1693 AD led to the introduction of Baroque design within the cityscape. The Knights of Malta rebuilt the cathedral, to the designs of Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafa. Palazzo Falzon, the Magisterial Palace and major restoration works are other projects undertaken by the Knights. The monumental gateway was designed by the French architect and military engineer Charles Francois de Mondion in 1724. Also, the entrance found today is not the original one, as the original south gate is about 100 meters to the left.
Mdina stormed out of political oblivion during the uprising against the French in 1798. French troops stationed in Mdina were looting Catholic treasures from the churches and selling them at auction in St. Pauls Square to raise funds for Napoleons expansionist ambitions. As the troops set about pillaging the Carmelite Church, The Mdina citizens simmering grudges suddenly erupted into an angry riot. Mobs slaughtered the French garrison and within two days fanned the fire of revolt. That insurrection led to the blockade of Valletta by British forces, which in turn contributed to the final surrender of the French two years later.
Today there is an elegant fairytale quality to Mdina, a city of shade and echoes, where medieval lanterns still swing in the wind, streets afford glimpses of winding alleyways and magnificent views open up without warning.
Yet, despite its rich contrasts and past upheavals, a peaceful atmosphere now pervades the capital’s old streets. Here, you can lose yourself in the city’s compact and winding streets, occasionally catching glimpses of the surrounding countryside from its gateways, or merely following the shadows, going where your fancy takes you.
Standing in the middle of a large square, the cathedral – dedicated to St Peter and St Paul – occupies pride of place in the old and beautiful capital. Dating back to the late seventeenth century, the cathedral was built on the traditional site of the house of the governor Publius, who received St. Paul when he was shipwrecked on Malta. But, there are also several other places worth a visit as you browse through the various streets.
Just inside the city’s main entrance, for instance, are the Mdina Dungeons and, next door, the islands’ Natural History Museum, housed in a beautiful old building. The Mdina Experience is a great introduction to the entire history of the city, an audiovisual spectacular on multi-lingual soundtracks. You could also try, The Knights of Malta and The Medieval Times, stunning walkthrough experiences with audiovisual shows exploring the middle Ages and the total history of the Knights. Other spots of interest include Vilhena Palace and Palazzo Falson.
The city offers several quaint restaurants and wine bars, perfect for whiling away the evening surrounded by centuries of electric atmosphere. Lastly, take an amble to the city edge and peer over the bastions – you will be rewarded with a magnificent bird’s-eye view of the islands.
“The main point of interest for a tourist in Mdina is the whole of Mdina. There has been a huge investment in the city’s economy in the last few years, such as the paving project of the city’s streets, and the restoration on the bastion walls financed by government, which has given a proper and well-needed facelift to the city. New establishments have opened to the public and older commercial buildings have been wonderfully restored and refurbished. From museums to tourist attractions, from hotels to restaurants, from gift shops to wine bars or coffee shops, they all play an important part in Mdina’s economy, “All this activity has given tourists the time to enjoy Mdina for longer than just half a day; there is so much more to see and do now than ever before.”
Yet, Mdina is also a great favorite with the locals, especially on wintry Sunday afternoons, when the city’s streets take on an atmospheric charm and the various wine bars and coffee shops feel like cosy havens. Most of this appeal derives from its authentic sense of the past.
“Mdina is so unique since it is the only walled fortified city in Malta with a radius of the bastion walls still intact. In the last hundred years, most fortified cities on our island were subject to renovation, having parts of their walls torn open to make way for vehicle traffic or for public festivities. In the beginning of the last century Mdina had an additional gate constructed, which has blended in well with the rest of the architecture of our city.”
Add to this, its various palazzos, churches, convents and squares, as well as its unusual mix of Norman and Baroque architecture, some of which belong to private residences. One of this city’s most special attributes is that very few residents live here, and the majority of the families who do, have done so for generations.
At night, then, the city changes, its silence becoming thicker, its shadows darker, its echoes louder, its ambience even more elegant. “The atmosphere at night is truly magical with all the corner lanterns glowing onto the winding streets. The evenings bring on a nostalgic mood through the city, with a feeling of the past lingering in the air.” Eventually, as more of night draws in, the last shadows will flit down the alleyways like dreams and a hush will spread slowly over the city, covering it softly, as it settles peacefully for the night.