Exploring the Watch Towers of the Knights of Malta
Updated: Jan 4
Few are the places in Malta where you look around and don't manage to get a glimpse of the Mediterranean sea. And whenever there's the sea, most probably you will find a watchtower - there are 24 towers still standing along the coast of the Maltese archipelago! What I love most about these towers is that the majority are very easily accessible and are close to other attractions!
These towers were built by the Knights of Malta during the 17th century as a result of a resurgence of Turkish naval activities in the western Mediterranean towards the end of the 16th century. The scope of this network of towers was to guard the islands from enemies coming in to attack from the sea. Whenever a watch guard spotted an imminent invasion, a fire was alighted, acting as a warning signal to the neighbouring towers, with each tower, in turn, warning their own neighbouring towers of the danger, thus carrying the message. The towers were built over a 60 year period, during the reigns of different grandmasters.
1. St. Mary's Tower
St Mary's Tower is situated on Comino, the third-largest island of the Maltese archipelago. One can see this structure from Cirkewwa and also when onboard the ferry crossing between Malta and Gozo. The tower overlooks Crystal Lagoon bay which makes it all the more spectacular. The island of Comino is just 3.5 square kilometres in total, so whichever part of the island you land on, make sure you get a closer look at the tower by walking to it - the views from the top of the tower won't disappoint!
This is one of the first set of six towers, built by de Wignacourt in 1618. The Wignacourt towers dominate the coastline and are more like small forts in structure rather than simple vedettes. The tower has a history of being used for isolation purposes. In the 17th century, misbehaving knights were exiled in Comino, with some of them occasionally sentenced to the task of manning the tower. During the French Blockade, in the early 18th century, suspected spies were imprisoned here. In the 19th century, it was possibly used as an isolation hospital. In 2002, the tower represented prison Château d’If in the film The Count of Monte Cristo.
What else to do? Visit the Santa Marija battery, swim in the Blue Lagoon, take a boat tour around Comino.
2. Dwejra Tower
This tower formed part of another set of six towers constructed under Grand Master Lascaris. These towers were different from the towers of Grand Master Wignacourt in that these new towers were to be used by the coast guards instead of unfortified rural buildings.
The tower, located in Dwejra, Gozo, was guarded 24/7 by four guards - it was quite an isolated outpost. Dwejra still is quite a remote area till this very day! What is interesting though is that the guards at Dwejra had a secondary role - that of guarding the Fungus Rock, which is an isolated rock just off the mainland. A plant, Fungus Melitensis (thus the name of the rock!) grew on this rock, which was considered to be more precious than gold by the Knights, was thought to be a wonder cure for all infections.
What else to do? Swim in the inland sea, dive in the Blue Hole, watch the sunset, get closer to the Fungus Rock by boat. If you have more time, go for a walk to the Wardija Punic Temple.
3. St. Agatha's Tower
More commonly known as the Red Tower (as it is painted in red), this tower was also built during the reign of Grand Master Lascaris. However, a reversion to the use of large towers was made when this tower was erected in Mellieħa, as it was considered as the bay beneath (Għadira bay) was considered as a strategic location to protect.
What else to do? Swim at Għadira bay, visit Popeye's village
4. Tal-Ħamrija Tower
This tower forms part of a chain of thirteen towers erected at the expense of Grand Master Martin de Redin. The main difference between these towers and the previous structures was that the latter were built around a barrel vault and thus capable of mounting cannon while the Lascaris-type had roofs resting on wooden beams incapable of supporting any heavy piece of ordnance.
What else to do? The tower is located within the site of the Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim Neolithic temples, considered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. From the tower, one can enjoy views of Fifla islet. You can buy tickets for the temples from here.
DID YOU KNOW? The first tower was constructed in Gozo thanks to Grand Master Garzes, as the initial step towards having a defence system in Gozo. This tower was unfortunately demolished in the 19th century.
Where are the towers located? Not sure where the towers are located exactly? Or else you would like to get a virtual glimpse of the tower before visiting? Here's a link to a Google Earth map marking the location of the towers of the Knights of Malta - the ones which are still intact of course! Each tower is colour-coded, with each colour signifying during which reign it was built.
Blue - Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (1601 – 1622)
Green - Grand Master Paul Lascaris Castellar (1636 – 1657)
Yellow - Grand Master Martin de Redin (1657 – 1660)
Purple - Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner (1663 – 1680)
There are two reasons why you should visit the towers.
Combo of activities: Whether it's exploring the surroundings, going for a swim or for a short walk, canoeing or having lunch, there are ample activities you can do in the vicinity of each tower. We've already given you some ideas above, but why not absorb the views, local flora and fauna at the Majjistral Nature and History Park which is located a few minutes away from Għajn Tuffieħa Tower? Or else why not cross the footbridge, and take the steps towards Xlendi Tower for cliff-edge views of Gozo's South before heading to the beach and enjoy the same views from a canoe?
Go inside the towers: Weren't it for the current pandemic and the restrictions in place, some towers managed by Din l-Art Ħelwa are open for the public. I suggest you keep an eye on their website and social media pages for further updates.