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Birgu (Malta)


Birgu, also known as Vittoriosa is one of the Malta's oldest cities. Its destinies were for many centuries intertwined with those of the neighbouring countries in the central Mediterranean basin.

Birgu is a town situated on a peninsula in Malta's natural harbour and throughout the Maltese history; Birgu can easily claim to have been the island's former maritime capital. It affords a natural safe anchorage in the sheltered creeks along its sides, Kalkara Creek to the north and Dockyards Creek to the south. Birgu has a unique three gate entrance that leads to the ancient medieval "piazza".

Excluding the headland comprising Fort St. Angelo, the city covers an area of about 175,500 square meters. The highest points Cavaliers Hill, lying towards the landward side and St. Philip's Hill are about 30 meters and 25 meters respectively above sea level. These hills are joined by a shallow 16 meters saddle  - on which conveniently sits Vittoriosa's main square - which then slopes gently to the sea on the southern side forming a long stretch of waterside running along the entire peninsula. It was in this area that the city's first wharf took shape and which probably was the cause of the city's origin many years ago. That wharf became so intimately a part of the city life that the entire city gained fame as a maritime centre.

The Phoenicians, the first known settlers to occupy the Island, reputedly erected at Birgu a temple dedicated to their tutelary goddess, Astarte. When Phoenicia fell before Assyria, its empire passed to its colony of Carthage and then by conquest to Rome. Under the latter, the temple was rededicated to the Roman goddess Juno to whom Astarte most closely corresponded.

Upon the arrival of the knights of St. John in Malta in 1530, after having abandoned Rhodes some years earlier, Birgu was chosen as the seat of the Order. Here they established their conventual's church for their worship, the auberges for their residence, and the arsenal for the construction and maintenance of their fleet. As result of general reconstruction taking place, Birgu was at the time referred to as Citta Nuova, the New City. During the great siege of 1565, when Malta faced the might of the Ottoman Empire, the city played a decisive role. For its contribution towards the final victory, Grand Master La Valette renamed it "Civitas Victoriosa" which name in Italian form, it still bears.

During the World War Two, Birgu, together with the areas around the Grand Harbour, became the main target of enemy action. Various historical buildings in Birgu were demolished and parts of the city were rebuilt on modern lines, with no regard being given to the city's original architecture. Fortunately, however, most of the pre-war city plan remains more or less intact. Within the confines of its bastions, the population of Birgu tended to grow in line with the increased maritime activity: from 2,500 at the time of the Order's arrival, it had soared to 5,800 at the beginning of the 19th century and to over 7,000 by 1939. As people sought refuge elsewhere during the war years, the number dropped to around 3,069.

Nowadays Birgu keeps in its narrow streets the rich historical heritage and the unique atmosphere of a beautiful and enigmatic place.