General History

Dating back from the Bronze Age, the hill on which Mdina was built was already a fortified area. About 750 BC, the Phoenicians surrounded the place and parts of what today is Rabat with walls. It was called Malet, meaning refuge, the same name given to the island. The Romans succeeded the Carthaginians in Malta and called the island Melita. Under their sway, the island and its city prospered. Famous poets and politicians like Cicero, Livy and Diodorus Siculus, described Melita as a town with fine buildings and a prosperous way of life. 

Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered various Roman remains at various locations of Mdina. In the year 870AD, the Arabs conquered the island, and eventually they changed the name of the city, to Mdina, meaning town surrounded by a wall. For defence purposes, the Arabs separated Mdina from Rabat with a deep ditch and surrounded the city with new walls. From this time onwards, Mdina barely changed. The structure and plan of the streets is practically the same as the one of a thousand years ago. 

In 1091, Count Roger the Norman conquered the city. It is said that Count Roger rebuilt the main church and placed under the dedication of St Paul. It is also said that this church was built over the ruins of the house that was occupied by Publius, the Roman Governor who had welcomed Paul after the latter’s shipwreck. Count Roger and his successors also established Malta’s aristocracy, which always played an important role in Mdina’s history. 

Under the Normans and successive ruling dynasties, Malta and Mdina underwent hard times. Malta’s nobility, which gathered inside the walls of Mdina for protection from piratical attacks, had to cater for the needs and administration of Malta. The viceroy of Sicily had given Malta the right of internal autonomy, which functioned through the Università, which met in Mdina. As a result of the courage shown by the inhabitants of Mdina when they revolted against the injustices of Monroy, the island’s ruler, the King of Aragon gave the title of Notabile to the city of Mdina. 

During discussions on the granting of Malta to the Knights of the Order of St John, a delegation was sent to the islands, and the Knights reported that the city was old and almost abandoned. Eventually the Order accepted the offer by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to have their headquarters on the island of Malta. During the Great Siege by the Turks, Mdina, under the command of the Portuguese governor Don Mesquita, contributed to the final victory through its contacts with Sicily and guerrilla attacks on detachments from the Turkish army. 

After the Great Siege, the construction of Valletta in 1566 lessened Mdina’s importance. No wonder that Grand Master Lascaris planned to demolish the city’s walls, but due to the protests by the locals, the demolition never materialised. 

A strong earthquake which shook Malta in 1693 damaged many buildings, including the Cathedral. Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena took the opportunity and initiated the rebuilding of many public buildings. Plans were laid for the new cathedral by the Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafa, together with the magisterial palace, during that time the seat of the Universita’. This began to hold its sittings in the Palazzo Giuratale. The local nobility also began to build new palaces in Mdina, in this way giving this city its modern lay out as seen today. 

During the French period, the people of Mdina and Rabat were the first to rebel against the French, and after killing Masson, the commander of Mdina, and the revolt spread through Malta and Gozo. The British who succeeded the French abolished the Univerista’ for ever. Mdina, more than ever, became the last refuge of the Maltese aristocracy, helping in this way to preserve the aristocratic and medieval character. Mdina is now known as the ‘Silent City’.