Carole Pietrzak

The history of Birgu - Part 1

In this series of blogs, Ms. Carole Pietrzac a cultural historian will give us a detailed account of the history of the town of Birgu, one of the oldest towns in Malta. It is in Birgu that the libretto of City of Humanity 1 – Behind the Fortifications unfolds. In this first part, Ms. Pietrzac talks about the BIRGU peninsula in prehistoric and classical times.

Birgu, together with Fort St Angelo, occupies one of the tongues of land that project from the eastern side of the Grand Harbour in the direction of Valletta. According to the archaeological evidence available at the present time,  man reached these islands around 7,000 years ago when the Maltese archipelago had already been detached from Sicily and the European continent for about 5,000 years. Nevertheless, there has never been any records of relics of human activity in the Birgu area going back beyond the Temple Period of the Maltese prehistory (around 3,600 BC at the earliest). Geologists say that the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour are the results of a network of surface rivers which had eaten away progressively deeper and wider channels in the rock formation before the latter subsided and found themselves submerged by the sea.

The greatest asset of the peninsula occupied by Birgu is the safety of the waters surrounding, particularly in rough weather. The second most important feature must have been the projecting «  rock » dominating the tip of the promontory which, according to a 16th-century account, was connected to the sloping hills of Birgu itself by a low flat depression. The Grand Harbour area contains archaeological remains going back to the Temple period of Maltese Prehistory. Digging, investigations and rescue operations could bring documented evidence of archaeological remains or stratigraphies that the soil underneath the present texture might still be protecting for the Maltese to bring in light in order to enrich their cultural and historical heritage for the sake of their identity and that of future generations.

From historical records, it seems that the people living at prehistoric times were not sensitive to the qualities of the rock as they experienced a peaceful time, taking advantage of the sea and its nutritive resources to develop agriculture.

The Bronze Age people would most probably have been attracted by the defensive and other topographical advantages since they conducted their life in insecure times but no traces of their presence has yet been found in the immediate Birgu area. One important set of ruins still existed in the sixteenth century and was described by Jean Quintin, a French chaplain of the Order who arrived in Malta in 1530 and later published the earliest printed description of the islands. Quintin had identified ruins midway between the town of Birgu and St Angelo castle.

There are no physical archaeological remains found on the Birgu peninsula belonging to the Classical age. The only exception seems to be the column of Egyptian pink granite which supports the vault of Ste Anne’s chapel inside the castle which was probably robbed from the ruins of some building of the Roman period. Inside the castle, between the Captain’s  House and the so-called « Arab » tower, a line of ashlar blocks of unusually large size is very likely the relic of an ancient structure. The base of an ancient column in white marble has been in the possession of the Annunciation Convent of the Dominican monks in Main Gate Streer in Birgu, where it is still preserved today. There is a handful of coins kept in the Museum of the Parish Church which is reputed to have been discovered during the digging of the foundations of the Church of the Annunciation. Even though Birgu is more famous during Medieval Times, evidence of life in prehistoric times has been found and testifies that Globigerina and Coralline limestone were already made use of to build useful farm equipment for the processing of olive oil for instance.

In next week’s second part on the history of Birgu, Ms. Pietrzac guides us through Birgu in the middle ages.

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