Fortifications in Gozo and Comino
Gozo’s historical heritage is intricately linked to its role in the protection of the Maltese Islands throughout the centuries. Coastal defence fortifications on Gozo and the tiny island of Comino were vital for the safeguarding of the Maltese population during the period of the Knights of the Order of St. John (1530 – 1798) and that of the British (1800 – 1964) in Malta. While the larger island of Malta is perhaps better known for its large and imposing fortifications, forts in Gozo and Comino should not be overlooked.
The Citadel in Gozo
The Citadel in Victoria, Gozo, is an ancient fortified city that sits atop a hill keeping a keen protective eye over the inhabitants of the small island of Gozo. The site upon which the Citadel stands is thought to have been first fortified during the Bronze Age in 1500 BC, later developed by the Phoenicians and then reaching its current acropolis-like status in the Middle Ages. The Citadel comprises thick defensive stone walls that rise up on the hill above the surrounding town.
The seventeenth century baroque cathedral that lies within the Citadel’s walls was built on the site where a Roman temple dedicated to Juno once stood. The cathedral is most well known for its stunning trompe l’oeil fresco on its ceiling, which depicts a dome that was in fact never built.
After their victory in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, when the Maltese and the Knights fought fiercely to protect the Maltese Islands from the invading Ottoman Empire, the Knights set about intensifying the fortifications of the Citadel to further protect the Gozitan inhabitants from further attack. In fact, under the rule of law up until 1637, the Gozitans were required to retreat to the walls of the Citadel for their protection during the night. In the peaceful times that followed, rural Gozitans were allowed to settle outside the Citadel, slowly forming what came to be known as the surrounding town of Rabat (also known as Victoria).
Coastal defences across Comino and Gozo
Perched on the cliffs of Comino, the Santa Maria Tower dominates the tiny island that lies between Malta and Gozo. The tower was originally constructed by the Knights in 1618 as part of a system of watch towers that was set up to facilitate communication and defence across the Maltese Islands. The towers were erected as a chain located strategically across Malta, Comino and Gozo to serve as a warning system in case of invasions; one tower would light a fire to warn the next tower, which would do the same to warn the next tower and so on.
The walls of the Santa Maria Tower are about six metres thick, ideal for keeping invaders out as well as for keeping prisoners in, as was the case when the tower was used as a prison for suspected spies during the French Blockade (1798 – 1800). Today, the tower is perhaps most well known for having appeared in the ‘Count of Monte Kristo’ film, and provides for a great destination for visitors walking around the island.
Another one of the coastal towers forming part of the early warning system across the Maltese Islands is the Mgarr ix-Xini Tower in Gozo. Having been expertly restored, the tower still guards the entrance to the small bay of the same name on Gozo’s southwest coastline. The tower is open for visits from the public and serves as one of Gozo’s unique cultural and touristic attractions.
The Dwejra Tower in Gozo, just off the road leading down from the village of San Lawrenz to the inland sea in Dwejra, was built in 1652 to protect the undefended coast in that part of the island. This Gozo fort tower also served to stop unauthorised people from accessing the nearby ‘Fungus Rock’ as it was believed that the rock was home to a plant containing unique medicinal properties. Dwejra Tower is open to visitors from Monday to Friday and on Sunday.
Though not strictly a fortification, the Gurdan Lighthouse in the small village of Ghasri in Gozo is worth visiting if even for the view alone. The lighthouse was constructed by the British in 1851 due to ever increasing maritime traffic. Most visitors to the lighthouse walk up to it from Ghasri, traversing the steep hill to enjoy breath-taking 360-degree views over the Mediterranean.
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