Mdina is one of Europe’s best preserved walled cities and was Malta’s capital until the arrival of the Knights of St. John.
The ancient city occupies a strategic hilltop location at the geographical centre of the island. Phoenician remains indicate the site may have been fortified from as early as 700 BC. During the Roman period it formed part of Malta’s largest Roman township of Melita.
It was the Arabs that delineated Mdina’s present size and street plan, and the Normans after that threw up the bastions that completely surround Mdina. With the arrival of the Knights the city lost its capital status; and the Maltese nobility, not entirely welcoming the newcomers, retreated here, as did the higher church hierarchy.
The Knights reinforced the fortification of the city nonetheless, and after the disastrous earthquake of 1693, which saw the destruction of the old cathedral, they introduced the Baroque to the city with the building of the new Cathedral dedicated to Saints Peter & Paul and the Vilhena Palace – today the Museum of Natural History.
Mdina’s political slumber was briefly interrupted when its citizens were among the first to rise up against Napoleon’s French troops in 1798, a revolt which two years later led to the French capitulation and paved the way for Malta to become a British colony.
Mdina is a harmonious mix of Norman and Baroque architecture, its narrow cobbled streets lined with palazzos, convents and churches.
The magnificent Cathedral, occupying the spacious central square, is the City’s main draw. Built by the Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafa, it is considered his masterpiece, not least for his handling of the church’s imposing dome design – the best example of high Baroque in Malta. Next door is the Cathedral Museum, housing an assortment of paintings, silverware and church vestments. Highlight of the Museum is the St. Paul retable – a medieval polyptych which graced the ancient cathedral’s high altar.
The Carmelite church just off the cathedral square is another fine building with a small museum containing a charming refectory. Palazzo Falson – also known as the Norman House - is one of the city’s oldest residences and a historic house museum in its own right– displaying superb collections of paintings, silver, furniture, jewellery, Oriental rugs and armoury, as well as some highly valuable manuscripts.
The Vilhena Palace houses the Natural History Museum, an interesting if poorly displayed collection relating to the islands’ geology and fauna. The Mdina Dungeons are located next to it near the city’s main gate. The Mdina Experience on Mesquita Street is a good introduction to the history of the city, an audio-visual spectacular on multi-lingual soundtracks.
Mdina hosts a colourful medieval festival in May – highlighting the city’s history, folklore and traditions. The newly restored Mdina Ditch Garden has opened previously inaccessible parts of the city’s dry moat and offers unsurpassed views of the city’s bastions.
Mdina is above all a city to wander through and explore at street level; a city with an ambience hard to come by, a web of narrow cobbled streets and the occasional piazza, plus an attractive selection of discreet shops and cafes. Immensely popular with tourists at all times, it is also a magnet for locals, especially on Sunday afternoons and can get quite crowded at times, notwithstanding the almost total absence of car traffic. Come here early to enjoy the city’s renowned silence, or after sundown for a meal or a drink in one of the city’s establishments.
Mdina has a permanent population of less than 300, some of them direct descendants of the noble families that once lived here.