Discover the legacy of forts standing sentinel over Malta's two main harbours left by the Knights of Malta and the British.
Approaching the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour as an invader once posed an ominous sight. Nine forts protected Malta’s two most important harbours. Today, the fortified city of Valletta commands the peninsula between them, with Fort St Elmo standing guard. Protecting the entrance to the Grand Harbour are Fort Ricasoli, Fort Rinella and Fort St Rocco. Inside the Grand Harbour, Fort St Angelo has the most glorious history of them all, while Fort San Salvatore stands no more. Guarding Marsamxett Harbour is Fort Tigne with Fort Manoel commanding Manoel Island in the middle. And that’s not counting the other forts around the Maltese Islands!
1. Fort Ricasoli
Fort Ricasoli is a bastioned fort in Kalkara built by the Knights of Malta between 1670 and 1698. It commands the entrance to the Grand Harbour and is the largest fort in Malta. It is famous for the Froberg mutiny that rose here in 1807. Since it was decomissioned, it has been used as a military hospital and a prison, among other things. It is largely intact, however, unfortunately not well maintained. It is today used as a filming location and you might recognise it in the Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004), Agora (2009), Assassin's Creed (2016) and posing as the Red Keep in Game of Thrones (2011).
2. Fort Rinella
Actually a battery, Fort Rinella is a Victorian battery in Kalkara that was built by the British between 1878 and 1886. It lies on the shore east of the mouth of Grand Harbour, between Fort Ricasoli and Fort St Rocco. It contains one of two surviving Armstrong 100-tonne guns, which you can see. The paired Cambridge Battery, west of the mouth of the Grand Harbour, no longer exists. The fortifications were structured mainly for the use of small arms fire and grenades, and gun practice was limited to one shot every three months since it cost as much as the daily wage of 2,600 soldiers! It was fired for 20 years until 5th May 1905 and never a shot in conflict.
3. Fort St Rocco
Fort Saint Rocco is a polygonal fort in Kalkara that was built by the British in 1872/3 and lies east of Rinella Battery. The fort was built on the site of an artillery battery built by Maltese insurgents during the French blockade of 1798–1800. Fort St Rocco was the first polygonal fort built by the British in Malta. Unfortunately, this fort is in a dilapidated state and it is not open to the public.
4. Fort St Angelo
Fort St Angelo’s story is tied to the Great Siege of 1565 as the stronghold that saved the Maltese Islands from the Ottoman invasion. It has therefore shaped Malta’s destiny. Still home to a Knight of Malta, the fort is open to the public and you can enjoy its history, unique architectural style and panoramic views of Valletta and the Grand Harbour. The medieval castle Castrum Maris (castle-by-the-sea) was first erected here in 1274, and the Knights of Malta gave it bastions in 1530, making it their base. It was further modified and then restored after suffering damage from air raids during World War II.
5. Fort St Elmo
Beginning as a watch tower in 1488, the Knights developed it into a star-fort in 1552, following the first Ottoman raid. Located on the peninsula at the mouth of the Grand Harbour where Valletta was later built, Fort St Elmo also had an important role during the Great Siege of Malta. Today, St Elmo is the location of the National War Museum, which you can visit in a combined ticket with the Malta Experience audio-visual show and the Sacra Infermeria, hospital of the Knights.
6. Fort St Michael
Fort Saint Michael was a small fort guarding the city of Senglea that was built in the early 1550s, at the same time as Fort St Elmo. Playing a significant role in the Great Siege, it was thereafter rebuilt as Saint Michael Cavalier in 1581. The historic cavalier was sadly demolished to make way for a school in 1921 and only part of its base was retained as the base of a clock tower.
7. Fort San Salvatore
Fort San Salvatore is a retrenched fort in Birgu that was built by the Knights in 1724. It stands on the northernmost bastion of the Cottonera Lines by the fortified city of Birgu. The fort has two demi-bastions linked by a curtain wall, all of which are surrounded by a ditch. A parade ground is located in the centre of the fort. It has been repeatedly used as a prisoner of war camp and exploded when World War II bombs hit it while it was being used as a kerosene depot on 25th October 1941. Today, the fort still stands, albeit in a rather dilapidated state, despite being one of the few fortifications in Malta which are private property.
8. Fort Tigne
Fort Tigne is another polygonal fort, this time built by the Knights of Malta between 1793 and 1795. It is located in Tigné Point, Sliema, and was built to protect the entrance to Marsamxett Harbour. One of the oldest polygonal forts in the world, it was earlier used as a watch post in 1417. During the Great Siege, the invading Ottomans built a battery on it to bombard Fort St Elmo. On this location, Fort Tigné was the last major fortification built by the Knights, but it was captured by the French and then taken by the British in September 1800. The fort was extensively altered by the British, and remained in use until 1979. Following their departure from the Maltese Islands, the fort was abandoned and fell into a state of disrepair, but it was restored in the early 21st century. The most remarkable feature of the fort is the circular keep.
9. Fort Manoel
Fort Manoel is a star fort commanding Marsamxett Harbour on Manoel Island in Gzira. It was built between 1723-1733 by the Knights of Malta. By 1761, Fort Manoel was considered one of the best fortifications, built in the Baroque style with both functionality and aesthetics in mind. The British military took over the fort in 1800 and it remained in use until 1964 as HMS Phoenicia, later taking life as the club house of the Malta Royal Yacht Club. The fort was severely damaged in World War II, but it was restored and is now in good condition. This fort was also a film location for Game of Thrones, Risen, Assassin’s Creed and others.
Fun fact! Fort Manoel is supposedly haunted by the Black Knight, who wears the armour and regalia of the Order of St John and resembles Grand Master de Vilhena. His apparitions apparently coincided with displeasure when the crypt containing the remains of knights was vandalised, and stopped with the crypt’s restoration.