During the years 1523-1530, the Knights of the Sovereign Military Order of St John were in search of a new home, since in December 1522 they had forced to surrender Rhodes to the Ottomans following a six-month-long siege.
By a decree dated March 23, 1530, Charles V, the Spanish Holy Roman Emperor, ceded to them the islands of Malta and Gozo, which were then part of the Kingdom of Sicily. In addition he also gave the Knights Tripoli, on the coast of what is today Libya.
Grand Master Phillipe Villiers de l’Isle Adam (1530-1536) and most of the Order arrived in Malta on October 26, 1530. Once in Malta the Knights immediately decided that Birgu (Vittoriosa) was a more appropriate location for them than Mdina. So they took up residence there, and Birgu, the harbour of the island, became the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order.
The harbour was protected only by Fort St Angelo, a small medieval castle at the tip of Birgu. The Knights realised that the harbour required better defences. They strengthened the castle, turning it into a modern fortress and they built massive bastions to protect the land access to Birgu.
In July 1551 a small Ottoman Turkish army landed on the island intending to attack Malta, but after its commanders saw the new fortifications they moved on to Mdina, and then, after abandoning that siege, they re-embarked their troops and moved to Gozo, where they seized the Citadel and carried its inhabitans into slavery.
Grand Master Juan de Homedes y Cascon (1536-1553) was convinced by Pedro Pardo, his Spanish military engineer loaned by the Viceroy of Sicily after the landings of summer 1551, that l’Isola di San Giuliano, the peninsula facing Birgu, needed to be fortified to ensure that an Ottoman army could not occupy it and, from there, fire at the vessels in the harbour.
After the incursion by Dragut, the order took steps to strengthen the island’s defences by building two new forts, one on the Sciberras peninsula, and another on the smaller peninsula then known as l’Isola. The first stone of the fort on l’Isola, built to a design by Pardo, was laid by de Homedes himself and was inaugurated on May 8, 1552.
Fort St Michael, as it was named, was built at the neck of the peninsula from where it could dominate l’Isola’s entrance from the landward side. The rationale behind the construction of St Michael’s Bastion was to delay any Ottoman assault on Birgu. The Grand Masters were vassals of Emperor Charles V and they relied on receiving help from the Spanish Viceroy of Sicily, so gaining time was a crucial factor for repelling an Ottoman attack.
Claude de La Sengle (1553-1557) continued on de Homedes’ footsteps. During his magistracy, part of the Isola peninsula was surrounded by bastions. The progress made soon started to shape the promontory into a new fortified city – prompting La Sengle to raise its status to that of a city bearing his own name. From then on, l’Isola became known as Citta La Sengle, or Senglea.
Within the walled city of Senglea, La Sengle even went further into its urbanisation. Its street planning conformed to the logical and more attractive urban design of a mathematically ordered grid layout. He provided incentives to persuade people to move to Senglea by offering them land and houses at nominal prices. In this way he managed not only to populate the new city in a relatively short time but also relieved the congestion in Birgu.
Up until the early 14th century this peninsula, protruding into the Grand Harbour, was mere wasteland and practically uninhabited. The first structure to be constructed on it was a small church dedicated to St Julian in 1311, which was rebuilt in 1539 and again in 1712.
By the time the Order arrived in Malta l’Isola was a small fishing village. Grand Master L’Isle Adam was quick to embellish the peninsula by planting a number of olive trees and adding a second windmill. Both of these windmills are clearly depicted in Matteo Perez D’Aleccio’s frescos in the Grand Chamber of the Presidential Palace in Valletta. L’Isle Adam also built his second Magisterial Palace on St Julian’s Hill. There he could relax while hunting along with his closest aides.
The strategy developed by Pardo was tested in 1565 when a major Ottoman army landed on Malta in May. The enemy laid siege to Fort St Elmo, which fell on June 23 after it was virtually demolished. The Ottomans then turned their attention to Senglea and Birgu, but they spread their efforts. A major assault on Senglea failed and a subsequent one on Birgu was repelled following the personal intervention of Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette (1557-1568).
The plague of 1813 left Senglea unscathed, while death ruled supreme and unchecked all around
In early September Don Garcia Alvarez de Toledo landed on Malta with a relatively small relief army, but the Ottomans, fearing they would be caught between two lines of fire, lifted the siege and left the island.
Even though Senglea was not completely finished by the time of the Great Siege of 1565, it created a compact block of fortification. This prompted De Valette to bestow on Senglea the title of Citta Invicta (The Unconquered City) for the courage shown by its citizens. It was also given a highly meaningful motto – Qua Pugnavi Invicta Consido (There where I battled, I stood unconquered).
The siege had destroyed so much of Senglea that Michelangelo’s assistant, Francesco Laparelli, recommended razing it to the ground. De Valette ignored his suggestion and saw to the repair of the fortifications, which by 1581 were brought to a reasonable state of defence.
The fortifications that were built at the tip of Senglea after the Great Siege today attract visitors because of a vedette, a sentry box positioned beyond the walls in order to have a commanding view over all the other fortifications. The inscription above the entrance states: Portubus hic tribus una et pluribus arcibus adstans. Dum invigilo excubiis, Omnia tuta manent MDCXCII (I hereby stand next to three ports and much fortifications, and, while with good guards I keep watch, everything is secure. 1692). This vedette (or gardjola), is decorated with reliefs showing an eye, an ear and a crane standing on one leg while grasping a stone with the other. The three symbols are a clear reference to vigilance.
Senglea also reflects Malta’s religious heritage with many niches holding statues of revered saints, and an astounding basilica dedicated to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, better known locally as Our Lady of Victories. Built in 1580 to commemorate the Great Siege of 1565, this is Senglea’s main church, which in 1581 became the parish church of the locality. It was consecrated on October 20, 1743 by Bishop Paulo Alpheran de Bussan.
On May 21, 1786, Pope Pius VI declared the church to be a collegiata insignis (distinguished collegiate church), and on January 3, 1921, it was bestowed the title of minior basilica by Pope Benedict XV.
The most valuable work of art in this Senglea church is a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary. This statue of Our Lady, popularly known as Il-Bambina, was donated in 1618. After the solemn crowning of the statue on September 4, 1921, by Archbishop Mauro Caruana, the church became a sanctuary of the Virgin Mary. The church is also particularly distinguished for the miraculous image of Jesus Christ the Redeemer which has been treasured in the adjacent oratory for the past 280 years.
During World War II, Senglea suffered heavy bombardments which devastated most of the city and killed many of its citizens. On January 16, 1941, a blitz by the Luftwaffe on HMS Illustrious, docked at the nearby Corradino, caused 21 fatalities and destroyed most of the city’s buildings, including the basilica. King George VI visited war-torn Senglea on June 20, 1943.
The rebuilt basilica was consecrated by Archbishop of Malta Mgr Michael Gonzi on August 24, 1957. The following day the basilica resumed its normal functions after almost 16 years and the statue of Marija Bambina was placed inside its new temple amidst great celebrations.
Another church that stands very near the tip of Senglea and which is visible from afar, was built in 1596 and dedicated to S. Maria di Porto Salvo (Our Lady of Safe Haven). It was local mariners who contributed towards the erection of this church. It became known as the church of St Philip Neri as it was given to the Oratorians who rebuilt it and the adjoining convent in 1690. The church was consecrated on April 22, 1781, by Bishop Vincenzo Labini.
The last Oratorian, Don Angelo Raggio, died in 1928, and with him the Oratorian presence in Malta came to an end. During the cholera epidemic, in June 1837, the friary adjacent to the church served as a hospital, and when Senglea parish church was destroyed by bombs during the last war, St Philip church served as the parish church.
The Jesuits administered the church between 1957 and 2008. Since then it has been in the gifted hands of a Salesian community. It is with great providence that this magnificient church was spared by World War II bombings.
For centuries, Senglea has been the hub where maritime skills were developed and exercised. This marine industrial and commercial activity must have surely left a positive impact on the socioeconomic standards of the local inhabitants. At some stage in the early 1700s, Senglea had its own arsenal for the construction of ships, as well as third-rate vessels, to counter balance the activity of Muslim ships in the Mediterranean. Consequently, palaces and houses connected with the maritime trade are known to have mushroomed.
The siege had destroyed so much of Senglea that Francesco Laparelli recommended razing it to the ground
The arrival of the British in 1800, with their massive presence along with their military and naval activities in the area, undoubtedly contributed significantly towards the improvement of Senglea’s living standards. During the British era the presence of a large naval fleet in the area, the various regiments billeting in Cottonera, the introduction of new technology and the need of more skilled workers all contributed to usher in a new socioeconomic revival for the region.
Senglea was associated with the mercantile trade and its enterprising class exploited the situation to create wealth while diversifying job opportunities based on a trading economy. Senglea’s grid city plan and its splendid buildings also served to give it a more vibrant social life and cosmopolitan appearance, developing into a hub for merchants and wealthy Maltese gentry. For long stretches Senglea had the highest middle income group that created wealth and enjoyed a higher social status.
In many ways, the vicissitudes of the city coincided with those of the whole island; its sufferings in times of epidemics, wars, political turbulence and economic recessions were shared by all. Yet there have been times when the Senglea experience was quite unique.
The French blockade (1798-1800) saw the city being pounded by the bombs of the Maltese themselves as no other locality witnessed. The plague of 1813, contrary to all expectations, left Senglea unscathed, while death ruled supreme and unchecked all around. The near-total razing of the city to the ground under incessant enemy bombings during World War II was the envy of no other town or village in these islands.
During those war years, Senglea lost more than stone and history. Some of its fine citizens died or were killed; most of them escaped to the countryside and never returned. With them went also the identity of a city vying with Cospicua and Vittoriosa. For while Cospicua carried the image of industry, and Vittoriosa that of craftsmanship, Senglea was indeed a city with all the elegance and culture evoked by its name.
Today Senglea is more than a place adorned with character and heritage. Life flows through its narrow streets among its aged buildings that survived the war. The spacious marina, which was the frequent scene of various activities, including the annual parish procession, fireworks displays, greasy pole contests, the annual St John’s Eve bonfire, water carnivals, music and band concerts, still holds its unique character and attraction, its romantic enchantment and its unequalled maritime environment.
It is true that it has lost its many bars and restaurants, and the thousands of carousing Royal Navy sailors, but the happy atmosphere of its sociable way of life, especially during summer evenings, is still there, and with it the temptation to sit down by the sea and enjoy the harbour views and the cool evening seasonal breeze.
Today, many activities take place within the city, among them the popular traditional boat races, known as the Regatta, which take place on the waters of the Grand Harbour twice a year: on March 31 and on September 8, with Senglea being one of the perpetual major contenders.
Moreover, September 8 heralds Senglea’s biggest celebrations where the town is lavishly decorated and lit by luminous bulbs and spectacular fireworks for the city’s feast. More recently another event has been added to the local calendar: the Senglea Maritime Festival, which is truly a celebration of the local culture, history and maritime links.
Senglea is truly one of the jewels of the Maltese islands and also one of its oldest cities dating back to the 16th century. This maritime city not only boasts of a rich heritage but also contains many structures built by the Knights themselves, making it one of the heaviest fortified areas on the island. It is indeed a gem enclosed by spectacular bastions, with commanding views, and still guarding the Grand Harbour as it did centuries ago.
Really and truly however, no word can describe Senglea. Only by visiting such a small distinctive place, nestled in the heart of the Grand Harbour, can one really savour its true charm.
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