Restoration of the Birgu Fortifications - ERDF Project


The Birgu fortifications are one of Malta’s  four major historical works of military architecture and fortification earmarked for restoration by the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs (MRR) as part of the programme of projects co-financed  by European Union funds.

 This extensive project, the first of its kind to address the island’s rich and unique military architecture heritage,  aims to restore and rehabilitate the Birgu bastioned fortifications and ditch and revest them with the dignity that this historical fortress rightfully deserve as Malta’s first bastioned maritime city and one of the prime cultural and tourism assets that the Island has to offer.  The projected interventions, which now have been underway since January 2008, designed and implemented by the Restoration Unit within the Works Division, MRRA, are aimed both at the restoration of the ramparts’ consumed physical fabric as well as the recuperation of the overall legibility of Birgu’s fortified enciente, obscured over the years by modern accretions and unsympathetic development.  The project also seeks to recuperate many inaccessible areas along the fortified enceinte so as to open them up for public enjoyment.

The four selected projects (Valletta, Birgu, Mdina and the Gozo Citadel) comprise a substantial investment of around 36 million Euros spread over a period of seven years and involve the restoration of some 135,000m2 of rampart elevations over a combined perimeter length of  around 6 km.  This project is part-financed by the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund under Operation Programme I ‘Investing in Competitiveness for a Better Quality of Life’ for Cohesion Policy 2007-2013, with a co-financing rate of 85% EU Funds (ERDF) and 15% National Funds.”


Birgu - historical context and significance


Birgu was Malta’s first maritime settlement and the first bastioned maritime city to be developed in the Grand Harbour following the arrival in Malta of the Military Order of Knights of St John in 1530.  The town’s name appears to have been derived from the Arab word borg, meaning castle, and originally referred to the suburb of fishermen’s houses that had grown up on the landward side of the Castrum Maris (later Fort St Angelo), the old medieval harbour fort which the Order of St John took over from the De Nava family upon its arrival in Malta.  In the wake of the Hospitaller knights came also many refugees from Rhodes, merchants, tradesmen, and craftsmen and inevitably, the little village soon grew overcrowded and new houses and inns had to be built.  L’Isle Adam set about repeating the pattern of the Order’s old home in Rhodes by building auberges, stores, magazines and other public buildings and the town quickly assumed the prerogatives of a new municipality distinct from that of Città Notabile (Malta’s ancient capital).  The grand master also set up a commission of four Jurats to oversee the administration of the town and its transformation into a new fortified city - Citta’ Nuova.  


Giacomo Bosio, the Order’s historian, states that Grand Master L’Isle Adam, immediately upon the Order’s arrival in Malta, ordered that the town of Birgu be enclosed within a wall but it is not clear at exactly when and by whom these fortifications were designed. By 1536 Antonio Ferramolino was advising the Order on the fortifications of Birgu and the Castrum Maris. Work on these fortifications was still being carried out in 1552, 1555, and 1560, with efforts directed particularly at enlarging the bastions and deepening the ditch.  By then, the land front had evolved into an almost straight line with two bastions, spanning across the neck of the peninsula. 


Birgu’s crowning moment came in 1565, when it withstood three months of Turkish bombardment and assaults during the Great Siege of Malta by the Ottoman armada sent to capture the island bt Sultan Suleiman, earning, as a result, its title of Vittoriosa (The Victorious One). The city’s defences, which had been pulverized by the incessant Turkish artillery bombardment, were largely rebuilt after the siege under the supervision of the Maltese military engineer Girolmu Cassar.


The construction of the new piazza reale of Valletta immediately after the siege, however,  placed a great strain on the Order’s resources so that the upkeep of the Birgu fortifications came to be neglected over the course of the closing decades of the sixteenth century until rumours of a possible Turkish attack in 1633 forced a re-appraisal of its state of repair. Furthermore, the commencement of the massive Sta Margherita enceinte in 1638, followed by the even larger and all-encompassing Cottonera enceinte in 1670, served to relieve Birgu of its front-line pressures and, in the process, robbing it of most of its military value.  



By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, the Order began once again to address the problems of the role and importance of the old fortress which was still considered critical for the defence of the harbour anchorages and naval servicing areas. As a result, there materialized in the early decades of the 1700, an extensive transformation of Birgu into the present day Baroque fortress with ornamental triumphal gateways, and sophisticated outerworks with batteries, countermines, and glacis. Responsible for this military revival and architectural transformation was a small French military mission, headed by Brigadier Rene Jacob de Tigné and his deputy Charles Francois de Mondion, sent by the King of France in answer to the Order’s request for military assistance in 1714 when faced with the threat of a Turkish invasion. Together, these two French military engineers designed and implemented the complete overhaul and renovation of Birgu’s fortifications – the bastions, cavaliers, curtains, outerworks, and gateways. The Post of Castile, in particular, that renowned site of the most important  battles of the Great Siege in 1565, received special attention and was reinforced with a new built-in casemated bastioned retrenchment.  



Nature and Scope of the Restoration Works


The ERDF restoration project on the Birgu Fortifications set out to achieve the following main objectives

  1. The restoration and repair of the consumed masonry fabric of historic ramparts;
  2. the recuperation of the enceinte’s legibility with the removal of modern accretions and the reconstruction of missing lacunae;
  3. the recuperation of inaccessible areas of the fortifications and their incorporation into the public domain as part of Birgu’s cultural and tourism assets;
  4. the rehabilitaion of the main ditch into a recreational and cultural area;
  5. the introduction of a new lighting system for the fortifications, and;
  6. the repaving and relighting of the historical intra-mural area, known historically as the collachium. 

The project is divided into fifteen phases as indicated in the table below:




Tender for the Restoration of St John Bastion, Piazza Bassa and Gateways



Service tender for the documentation (two-dimensional recording and mapping) of the Hornworks, Retrenchment, Ditch and Gorge of retrenchment of the Post of Castile,

BRG 03


Tender for the Restoration of Couvre Port and Main Ditch of Birgu



Tender for the Restoration of St John's Cavalier and the Curtain of France

BRG 05

departmental tender (not by EU funds)

Tender for the Demolition of the Oil Bunkering Building



Tender for the Restoration of St James Cavalier and Bastion

BRG 07


Tender for the Restoration of the Counterscarp of the Ditch

BRG 08


Tender for the Restoration of the Hornworks of the Post of Castile

BRG 09


Tender for the Restoration of the Retrenchment of the Post of Castile and the Ditch

BRG 10


Tender for the Restoration of the Curtain Wall - Tenaille Trace

BRG 11

departmental tender (not by EU funds)

Tender for the Services and Infrastructure prior to paving

BRG 12


Tender for Paving Works

BRG 13


Tender for the Landscaping of Main Ditch and Lighting

BRG 14


Tender for the Signage and Metal Works

BRG 15


Request for Information - Lighting Installation for Birgu




1.            The restoration and repair of the physical fabric.


Birgu has some two kilometers of rampart walls and rock-hewn counterscarp, fashioned out of the beautiful honey-coloured, but nonetheless fragile, Globigerina limestone.  Erosion, pollution, vegetation, continual human use (and misuse), as well as insensitive modern accretions (metal pipes, fixtures and cables), have inevitably all taken their toll of the fortifications’ old masonry fabric.


The projected interventions, therefore, are designed to clean and repair all the surfaces of the bastions, curtains, cavaliers, and gates making up the fortified enceinte and replace, where necessary, highly consumed elements in order to arrest the considerable processes of decay that threaten the architectural integrity of this unique historical monument.


The restoration interventions are exceuted to the highest standards and in accordance with established scientific criteria and practices.



Consumed heraldic panel – current stet, Couvre Porte Gate


Typical condition of consumed state of repair of bastions’ masonry fabric


 2.            Recuperation of the legibility of Birgu’s enceinte

Over the course of the past century, some important areas of Birgu’s fortifications have lost their integrity and legibility as a result of short-sighted modern interventions. Some areas were either obstructed with utilitarian buildings and structures, filled in, or simply demolished to make way for roads - all of which have served to detract from the fortification’s full architectural and physical power.


The area known as the Hornworks of the Post of Castile was one such place.  This important stretch of the Birgu enceinte, facing Kalkara Creek, and the site of the most important battles of the Great Siege of 1565, provides one of the most dramatic and sculpturally powerful statements of the bastioned trace as introduced by the knights of the Order of St John.  In this instance, however, most of the inherent visual power of these magnificent ramparts was dissipated away by a poorly-sited naval depot built early in the twentieth century, which structure was grafted onto the lower half of the ramparts.  The recent dismantling works, which were carried out carefully by hand, also revealed the considerable damage that was inflicted to the bastion’s masonry fabric by the insertion of the heavy steels beams and concrete bonding employed in the construction of the oil-bunker’s roof.


The Project also seeks to unearth the ditch around the counterguard known as the Couvre Porte (filled-in after the Second World War with war-damage debris) and thereby re-establish the linear continuity of the enceinte with the construction of an arch where the wall was crudely interrupted along the face of the Bastion of St John in order to make way for a modern road into the town. (See images below)


Current layout of the Couvre Porte area



Proposed new layout of the Couvre Porte area with emphasis on reintroducing better legibility of ramparts and rediscovery of lost features


Existing breach in face of St John Bastion



Proposed arch in face of St John Bastion


Oil-depot along Kalkara Creek, below Hornworks of Post of Castile.


Removal of Oil-depot, 2010.



 3.      Recuperation of inaccessible areas of the fortifications


An important objective of the Birgu Restoration project is the recuperation of considerable areas of the fortifications which to-date have remained inaccessible to the public. Amongst these are the Bastion of St James and the large tract of ramparts known as the Post of Castile. Between them, these two areas consitute about 25 percent of the Birgu fortifications.  The project seeks to take-over these spaces, restore, and rehabilitate them, and open them up for public enjoyment as places of historical, cultural and tourism activities.  


Aerial view of the Birgu fortifications showing the hitherto inaccessible areas of the Post of Castile and St John Bastion



Retrenchment of the Post of Castile (present state)

4.     Rehabilitaion of the main ditch

 An important aspect of the Birgu project is that it seeks to re-establish the physical connections in the Cottonera area between the Vittoriosa seafront, Bormla, and Kalkara seafront, thus creating a complete heritage trail all around the city of Birgu. An important and pivotal  component in this strategy is the role played by the land front ditch.  Although the ditch has served as a sort of public garden in the past, its relatively rundown state and poor state of presentation make it a highly underutilized and relatively unwelcoming public area. The ditch, however, has tremendous potential as an aesthetically pleasing and creative recreational environment. The ERDF project, therefore, aims to redesign the layout of the ditch to highlight its historical features and enhance its recreational potential.  




5.      Introduction of a new lighting system


The project seeks to introduce a co-ordinated, sustainable, and economical lighting system which will provide evening and night-time appreciation of the fortifications of Birgu from the immediate and surrounding locations and other main scenic view points around the Grand Harbour. The lighting project will also include Birgu’s intra-mural and historic urban fabric and architectural heritage. The project will seek to promote an artistic enhancement and experience of the heritage assets, create safe and pleasant outdoor spaces, and highlight and emphasise important features such as the principal Baroque gateways, cavaliers, bastions, embrasures, ditch and facades of historical buildings.



Computer generated image showing proposed illumination of the Hornworks of the Post of Castile (artwork– Restoration Unit)



6.    Repaving of the historical intra-mural area (collachium)


Birgu was a fortress and, therefore, as a fortified city it served both military and social functions. The city, which originated as a medieval fishermen’s village huddled beneath the shadow of a castle, retained its largely orginal medieval layout of narrow winding streets and alleys.   After the coming of the knights in 1530, and the enclosure of the town within a bastioned enceinte, a substantial part of the intra-mural area was reserved exclusively for the knights and their main buildings – conventual church, hospital,  auberges, and palaces etc – the so-called Collachio . 


Unfortunately, most of the streets and other spaces within the project boundary have, over the passage of time, either lost their original paving or were re-surfaced in asphalt or concrete. The project seeks to restore the paving as an essential component of the historic urban fabric that manages to communicate the ‘spirit of the place’.


   Current and proposed street paving



7.   Project Benefits


The primary aim of the project is to address the problems of restoration and rehabilitation of the decaying architectural fabric of Birgu’s unique and historic system of fortifications with the aim of its revalorization as an integral and focal part of Malta’s cultural-tourism product. 


The significance of the Birgu fortifications restoration project, however, extends far beyond the physical restoration of the architectural features and fabric of the ramparts and bastions. The restoration programme, therefore, will also serve to boost the regeneration of the areas within and around the fortifications, providing an improved quality of life for the inhabitants of the localities.

Indeed, to this end, the project has, from its very inception, found the unstinting support and collaboration of both the Birgu Local Council and the community and people of Birgu.


8.            Progress to-date


Restoration works on the Birgu fortifications programme are now well underway. At the time of writing of this report, four tenders have already been awarded, and another two are about to be awarded, while another tender is in the publication stage. Restoration works are currently in progress along the ramparts of St. John Bastion, its adjoining curtain and counterscarp, and on St. John Cavalier, while the Oil-depot building abutting the hornworks of the Post of Castile has now been dismantled. Restoration works are now also set to begin on the Counterguard known as Couvre Porte while a documentation exercise is set to commence on the network of fortifications in the area of the Post of Castile. 



Article prepared by the Restoration Unit, The Project Design and Implementation Division,  Ministry of Resources and Rural Affairs.