Day 3 of #100daysofports: Grand Harbour in #Malta


grand harbour malta

The Grand Harbour is a natural harbour on the island of Malta. Its north west shore is formed by the Sciberras peninsula, which is largely covered by the city of Valletta and its suburb Floriana. This peninsula also divides Grand Harbour from a second parallel natural harbour, Marsamxett Harbour. Much of Malta’s population lives within a three kilometer radius of Floriana. This is now one of the most densely populated areas in Europe.

What is its story?

The Maltese islands have a long history, mainly due to its strategic location and natural harbours, mainly the Grand Harbour as well as Marsamxett. The Grand Harbour has in fact been used since prehistoric times.

Megalithic remains have been found on the shores of the Grand Harbour. The Kordin Temples, the earliest of which date back to around 3700 BC, overlooked the harbour from Corradino Heights. Another megalithic structure possibly existed underwater off Fort Saint Angelo, but this can no longer be seen. Punic and Roman remains were also found on the shores of the harbour.

By the 12th and 13th centuries, the Castrum Maris had been built in what is now Birgu. It might have been built instead of ancient buildings, possibly Phoenician or Roman temples, or an Arab fortress.

In 1283, the Battle of Malta was fought at the entrance of the Grand Harbour. Aragonese forces defeated a larger Angevin force and captured 10 galleys.

The Grand Harbour was the base for the Order of Saint John for 268 years, from 1530 to 1798. They settled in the city of Birguand improved its fortifications, including rebuilding the Castrum Maris as Fort Saint Angelo. In July 1551, Barbary corsairs and Ottoman forces raided Malta. They landed at Marsamxett and marched upon the Grand Harbour, but did not attack as they found the town of Birgu too well fortified to attack. Although this attempt was unsuccessful, the Ottoman force later managed to sack Gozo and conquer Tripoli within the same campaign. After the attack, Fort Saint Elmo and Fort Saint Michael were built to better protect the harbour in any future attacks. The city of Senglea was also founded soon afterwards.

Later on in the 1550s, a tornado struck the Grand Harbour, killing 600 people and destroying a shipping armada.

The area was the scene of much of the fighting in the Great Siege of Malta of 1565 when the Ottomans attempted to eject the Order of St John but were ultimately defeated. After the siege, the capital city of Valletta was built on the Sciberras peninsula on the north west shore of the harbour. Over the years, more fortifications and settlements were founded within the Grand Harbour, including Fort Ricasoli and the towns of Floriana and Cospicua.

During the French occupation of Malta, the harbour area was blockaded by Maltese rebels on land and the Royal Navy at sea. The French eventually capitulated in September 1800 and Malta became a British protectorate, later a colony. During the British colonial rule, the harbour became a strategic base for the Royal Navy and the base of the Mediterranean Fleet.
The whole area was savagely bombed during the Second Siege of Malta during World War II, as the docks and military installations around the port were legitimate targets for Axis bombers. However collateral damage wrecked much of Valletta and The Three Cities, and caused large numbers of civilian casualties.
Malta Dockyard is still active but with the departure of the British Military the harbour lost much of its military significance. A considerable part of Malta’s commercial shipping is now handled by the new free port at Kalafrana, so the harbour is much quieter than it was in the first half of the 20th century.
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