The Three Cities

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Welcome to the Three Cities also known as Cottonera, the key to all of Malta's salient historical events.

Since time immemorial, Malta's central location in the Mediterranean Sea has attracted whoever wanted to control the sea trade in this region. Historically, its location has given it great strategic importance both as a trading post and a naval base, and a succession of powers, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Normans, Knights of St. John, French and British, have ruled over the islands. Cottonera has been inhabited for at least 3,000 years with the name originating from the bastions and fortifications built by the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John, Fra Nicolas Cotoner (1663- 1680). One of the first settlers in Malta, the Phoenicians, called Malta's Grand Harbour, Maleth and moored their ships in the safety of the creek and sheltered by the eastern peninsulas, thereby laying the foundations for the localities which were to become known as the Three Cities or Cottonera. Throughout the ages Cottonera has welcomed various peoples and cultures to its shores. Between 1530 until they moved to the new capital Valletta in 1571, Cottonera was home to eight major cultures unified under the Sovereign Military Order of St. John. The Order left its mark on the Cottonera region, turning it into an "encyclopedia of Western fortification". In later years, Cottonera became a hub of marine activity, which the British developed into a strategic repair yard for their Mediterranean fleet. This resulted in the area being heavily bombed during World War II, when up to 60% of the historic buildings in this region were reduced to rubble. Today the face of Cottonera is changing, the old docks and water front have been restored and redeveloped, new residents have moved in, restaurants and cafes line the docks and many more locals and visitors alike are discovering the beauty of its historical buildings and the charm of the local culture. 

Vittoriosa (Birgu)

Vittoriosa (Birgu) occupies one of the promontories facing Valletta across the Grand Harbour and it has an impressive history. At the end of the promontory stands the imposing bulk of Fort St. Angelo which was largely rebuilt in the 16th century by the Knights of the Order of St. John and became the residence of the Grand Master Philippe d'Isle Adam. To honour the significant role played by Birgu in the defence of Malta during the Great Siege, Grand Master Jean de La Vallette renamed it Citta Vittoriosa (the Victorious City). Layers of history lie beneath the fort's foundations, dating back to the Phoenicians who erected a temple there which was succeeded by a Greek shrine and then a Roman temple. Over this temple in 828 the Arabs built a castle later known as il-Borgo del Castello (in Maltese, Birgu, meaning town and in Italian suburb, borgo). In Medieval times Birgu probably had as much of a cosmopolitan flavour to it as it does today; it welcomed Venetians, Pisans, Genoese, Aragonese and Castillians who introduced the cult of St. Lawrence, the patron saint of Birgu. Birgu was the first home of the Knights when they arrived in 1530 and in consequence is studded with many impressive examples of baroque architecture particularly around the knight's Collachio area. These include the knights' eight auberges (inns of residence), an armoury and hospital. With the arrival of the British in 1800, Birgu experienced an economic revival. By World War II, Fort.St. Angelo had become the headquarters of the British Fleet in the Mediterranean. Today almost 500 years since the Order of St. John first set foot in Malta, Fort St. Angelo has once again become the official residence of the Order's Representative in Malta, thereby renewing Cottonera's longstanding association with the Order. Birgu's history as a maritime hub has also been revived with the recent establishment of a modern marina stretching along the length of its promenade.  

Cospicua (Bormla)

Cospicua (Bormla) is the largest of the Three Cities and is known to many by its earlier name, Bormla. During the Great Siege of 1565 the population moved into Birgu and Senglea and they fought courageously as a recognized body of Maltese troops during the siege. The city was later renamed by the Knights of St. John because of the ('conspicuous') role played by the city and its people. Bormla has been inhabited since Neolithic times and has always been the hub for maritime activities and facilities since the Phoenician era; it was where the fishermen and fishing fleet was based before the knights arrived in 1530. During the period of the Knights, Bormla sheltered the Order's galleys and in the 18th century was the base for the knight's sailing squadron with the important knight's depots for the fleet lining part of Dock No. 1. In the mid 19th century under British rule, its creek was turned into one of the most important dockyards of the British Empire. This vital function made Bormla a primary target for bombing raids during World War II and as a result it suffered extensive damage to civilians and its built heritage. Fortunately, some of Bormla's most characteristic features survived the onslaught of high explosives. These include the majestic church of the Immaculate Conception which is rich in exquisite works of art; the fortifications including Fort Verdala which was used during World War I as a prison where top German captives were detained; the core area of medieval houses many of which boast impressive baroque facades; the narrow stepped lanes such as Nelson Street where Admiral Nelson stayed; as well as the 1,000 year old Bir Mula, said to be the oldest house in Bormla and currently housing an impressive museum of the city's history. Bormla is encircled by a double ring of fortifications that were built by the Knights and then, in part, completed by the British. These major landmarks are probably the finest example of a fortification system in Europe with the Firenzuola Fortifications, built in 1638, and the Margherita Lines, forming the inland defenses of the Three Cities. Modern Bormla is an important service centre in the heart of the docklands. Dock One no longer reverberates to the sound of industrial hammers but instead has recently been given a stunning face-lift and is a desirable public leisure space featuring cafes, restaurants and a marina.

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Senglea (L-Isla)

Senglea (L-Isla) This small city, one of the Three Cities, stands on a narrow promontory jutting into the Grand Harbour and was almost cut off from the mainland, which explains its older name L'Isla (derived from the Italian world Isola meaning "island"). It acquired the name Senglea after it was in part fortified in 1553 by Grand Master Claude de la Sengle. The "Gardjola" a stone watchtower jutting out from the bastion point at the end of the peninsula still remains an historic symbol of the sentinels that once guarded the city. It rivals Fort St. Angelo as an iconic image used frequently as a landmark for the Grand Harbour. Until after the arrival of the Order of St. John Senglea, virtually uninhabited, was used as a hunting ground. During the Great Siege of 1565, Senglea came under massive attack but the Ottomans never managed to breach its walls. It was protected by Fort St. Michael on its landward side and in part from maritime assault by Fort St. Angelo on the tip of Birgu across the creek. The heroic role played by its defenders led Grand Master Jean de la Valette to give the city the title of Citta' Invicta, the invincible city. In the mid 19th century the British converted the wharves along French Creek on the east side of Senglea into a naval dockyard. Whilst the shipyard brought work and prosperity to Senglea, it also made it a primary target for bombing raids during World War II. Like its sister cities, Senglea suffered heavy damage from bombing and more than 75 percent of its buildings were destroyed. Today the city is noted for its superb harbour views from Safe Haven Gardens at Senglea Point. Refurbishment of the promenade, which has many restaurants and cafes, has given Senglea a vantage point from where to enjoy stunning vistas of Fort St. Angelo, the Birgu marina and the imposing bastions of Valletta. 


Kalkara gets its name from the Italian word for lime (in Italian, calce,) since there were lime kilns present there from the Roman period into modern times. Although not part of the Three Cities it is included in the Cottonera region and in the 19th century was a summer place for the residents of Cospicua. It is the youngest of Cottonera's towns. Kalkara has two bays facing into Grand Harbour called Rinella Bay and Kalkara Creek and two peninsulas called Bighi and Ricasoli. Historians believe that the Kalkara area was inhabited by the first people who came to Malta from Sicily as the inlets provided shelter from the heavy storms of the Mediterranean. Kalkara is known for boat building, in particular, the Maltese dgħajsa and barklori and, as with the Three Cities, the locals participate actively in the traditional regattas or boat races. Kalkara has its own share of historic buildings. On the headland facing the entrance to the Grand Harbour stands Villa Bighi, some 400 years old. During the plague of 1813 the villa was used as a hospital. However, subsequently on the advice of Lord Nelson, the villa was remodeled and incorporated into the British Admiralty 19th century neo-classical Bighi Hospital. For practically a century it served as the largest naval hospital in the Mediterranean with the first lift built to bring casualties brought to the shore quickly and smoothly up to the clifftop hospital. During World War I it and other hospitals in the Cottonera earned Malta the epithet "Nurse of the Mediterranean". Today recently restored, the former Bighi hospital houses the Malta Centre for Restoration and works are underway for an Interactive Science Museum that is being built on a part of the site. On the heights behind Kalkara across Rinella Creek, which features a popular sandy beach, stands the architecturally impressive Fort Ricasoli. Built by Grandmaster Nicholas Cottoner, this 17th century fortress, bristling with guns and still in use up to World War II, was considered impregnable. To the east of Fort Ricasoli stands Fort Rinella built by the British two centuries ago as well as Fort Rocco, which today houses the Mediterranean Film Studios. For centuries Kalkara served as a small hub for international sea trade, including trading in slaves. Today, it has the atmosphere of a sleepy fishing village and retains a balanced mix of urban and rural life with its marina in the centre of Cottonera.