Carole Pietrzak

The history of Birgu - Part 5

In this fifth part about the history of Birgu, Ms Carole Prietzack talks about what is undoubtedly the best-known event in which Birgu was centre stage – the Great Siege of 1565, during which most of the libretto of City of Humanity 1 – Behind the Fortifications is set.

After nearly two years of preparation in Constantinople and North Africa, the full-scale attack against Malta in 1565 was the logical move of the Ottoman Empire to full fill its wish to expand in the lands owned by the Catholic Church and the Levant, Kenneth Setton writes: «  The siege of Malta has been an exciting, fearful drama. Few events of the stormy century ever caught such widespread attention or evoked such admiration, at least in Europe, as did the success of the Hospitallers and the Maltese in defending their island against almost four months of Turkish assault ».

On May 18, 1565, 180 Turkish galleys, with 40 000 men on board and 50 canons landed in the peninsula of Sciberras, which dominates the Grand Harbour and Birgu, only defended by Fort Saint Elmo, which fell to the Turks on June 23rd. 1500 men of all nationalities perished, 89 knights were killed and 28 wounded and taken to Birgu. In the meanwhile, the Grand Master Jean de la Valette strengthened the defences of Birgu. In their attack upon Malta, the Turks lost 35,000 men, including Dragut[1]  and many other persons of distinction.

In July the Turks almost gained the upper hand and the Grand Master was wounded. In July the Turks almost gained the upper hand and the Grand Master was wounded. But in September, the audacity of the Hospitallers and the Maltese, combined to a largish (estimated between 8-10,000) Spanish Grand Relief force sent by Philip II that did arrive in Malta between 7-8 September forced the Ottomans to give up the Siege. There was one final big battle in St Paul's Bay area.

The losses were enormous: 30,000 on the Turkish side and 9,000 on the Maltese one, of which 219 knights. The vanquished  Order was magnified by a knightly renewal that the Western Christian world was experiencing and Malta, not anymore a Sicilian anonymous extension,  brought to the attention of the European Nobility.

After the Great Siege, Birgu, devastated and reduced to a state of horror was nevertheless named Vittoriosa for its outstanding role in the Great Siege.

The Turkish showed their supremacy at sea and took their revenge in April 1566, taking Chios thus bringing to an end the 220 years of Genovese rule over the island. In 1571 they also captured Cyprus from the Venetians and in 1576 Morocco too fell under the Ottoman influence.

In Malta Jean de la Valette, a French Knight of the Langue de Provence, a good Christian and a very good leader, decided to repair and buttress Birgu’s fortifications but such was the devastation that the post-siege engineer Laparelli strongly recommended the urgent evacuation of Birgu and advised the Order to move immediately to Mount Sciberras, the site on which the new city of Valletta was subsequently built. Bartolommeo Genga (1518–1558), an Italian architect was invited to come to Malta by de Valette to make plans for a new city and strengthen the Birgu fortifications in 1558. He designed a new Grand Master’s Palace in the centre of Birgu as well as the facade of Auberge de France. He died in Malta on July or August 1558 and was buried in Saint Lawrence Conventual Church.

From now on, the role of Birgu as determined by Valletta’s development into a port city which gradually grew into a «  complete unit » of which the Grand Harbour on the Southern side of the peninsula and Marsamxett harbour on the Northern side were to become an integral port. The Grand Harbour’s fortifications and buildings were purposely designed to meet the military and naval needs of the Order and the demands of the economic expansion of Valletta. The galley sheds and the main arsenal, modified, enlarged and rebuilt over the years to meet current exigencies were retained at Birgu.

In next week’s blog, we shall see what happened to Birgu during the British rule.

[1] Dragut : (1485 – 23 June 1565) was an Ottoman Greek Admiral and privateer who also served as Bey of Algiers; Beylerbey of the Mediterranean; and first Bey, later Pasha, of Tripoli.


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