Highlights from Malta’s Old Capital City
The ancient citadel of Mdina is undoubtedly one of Malta’s gems: located in the central part of the island on high ground, its magnificent cathedral and imposing fortifications dominate the skyline. No visitor to Malta should miss the chance of taking a stroll through its narrow, winding alleyways - an experience that seems to transport you back in time - to admire Mdina’s elegant palazzos and churches, and the spectacular panorama offered from its high bastion walls.
Inhabited since the Bronze Age, the site on which Mdina is built was chosen for its strategic location. For centuries, it evolved as the main settlement on the island, as the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and many others took turns ruling Malta. By the medieval period, Mdina was the home of the island’s nobility, the Bishop’s seat, and a citadel protecting the island’s inhabitants from frequent pirate incursions. Although Valletta’s construction in the 1560s lessened Mdina’s importance, a strong earthquake in 1693 led to major reconstruction and a revival of the city. Since then, Mdina has changed very little and is today a fantastic melting pot of the numerous foreign influences that have over time been beautifully welded together: a city with plenty of hidden details and anecdotes.
1. Mdina Gate
Rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693 to the designs of the French architect Charles François de Mondion, the appearance of Mdina’s main gate reflects the glorious Baroque era of the time, with beautifully sculpted decorations and motifs reflecting the power and generosity of Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, who commissioned it as part of a massive rebuilding programme. Vilhena definitely left his mark, with various references to his coat-of-arms displayed all around the area, including on either side of the stone bridge. An elaborate trophy-of-arms and a marble inscription commemorating the gate’s inauguration in 1724 complete the picture.
The gate we see today was actually moved by Mondion a few metres to the left of its original location. In the medieval period, one would enter the city by passing through no less than three successive gates, all separated from each other by a courtyard. While this provided additional security in the case of an attack, the system was simplified when the whole space was demolished to make way for the construction of Vilhena Palace, with the new singular gate being moved a short distance away. To the right-hand side of the present gate, the outline of the medieval blocked entrance is still clearly visible.
A quick look back upon entering the city reveals another series of interesting carvings on the inside of the structure. Directly above the doorway, a stone relief portrays a scene from the 1429 siege, when a large force of Tunisian Saracens was held at bay by the local militia, following a fierce three-day battle that resulted in heavy losses among the local population. Another sculpture is that depicting St. Paul flanked by St. Publius and St. Agatha. Today, the Mdina Gate is one of the most photographed landmarks in Malta and even appeared in the popular television series Game of Thrones as the entrance to the fictional city of King’s Landing.
2. Vilhena Palace
Upon entering Mdina, the first major landmark is Vilhena Palace - another project commissioned as part of the city’s revival following the 1693 earthquake. Estimated at 7.4 on the Richter scale, the earthquake’s epicentre was located off the eastern coast of Sicily. It was the most powerful earthquake in Italian history, destroying whole settlements and causing the deaths of up to 60,000 people. Despite no recorded casualties in Malta, numerous buildings suffered structural damage, resulting in collapse or the need to demolish them due to structural concerns. Mdina was particularly affected.
After Vilhena became Grand Master in 1722, he commissioned a number of major projects around the Maltese islands, including the development of a new suburb just outside Valletta, eventually named Floriana, as well as the building of Fort Manoel and the Manoel Theatre. Probably his most significant project, however, was the revival of Mdina, which was to lead to the introduction of Baroque architecture into the medieval city. Built on the site of an earlier structure, Vilhena Palace became the Grand Master’s summer residence.
During the British era, however, the building mostly served as a hospital, starting from the 1837 cholera outbreak. In 1860, it was converted into a sanatorium by the British military, and after a brief closure, it was once more reopened in 1909 by King Edward VII, to treat tuberculosis patients. Named after Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn - who had donated medical equipment - the Connaught Hospital remained operational until the 1950s, before being transformed into the National Museum of Natural History in 1973.
3. Corte Capitanale & Herald’s Loggia
Vilhena Palace is linked to the Corte Capitanale, which was built simultaneously. Consisting of the criminal and civil courts, this was the oldest court of justice in Malta, with jurisdiction over the areas outside the harbour cities. Its direct physical connection to Vilhena Palace was a symbolic message that the courts were under the jurisdiction of the Order of St. John, but despite this, the Corte Capitanale had its own entrance and façade, located around the corner, facing what is now the Xara Palace hotel.