The Three Cities are known individually as Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa, yet locals knew them by other names; “Bormla”, “l-Isla” and “il-Birgu”, respectively. These cities have, in time, settled into quiet traditionally authentic Maltese villages, yet in the past, they were not only regarded as homes but as crucial fortresses of the island, to almost all the natives at the time.
These harbours have been in use since Phoenician times, providing the locals with work and opportunities to trade, yet they left the villagers vulnerable in times of war. However, when the Order of St. John first arrived in Malta, they took the Three Cities under their wing and fortified them, whilst building the palaces and churches that are still standing to this day, giving the cities their grandiose and classical feel. Since the Order settled within the Three Cities before moving onto Valletta, we can say that they are older than the capital city itself.
Out of all three cities, Birgu happens to be the oldest, as its activity dates back to the Middle Ages; any ruler hoping to obtain leadership of Malta had to first conquer Birgu due to its crucial position in the Grand Harbour. It is found in the Southeastern region of Malta, with Fort Saint Angelo at its head. The city boasts of a very long history with maritime, mercantile and military activities. Once the Order of St. John arrived in Malta, Birgu was made the capital city of the island, and Mdina was removed of its title, due to the fact that Mdina was not a harbour city, therefore could not suit the Order’s naval needs.
Birgu was in the spotlight during the Great Siege of 1565, and due to the Knights’ newly built fortresses and defence tactics, Malta was not conquered by the Ottoman Empire. This victory is what inspired Birgu’s title, “Citta’ Vittoriosa”. Unfortunately, Birgu was heavily bombed during World War II, due to its proximity to the Malta Dockyard, and a number of historical buildings emanating from the era of the Knights were destroyed, including the Birgu Clock Tower.
Nowadays, Birgu is growing in popularity, due to its quiet disposition and the Birgufest, which is taking place in October. During Birgufest, the city is lit by candlelight, to enhance the historic and architectural beauty of the city.
Senglea, or rather, “l-Isla”, is Birgu’s fortified neighbour, and is also known as Citta’ Invicta, due to the fact that it had remained unconquered in the resistance of the invasion from the Ottoman Empire. However, its other name “Senglea” is derived from the Grand Master who was in charge of its reconstruction; Claude de la Single. St. Julian’s Church was the first founding building constructed in the area, more precisely in 1311, when it was known as Isola di San Giuliano or Isola di San Michele and not Senglea. It was heavily affected by the plague in the late 1600s, and narrowly evaded another outbreak in 1813. The villagers erected the statue of Our Lady in the city centre, as a sign of gratitude for the protection of the villagers.
It was also heavily bombed during the Second World War, by a blitz by the Luftwaffe on HMS Illustrious; many villagers were killed and the city lost its Basilica. The devastated site was later visited by King George VI, the father of Queen Elisabeth II, and almost fifty years later, by Pope John Paul II. On the 50th anniversary of the blitz, a monument which honours the local victims of both World Wars was unveiled beside the Basilica on the 5th September 1991. In 2001, Senglea won a European Destinations of Excellence Award for aquatic tourism.
Lastly, Cospicua or “Bormla” also has a third title- Civitas Cospicua. The name “Bormla” comes from Bir Mula, which translates into “well of the Lord”. This double-fortified city is the most densely populated city out of the three, boasting almost 6,000 inhabitants. Bormla has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and its maritime use dates back to 600BC. The Order of St John took roughly 70 years to complete the fortifications of the city, and it was only declared a city by Grand Master Marc’Antonio Zondadari, in 1722. The dockyard constructed by the Order was consequently used by the British Royal Navy during their rule and was proven to be particularly useful during the Crimean war and the First World War.
Cospicua celebrates its well-known feast on the 8th of December, in honour of the Immaculate Conception, and it’s also known for its Good Friday procession, a popular tourist attraction.
These cities remain largely unvisited by locals and tourists alike. However, take a chance and book the “Two Harbours Cruise” tour with Fun Malta (follow this link: https://www.funmalta.com/2-harbours-cruise). You will be truly amazed by the wonders these cities have to offer.