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E - 150 : Thunder over La Valletta

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

View on La Valetta from the bay between Senglea (left) and Birgu (right). The Knights Head Quarter, the San Angelo Fort is prominently visible on the right.

There are only a few things in the world that rival sailing into the spectacular Grand Harbor of La Valletta. The island’s yellowish cliffs are visible from quite afar. But one needs to get close to spot the entrance. Suddenly, you are right there. As if a door had opened. You pass beneath the guns of the once embattled Fort San Elmo, to the left you spot Fort Ricasoli, to the right Fort Tigné. La Valetta, Malta’s capital, was the most heavily fortified town in Europe. If you were not welcome, you would have been showered with a barrage of white-glowing cannon balls. Within minutes, your ship going up in smoke and flames.

La Valletta's Grand Harbor

La Valletta’s Grand Harbor is an old inlet dating from the time when the Mediterranean Sea Level was lower and a land-bridge connected the Maltese Hills with the mountains of Sicily. This bridge was swallowed by the rising sea about 10’000 years ago when he last ice age ended. On its lowest level, the isthmus lies just 100 m below waters. When glaciers covered northern Europe, the climate was much more humid than today. The inlet was carved out by a local river system that cut into the soft limestone Malta is made from. Exporting this stone is today Malta’s second largest export business after tourism. It is ideal for kitchen or bathroom floors if you like its yellow color. My kitchen floor in Paris is made from it.

Malta's soft yellow Limestone

Malta is a rocky place with little fresh water. The Republic has 400’000 inhabitants but has food & water for only about 20%. Add to this the 1.2 million tourists who visit every year. It is a barren island that depends heavily on importing food, water and energy. So why is such a barren place so heavily fortified? What was its value? Someone spent millions on these fortifications. What was their purpose? During the time of Magna Graecia and the Roman Empire, Malta was an outpost you tried to avoid. It got only famous because the ship that carried Apostle Saint Paul on his voyage to his trial in Rome shipwrecked here after drifting west for ten days in a big storm.

The Impressive Fortifications of La Valetta, Birgu and Senglea

The answer lies in geopolitics: the struggle between the Spanish and Ottoman Empire in the 16th century for supremacy. When the Knights of St John were evicted from Rhodes in 1522, the German Emperor and Spanish King, Charles V, leased them the island for eternity for one falcon per year (remember the movie “The Maltese Falcon” with Humphry Bogart? One of my favorites after Casablanca). The lease was a no brainer for Charles V. The Knights of St John had a reputation as fanatical fighters who would keep the island safe at their own expenses. At least one place in his Empire he would not have to spend money on to keep it safe! The Knights got the islands in 1530 and kept it to 1798. Their headquarter is still located in the San Angelo Fortress opposite La Valetta.

Turkish Stone Cannon Balls left behind after the Siege in 1565

The island would probably have remained insignificant had the Knights of St John not had a penchant for piracy. For them, the Crusades never ended. Their six war galleys raided Muslim waters as frequently as Barbarossa pillaged Christian shores. But now their island was on the front line between Spain and the Ottomans. In its neighborhood, Tunis and the island of Djerba were fought over when Charles V. tried to establish a string of fortresses on the Maghrebin to keep the Ottomans away from Spain and Italy. The provocative piracy of the Knights proved unhelpful at best. When they captured Ottoman vessels with celebrities such as the Chief Eunuch of the Serai, the Ottoman Governors of Cairo and Alexandria, the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had enough. He decided to take the island. It would also give him an ideal harbor to winter his fleet and serve as a base for his planned attacks on Europe. An Ottoman fleet with 193 galleys and 40’000 men sailed from Istanbul on 22 March 1565 and arrived on 18 May in Malta, landing in the Bay of Marsaxlokk. The Ottoman Empire was at the peak of its power and had the logistics to transport an entire army with 100 heavy siege guns over a distance of 1'000 nautical miles. What an achievement!

Painting showing how the Knights were surrounded on all sides by Ottoman Forces

The stakes were high for both sides. The Knights could only count on 6’000 defenders but had built impressive star-shaped bastions protecting their settlements on Birgu and Senglea. It was to be one of the epic sieges in European History, told over and over again. It lasted from 18 May to 11 September. The Ottoman forces were several times close to victory but underestimated the resilience of the Knights who fought to the last man. Even though the Ottomans breached the walls of Birgu on 20 August, they were unable to get into town and overcome the Knight’s resistance.

The Site of the Final Turkish Attack which almost broke through on 20 August 1565

On the 8th of September, as the sailing season came to an end and with it the resupply, the Turkish forces pulled out but run into a Spanish relief force, which had landed the day before, and were massacred. The siege was over. Masses were read in all churches in Europe to thank God for his divine intervention.

Once the Turks had left, the Knights built a new main-town on the peninsula of Xiberras and called it La Valetta, in honor of the Grand Master who led the defense in 1565. The fortifications were expanded until Napoleon conquered the island on his way to Egypt in 1798. But this is another story.

View on Birgu or Vittoriosa (left) and Senglea (right) from the Main Walls of La Valetta

When we stand on the big ramparts of La Valletta we actually stand on the site of the Ottoman’s camp. You look over to Birgu and Senglea where the fighting actually took place. The walls where the Knights stopped the Turks still stand – it must have been a horrible carnage with opponents being only meters away from each other firing guns and throwing grenades. It must have been like in the trenches of World War I.

You find Gondolas like in Venice to move around the Great Harbor

Walking today through these places is incredibly scenic. Almost every corner provides a photo opportunity. 456 years ago it was different though. But is so much better aiming cameras at these places than guns. From the ashes of Malta and Lepanto, another Europe arose – one that resembles our Europe much closer. It was kind of the end of big Empires in Europe and the age of Nation States began – sadly with their own strings of devastating wars. At least, since 1945 we have learnt something.

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