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The Grand Harbour – A Historical Overview

With its position in central Mediterranean, Malta has always attracted the attention of reigning supremacies. This deep natural harbour has been regarded as a safe refuge since ancient times. 

With its breathtaking views of Fort St. Angelo, Fort Ricasoli and the historic Three Cities (Bormla also known as Cospicua, Birgu or Vittoriosa and Isla, otherwise known as Senglea) on one side and the magnificent re-developed Pinto Vaults on the other, Malta’s Grand Harbour commands the respect of many seafarers, tourists and historians of all nationalities.

The physical features of the harbour did not change much over the centuries but when comparing the fortifications and amenities introduced through time, one will notice the changes that occurred during its long history. 

Early and medieval times
Historical evidence shows that the Grand Harbour was used as a main port since at least the Roman period. Medieval times in Malta were characterised by continual conflicts at sea, with Malta changing its feudal lords quite often. Foreign overlords had their own ships which visited the Grand Harbour on a regular basis. 

The Order of St. John
On 26 October 1530, Philippe Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the Knights, sailed into Malta's Grand Harbour to take claim of the island, which had been granted to the Knights by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Seven years earlier, the Knights had been forced from their Rhodes base by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

In the 15th century the entrance to the Grand Harbour was not defended. There were hardly any dwellings on the Xebb ir-Ras peninsula and the left-hand side of the entrance, now occupied by Fort Ricasoli, was not yet fortified.

Birgu was then more or less a hamlet but it provided certain services along its wharf. It was the centre for all transactions involving administration, trading and handling of sea vessels. Elsewhere the harbour area was deserted, while a few people lived in Bormla and Isla. The Grand Harbour provided shelter for all types of vessels in its creeks. Fresh drinking water was available at the innermost end of the harbour in the Marsa area.

However, large areas of the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett were still too exposed to the elements. Probably the berthing of ships was confined to the creeks where they would find safety and deep waters for anchorages.

Once the Order decided to remain in Malta all attention was focused on upgrading the harbour area. All present fortifications, most of the warehouses and a good number of manmade quays were conceived by the Knights, who eventually along with the rest of mainland Europe, came to appreciate Malta as a stronghold against Muslim territorial expansion. The island's position in the centre of the Mediterranean made it a strategically crucial gateway between East and West, especially as the corsairs increased their forays into the western Mediterranean throughout the 1540s and 1550s.

Following the siege on the island of Gozo in 1551, another Ottoman invasion was expected within a year. Grand Master Juan de Homedes, ordered the strengthening of Fort St. Angelo at the tip of Birgu, as well as the construction of two new forts, Fort St. Michael on the Senglea promontory and Fort St. Elmo at the seaward end of Xebb ir-Ras. The two new forts were built in the remarkably short period of six months in 1552. All three forts proved crucial during the Great Siege (1565).

The Turkish armada arrived at dawn on Friday 18 May 1565, but did not at once make land. The fleet sailed up the southern coast of the island and anchored at Marsaxlokk harbour, nearly 10 kilometres from the Great Port, as the Grand Harbour was then known.

From the ramparts of Fort St. Angelo Grand Master La Vallette directed all major battles against the Turks. Fort St. Elmo was manned by around 100 knights and 500 soldiers but La Vallette ordered them to fight to the last, intending to hold out for a relief promised by Don Garcia, Viceroy of Sicily. The continuous bombardment from three dozen guns on Xebb ir-Ras reduced the fort to rubble within a week, but La Vallette evacuated the wounded nightly and re-supplied the fort from across the harbour.

Word of the siege was spreading. As soldiers and adventurers gathered in Sicily for Don Garcia's relief, panic increased. Although Don Garcia did not at once send the promised relief, he released an advance force of 600 men. After several attempts, they managed to land on Malta in early July and sneak into Birgu, raising general spirits.

The Turks by now had ringed Birgu and Isla with some 65 siege guns and subjected the town to what was probably the most sustained bombardment in history up to that time. Having largely destroyed one of the town's crucial bastions, another massive assault on 7 August was ordered, this time against Fort St. Michael and Birgu. On this occasion, the Turks breached the town walls and it seemed that the siege was over, but the invaders retreated.

Although the bombardment and minor assaults continued, the invaders were stricken by an increasing desperation. By 8 September, the Turks had embarked their artillery, and were preparing to leave the island, having lost perhaps a third of their men to fighting and disease. The dispirited Turks were engaged in battle once more on the 11th of September, after which the surviving invaders hurriedly departed.

The importance of the Harbour remained throughout the 268 years that the Knights were in the Maltese Islands. The Grand Harbour is so deep that any type of vessel could enter safely. It is surrounded by high grounds, especially near Corradino heights. After the Great Siege of 1565, the building of Valletta further enhanced the natural beauty of the Grand Harbour. Medieval Malta had its capital Medina far inland.  The new capital city Valletta was built on the Xebb ir-Ras peninsula with a harbour on each side, Marsamxett and the Grand Harbour.

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