Think of Malta and the dramatic townscape of Valletta often springs to mind: that fortified peninsula, steep streets and a lofty cathedral, all floating majestically above the Grand Harbour. But stand in the cathedral forecourt facing south-east and the Maltese capital has a doppelgänger. On the far side of the Grand Harbour, through a tangle of yacht masts, lies Birgu, Valletta’s pint-sized predecessor. Here mass tourism gives way to a more intimate visitor experience. Broad bustling streets are traded for crooked alleys, where every time-worn stone tells a tale. Not only that but it was in Birgu in 1565 that the course of European history changed forever.
Like Valletta, Birgu occupies a peninsula jutting into the sheltered confines of the Grand Harbour. It has a fort, too, and land walls separating it from neighbouring Conspicua (the two settlements, together with nearby Senglea, forming the so-called Three Cities). But whilst Conspicua, Senglea and Valletta were all founded during the 16th century, Birgu boasts more ancient origins.
Seafaring Phoenicians were the first to appreciate Malta’s strategic position in the Mediterranean shipping lanes, midway between Europe and Africa. From around 750 bc, Birgu’s sheltered western shore provided their trading vessels with a haven — though little remains today, bar for a shadowy temple honouring the Canaanite deity Astarte. The Phoenicians also created a capital, Maleth (meaning ‘shelter’), from an existing Bronze Age hilltop settlement in the centre of the island of Malta.
In the year 218 bc, during the Second Punic War, the Romans took control of Malta. Despite its ‘barbarous’ inhabitants speaking neither Latin nor Greek, the island prospered. Birgu maintained its status as an important maritime stopover and the capital was renamed Melite (from which ‘Malta’ would eventually be derived). It was during this period, too, that a shipwrecked Saint Paul brought Christianity to the island.
Later, during the 870s, Malta and Sicily fell to the Arabs. Material evidence for their presence consists of little more than a few tombstones although one need only scrutinise Maltese place names to detect an Arabic influence (Melite, for example, was renamed Mdina). The islands’ Christian population was seemingly tolerated.
When Norman nobles conquered Malta in the late 11th century, the Arabic dialect spoken by the islanders morphed into today’s Romanised Malti language. Then, in 1198, the Holy Roman Emperor-in-waiting, Frederick II, was crowned King of Sicily. With his authority at home unsure, he made Sicily his base of operations and in 1220 appointed a feudal lord (castellan) to secure Maltese interests for the German crown (a fine house in Birgu with Siculo-Norman features survives from this period). Birgu’s first fortress, on the rock at the end of the peninsula and commanding the southern side of the Grand Harbour, also dates from this time. It appears in contemporary accounts as Castrum Maris (Castle by the Sea).