L’Mdina (pronounced em-dee-nah) means fortified place in Arabic and was first created as such by the Romans when they separated it from the rest of the town which became Rabat (which means Suburb) and fortified it. This place was already the principal settlement of Malta however since Phoenician times and hence can claim a heritage of 3000 years.
Up until the Knights arrived in the mid 1500’s it was the capital, the Maltese aristocracy lived there (some, like the Inguanez family still do uninterrupted for over 6 centuries), and the local governing organ called the Universita was housed there. Up until this day it is the seat of the Maltese bishop and the Mdina cathedral still takes precedence over the co-cathedral of St. John.
As the knights chose Birgu (Vittorosia) as their new capital the Great Siege of 1565 by the Turks was directed there and not at Mdina. The Turkish army passed by Mdina and could have easily taken the crumbling bastion which only had a small group of local soldiers and locals fit to guard it to stop them. A local nun had a vision however that called for a great procession praising god, and so every person in the town was dressed up and paraded around the top of the walls for hours giving the impression to the Turks that Mdina was full to the brim with defenders, and so they left it alone.
This decision proved fateful because just as the Turks had breached the main gate of Birgu a small band of Maltese rode down from Mdina, and started torching the deserted camp of the Turks making them think that they were being attacked from the rear and causing them to retreat in a panic. The breach was fixed and after that reinforcements from Europe finally arrived and the Turks were defeated. There is still a small chapel in Mdina in honour of this nun whose vision changed the course of European history.
Under the knights and even more so under the British the importance of Mdina as the seat of power faded steadily, and what was once known as the ‘Citta Notabile’ became the ‘silent city’, almost a ghost town. Today most of the palazzos belonging to the old aristocracy are being restored and the tourists bring life to the place, but there are only 400 inhabitants left.
The town itself is a joy to stroll around in, many of the alleys really give the sense that nothing has changed here for more than a millennium since the Arabs were here. The main attractions are the cathedral whose design inspired many of the other churches in Malta, the cathedral museum, and the views.
- St Pauls Cathedral The cathedral was built after the earthquake of 1693 destroyed the original Norman structure built in the 12th century. Like the Cathedral of St. John in Valletta its floor is covered with intricately inlaid marble gravestones belonging to Maltese aristocracy. Also noteworthy is the impressive wallpainting at the back of the cathedral depicting the shipwrecking of st Paul on Malta. Interestingly the face has two clocks (one for time and one for date). There is an apocryphal (though much repeated and widely published) story that the reasoning was to have one clock which showed the correct time and one which serves to confuse the devil.
- Cathedral museum. The quaint cathedral museum houses a variety of different small collections. Perhaps the the most important is a beautiful set of woodcut prints The Life of the Virgin by Albrecht Dürer. Furthermore it has a collection of the cathedral’s attributes and a tiny display on the 19th century priests who took the first initiative to develop Maltese in a written form. Amazingly, as it was never in the colonial power’s interest and the Maltese had to do without writing in their own language since the Arabs left in the 11th century. The entire archive of the inquisition in Malta, which was only banned by Napoleon the day he invaded, is kept here, but is unfortunately not on public display. If you come with serious credentials you may be able to persuade Father Michael to show them to you.
- Natural history museum
- Medieval museum
- Roman villa
- The view from the city walls makes it plain why this site was chosen in ancient times, one has a commanding view over most of the island from here.
Walk around and take random turns in the maze-like alleys, the place is so small getting lost won’t have you wandering for more than 2 minutes. The Discover Mdina self guided audio tour is worth taking, especially for individual visitors, as it provides loads of information about the several buildings and features of this unique city, which otherwise remain hidden for the visitor. The tour can be taken from the Vilhena Palace just inside the old city’s main gate. There are also horse-drawn carriages, the owners who can be quite persistent in offering you a tour. It is important to agree on a price beforehand. A half hour tour is offered and each carriage seats four people.
There have been cases where after the tour, the owner says the price is ‘per person’, charging much more. It is therefore important to agree on the price beforehand. One must also see the view of the north of Malta from the top of the bastions, located in bastions square, just follow the main street of Mdina up to the top. Outside Mdina, there is also the newly refurbished ditch, where one can walk directly under the Bastions of Mdina.