Fortifications, bastions, cavaliers, curtains, ravelins – so many names in Malta for stone walls. Here, Leslie Vella points his camera and his attention at a wall less often mentioned in guide books but that’s historically and geographically fascinating all the same. A wall you can walk as well!
I will start by making two observations. The first observation is that most visitors to Malta will be immediately struck by the extent of the fortifications constructed during the reign of the Knights of St John in Malta (1530 – 1798), but very few will take much notice of the British era fortifications built during the 19th and 20th centuries. The second observation is that the extent of population and construction spread in Malta is concentrated in the southern half of the island, with the northern half being much less developed.
The major British fortification in Malta is the one known as the Victoria Lines which spans a 12 km stretch between Madliena/Bahar ic-Caghaq to the East and Kuncizzjoni/Fomm ir-Rih to the West. This fortified system consists of four forts, a number of gun batteries and an unbroken infantry line which connects them together to form a continuous defence which stretches from east coast to west coast and effectively cuts Malta into a northern and a southern half.
Why the wall?
When the British arrived in Malta in 1800 their major task was to afford as much protection as was possible to the Grand Harbour area, particularly in view of the great technological advances made by artillery which could launch shells from a far greater distance than was the norm when the Knights built the complex fortifications around Valletta and the Three Cities.
Their major preoccupation was with the exposed sandy beaches in the north of Malta which were then seen as a strategic nuisance rather than the tourism and leisure asset they are today. Their fear was that an enemy landing in the undefended north of Malta could establish an artillery line which could inflict major damage on the harbour installations.
Where’s the wall?
After considering many options they finally decided to capitalise on a natural fault line which neatly cuts Malta into two parts at the place of its maximum width and to construct a fortified line thereby protecting the populated south from the undeveloped and exposed north. We still travel up and down this fault via various major roads in Malta such as the Bahar ic-Caghaq Coast Road between Splash and Fun and White Rocks, it-Telgha ta’ Alla w Ommu in Naxxar and Targa Gap Road outside Mosta among others.
What is the wall?
This defensive system was built and developed over a 29-year period between 1870 and 1899 and was originally called the North West Front. It was eventually re-christened the Victoria Lines in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The Victoria Lines consist of four forts (Pembroke, Madliena, Mosta and Bingemma) together with an unbroken low-walled infantry line linking Forts Madliena, Mosta and Bingemma along the course of the fault. The wall is a relatively unimpressive two-metre high affair in most places, but its main objective was to enable defending soldiers to fire down on the enemy below from their protected vantage point in the ridge around 150 metres above.
Why the wall is important to us today
To the military history aficionado, the Victoria Lines provide yet another dimension to Malta’s millennial history as a strategically located island. They are a logical extension of the defensive works developed by the Knights and shows the extent of what lengths those who valued Malta’s location were ready to go to, to defend it from falling into enemy hands. It is a major, military architecture undertaking built before the advent of heavy machinery and still stands relatively unscathed today, more than one hundred years after it was completed.
For those who are less interested in military matters, the Victoria Lines sit atop some of Malta’s highest ground, some 200 metres above sea level, and a walk along them affords excellent views of the entire northern half of the island together with Gozo and Comino. Even distant Sicily is clearly visible on crisp winter days. Another bonus associated with a walk along the Lines is that they are set along some beautiful countryside which is generally free from excessive development. Beautiful walks are possible near Gharghur, on the Dwejra Lines overlooking Mosta and Mgarr and between Bingemma and Fomm ir-Rih.
Like a lot of our ancestors’ major efforts aimed at protecting Malta from invasion, the Victoria Lines were never tested in war. They however remain as a legacy to times gone by when conflict around our shores was a daily reality and when war, or the prospect of war, brought economic prosperity while peace brought depression and hunger.
I also value the Victoria Lines because they have probably, unwittingly, constrained development in Malta to the southern half whilst ensuring that the northern half remained relatively emptier. Having been built to resist invasion from the north to the south, their major achievement has been to suppress development from breaching their unbroken line and invading the north! For this we should be grateful as it has ensured that in spite of living on one of the most densely-populated territories on the planet we still have a beautiful, open countryside which is there for all to enjoy.
Video, photos, maps and more info on the Victoria Lines here
Photo: Leslie Vella