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Three Cities

The Three Cities is a colloquial term for a group of three cities located on the south side of the Grand Harbor: Birgu, Cospicua and Senglea. Their history is linked to the arrival of hospitals on the island, although the Birgu peninsula was used long before Christ.

All three cities interpenetrate and form a coherent whole from the perspective of tourists walking through them. Most of the monuments and attractions can be found in Birgu, but if you have more time, it is also worth taking a walk around the other two towns. The more that these are three of the four smallest cities in Malta, so walking through them in its entirety should not take too long.


From an ancient port to a fishing village and a medieval castle.

Phoenician docks were supposed to function in the area of ??today's city of Birgu already in antiquity. The natural Great Harbor provided a safe harbor for ships, and the system of two peninsulas surrounding the inner bay allowed for effective defense against a possible attack from the sea.

The strategic point was the hill at the tip of Cape Birgu. On its top, in the Middle Ages, a castle called the Castle by the Sea (Castrum Maris) was erected, which consisted of two parts: the lower one called Castro Exteriore, and the upper one called Castro Interiore.

It is not certain when exactly it was built - the first known records mentioning the fortress come from 1274. According to local legend, Roger I, a Norman conqueror of Malta in 1091, was to erect a thanksgiving chapel dedicated to Archangel Michael on the top of the hill.

The immediate vicinity of the fortress made it possible for the fishing village of Birgu to flourish in the Middle Ages. Until the arrival of the Knights Hospitaller, it was the only Maltese port that could develop peacefully - the others were constantly harassed by privateers and pirates.

Arrival of hospitals on the island - the new seat of the Knights Hospitaller.

By the decision of Emperor Charles V, the Order of Hospitallers of Saint John appeared in Malta in 1530. To the surprise of the local nobility, the hospitals did not establish their headquarters in the fortified Mdina, the former capital in the center of the island, but in the seaside town of Birgu.

From the point of view of local aristocrats, the choice of new hosts on the island was indeed surprising. After all, who of us would choose a modest fishing village over a walled city filled with palaces? Certainly the hospitals who had been expelled less than a decade earlier from the island of Rhodes and understood perfectly well that the key to maintaining the island is a strong fleet and the ability to defend the Maltese coast. They did not sleep on the west coast, where the natural barrier was the high cliffs (including the Dingli Cliffs). The Knights Hospitaller were well aware that today's Tri-City would have an ideal capital city in terms of economy and location; it will be better to defend primarily due to the presence of the fleet.

In about 30 years, the hospitallers turned a small fishing village into a real city. At that time, the port infrastructure was built and language group inns (called auberges from French). You can read more about the division of the order into groups in our article about Valletta. At that time, another city was created on the neighboring peninsula - Senglea, access to which was defended by Fort St. Michael. Its originator was the grand master Claude de la Sengle, in honor of which it received its name.

The medieval castle Castrum Maris also underwent a complete transformation, completely rebuilt and renamed Fort St. Angelo. This fortress was the headquarters of the Grand Master of the Order of Malta.


The Great Siege: Against All Adversities

The real day of trial for the Knights Hospitaller came on May 18, 1565, when the island was attacked by an Ottoman fleet of nearly 40,000 men. Hospitallers had at their disposal several times smaller forces, some of which were civilians (including women and children).

Contrary to all expectations, Birgu and Senglea survived the siege for almost four months and lasted until the arrival of reinforcements. Both small towns were shelled and attacked from the sea and from the Sciberras peninsula opposite (where the present capital of the island, Valletta, was built in the following years).

The siege was very brutal. The Turks, after capturing the fort of St. Elmo lost their surviving defenders through decapitation. Their heads were shot towards Birgu and Fort St Angelo, and the headless bodies were launched on rafts into the waters of the Grand Harbor. This display of ruthlessness was supposed to bring fear to Christian knights who were forced to watch the falling heads of their friends up close. Instead, however, it strengthened their determination that ultimately allowed them to survive.

The victory over the overwhelming enemy forces reverberated throughout Europe and made the willpower and power of the hospitals' weapons famous. The Viceroy of Spain, Don Garcia De Toledo, who recruited hundreds of professional knights from all over the world, played a role in completing the army, which was so important for the history of the world - we still do not know if they were only Europeans.

In honor of this event, both cities have gained two telling nicknames. Senglea was nicknamed Città Invicta (Invincible City) and Birgu was called Città Vittoriosa (Victorious City).

Fortified urban complex - the rise of the third city

Stopping the Muslim conflagration led to many changes on the island. The Grand Master of the Order, Jean de la Valette, the commander of the forces during the siege, decided to build a new fortified capital on the Sciberras peninsula. The Order moved its seat to Valletta (named after its builder) in 1571, which led to a decrease in the importance of Birgu. The siege also changed the way the monks thought about the architecture of their cities. They made the decision to turn Malta into a fully fortified island - both from the sea and the mainland. The tangible effect of this policy was a set of defensive walls called the Lines of Saint Margaret, which, due to the lack of funds, were built intermittently from the 17th to the 18th century. It is interesting that the Lines of Saint Margaret are called by the Maltese the Lines of Fiorenzuola. As the lines were designed by Vincenzo Maculani (also known as Fra Fiorenzuola) who was then a cardinal of the Catholic Church and worked as a military architect in Genoa and Gavi. Interestingly, this architect had a significant role in the Galileo Galilei process. As Commissioner General, he attended his trial and, by silencing his theories, saved him from being burned. These fortifications protected Birgu and Senglea from attack from the land. In the area between the walls and both cities, a third town was established - Cospicua (also known as Bormla) - on the territory of which the construction of the shipyard began in the second half of the 18th century. At a similar time, a second, external line of fortifications was built, which is called the Cottonera Line.

The Three Cities in the last two centuries

At the end of the 18th century, the Order of Malta lost the island to Napoleon's army. The French rule did not last too long - in 1800 the island became a colony of the British Empire. The new managers used Malta as the base of their fleet. Cospicua developed the most in the nineteenth century, where the British expanded their shipbuilding infrastructure. The next century was not kind to any of the three cities. All of them suffered greatly in the course of German and Italian air raids. A significant part of the historic buildings has been razed to the ground, although some of Birgu's monuments have survived in fairly good condition. What is noteworthy - the outer fortifications escaped unscathed.

Thanks to the efforts of the last decades, the historic towns have been rebuilt and Fort St Angelo looks like new after a recent renovation.