Sound the cannon! The story behind one of Malta’s most popular tourist attractions
Open as a museum for 15 years, the Saluting Battery has a far longer history.
On 1st May 2019, the Saluting Battery in Valletta marked 15 years since opening its doors as a museum. On that same day in 2004, Malta became part of the European Union.
It's the only ceremonial battery which is still operational and possibly the oldest in the world, according to tour guides who work on site. “There are gun firings in Edinburgh and Rome, but this one in Malta has been in existence since the time of the Knights, so it is the oldest ceremonial platform which is still active,” they tell the thousands of visitors who walk through their gates every year.
The Saluting Battery is operated by NGO Malta Heritage Trust. They have more than 40 staff as well as a group of passionate volunteers who work to safeguard and promote the island’s unique history. And it’s paying off.
Malta Heritage Trust says figures show more than 700,000 people come to watch the cannon being fired twice a day, every year. That’s only second to the number of visitors to St John’s Co-Cathedral.
Timing is everything
One of the eight replica guns is fired at noon and 4pm every day, and CEO of Malta Heritage Trust Mario Farrugia says there is a historical reason for choosing these specific times. “The cannons were fired at the time on a daily basis for the benefit of ship-masters onboard vessels to calibrate their ship clocks by. These time-pieces, also called maritime chronographs, were used to find the longitude at sea by comparing the difference between the time at the last harbour visited and that onboard the ship at that moment in time.”
“With the arrival of the British in 1800, these time signals were transferred to the Saluting Battery, although at times they were also fired from Fort St Angelo when the armament at the battery was under maintenance.”
But of course, not everything always runs like clockwork. Those trained to load and fire the cannon have gone through two-months of intensive training, but even they can’t guarantee it will go off. Because of this, they load two guns and use one as a back-up, to avoid keeping hundreds of tourists waiting, should the first cannon fail to ignite. While staff say this hasn't happened often, there's always a risk.
But even having a back-up plan doesn’t always work. In November 2018, a video went viral after Bertie Zahra fired a cannon and killed a pigeon. “I actually didn’t know it had happened at the time, as we fire with our backs to the gun. It wasn’t until that night that my friend sent me a message showing me the video. Of course, it was an accident, but my friends still tease me. They now call me the ‘pigeon slayer’ which is very Game of Thrones. I almost shot another pigeon on Remembrance Day, which would have been a good remembrance,” he recalls.
The past and the future
As well as the Saluting Battery, Malta Heritage Trust runs the Lascaris War Rooms in Valletta, the Malta At War Museum in Vittoriosa as well as Fort Rinella in Kalkara. It also operates a free daily bus from Valletta to The Three Cities and Kalkara to encourage visitors to see all it has to offer, and that list is growing.
In the summer of 2020, Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna, the organisation that takes care of the war rooms, opened an exhibition about the invasion of Sicily in 1943 at the Lascaris War Rooms. These were the headquarters where the initial stages of the offensive of World War II were co-ordinated. It’s also where people like Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and General Dwight Eisenhower - who later went on to become US President - discussed and implemented their battle strategies in World War II.