Mdina – the Silent City

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Mdina also known by its titles Città Vecchia or Città Notabile, is a fortified city in the Northern Region of Malta, which served as the island’s capital from antiquity to the medieval period. The city is still confined within its walls.

Mdina remained the centre of the Maltese nobility and religious authorities, but it never regained its pre-1530 importance, giving rise to the popular nickname the “Silent City” by both locals and visitors. Mdina is on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and it is now one of the main tourist attractions in Malta.

History

Antiquity

The plateau on which Mdina is built has been inhabited since prehistory, and by the Bronze Age it was a place of refuge since it was naturally defensible. The Phoenicians colonized Malta in around the 8th century BC, and they founded the city of Maleth on this plateau. It was taken over by the Roman Republic in 218 BC, becoming known as Melite. The Punic-Roman city was about three times the size of present-day Mdina, extending into a large part of modern Rabat.

Medieval period

At some point following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a retrenchment was built within the city, reducing it to its present size. This was done to make the city’s perimeter more easily defensible, and similar reductions in city sizes were common around the Mediterranean region in the early Middle Ages. Although it was traditionally assumed that the retrenchment was built by the Arabs, it has been suggested that it was actually built by the Byzantine Empire in around the 8th century, when the threat from the Arabs increased.

The population of Malta during the fifteenth century was about 10,000, with town life limited to Mdina, Birgu and the Gozo Citadel. Mdina was comparatively small and partly uninhabited and by 1419, it was already outgrown by its suburb, Rabat. Under Aragonese rule, local government rested on the Università, a communal body based in Mdina, which collected taxation and administered the islands’ limited resources. At various points during the fifteenth century, this town council complained to its Aragonese overlords that the islands were at the mercy of the sea and the saracens.

Hospitaller rule

When the Order of Saint John took over in Malta in 1530, the nobles ceremoniously handed over the keys of the city, but the Order settled in Birgu and Mdina lost its status as capital city.

During the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, Mdina was the base of the Order’s cavalry, which made occasional sorties on the invading Ottomans. On 7 August 1565, the cavalry attacked the unprotected Ottoman field hospital, which led in the invaders abandoning a major assault on the main fortifications in Birgu and Senglea.

Mdina suffered severe damage during the 1693 Sicily earthquake, although no casualties were reported. The 13th-century Cathedral of St. Paul was partially destroyed, and it was rebuilt in the Baroque style between 1697 and 1703.

On 3 November 1722, newly elected Grand Master António Manoel de Vilhena issued orders for the restoration and renovation of Mdina. This renovation was entrusted to the French architect and military engineer, who introduced strong French Baroque elements into what was still a largely medieval city. At this point, large parts of the fortifications and the city entrance were completely rebuilt. The remains of the Castellu di la Chitati were demolished to make way for Palazzo Vilhena, while the main gate was walled up and a new Mdina Gate was built nearby.

French occupation and British rule

On 10 June 1798, Mdina was captured by French forces without much resistance during the French invasion of Malta.

The rebels were successful, and in 1800 the French surrendered and Malta became a British protectorate.

From 1883 to 1931, Mdina was linked with Valletta by the Malta Railway.

Present day

Today, Mdina is one of Malta’s major tourist attractions, hosting about 750,000 tourists a year. No cars are allowed in Mdina, partly why it has earned the nickname ‘the Silent City’. The city displays an unusual mix of Norman and Baroque architecture, including several palaces, most of which serve as private homes.

An extensive restoration of the city walls was undertaken between 2008 and 2016.

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