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Mdina & Rabat



Standing on top of a 150 m high plateau, surrounded by defensive walls, Mdina commands the surrounding countryside.  Inside the city, there are few shops and offices, but ancient palazzi (palaces) and baroque churches predominate, set in a warren of narrow medieval streets.  It is easy to see how this historical gem has gained the title of "Silent City" from both visitors and locals alike.

Mdina History

Mdina was first inhabited and possibly fortified in Phoenician times when it was called Maleth.  Under the Romans it became a Municipium and was  renamed Melite.  The Roman governor built his palace in the city.  It was much larger than it is today, having spread well into the suburb of Rabat.  St Paul supposedly lived in the city during his stay on Malta.

Mdina gained its present layout and name after the Fatamid conquest in 999 AD.  Its fortifications were further strengthened under the Normans and throughout the medieval period.  In 1429, Mdina withstood a siege by the Saracens (inspired by a vision of St Paul, who appeared on a white stallion, brandishing a flaming sword.)  Also the local nobility began to move in and build their Palazzi.  

It remained the capital until the arrival of the Knights of St John in 1530.  Their power being sea-based, they needed to be close to their galleys, so they made their capital around the Grand Harbour in Birgu.  The original nobility, however remained in Mdina.  The Knights continued to improve the cities fortifications.  Mdina made a vital contribution during the Great Siege.  The Knights garrisoned it with their cavalry, and a sortie from Mdina prevented what would probably have been a successful assault on Birgu.

Following the building of Valletta, the importance of Mdina declined, along the way the title gaining the title the Citta Vecchia, the Old Town.  It was badly damaged by an earth quake in 1693, and much was rebuilt, including the cathedral, in the prevalent Baroque style.

The next time Mdina strode onto the historical stage was after the invasion of Malta by Napoleon in 1798.  Having looted the Carmelite priory church, the French soldiers returned for more.  This inspired the local population to riot and throw the local French commander out of a first floor window.  This was the beginning of the revolt against the French, which in the end led to British rule.

The British, like the Knights, established themselves in Valletta.  Mdina since then had continued to quietly go its way as a living museum.

Mdina Attractions

The first thing you see when approaching Mdina are the city walls.  There are two original gates in the walls, the oldest being the Greek's Gate, which is the only medieval gate in Malta, supported by original medieval walls.  The Main Gate is from the time of the Knights, and was built by the French engineer de Mondion in 1724.

Just inside the gate is the Vilhena Palace or Magisterial Palace.  This Baroque palace was built by the Grand Master Vilhena at the same time as the Main Gate  was rebuilt.  The palace itself is a lovely building, built around a courtyard.  As well as a palace it also served as courts of law, with prison cells and a gallows.

inside the palace is Malta's natural history museum.  This has an extensive collection of geological and natural artifacts, along with various informative displays on lesser known aspects of Malta.  Under the Vilhena Palace lies the Mdina Dungeon.  This is actually built in the cells of the palace and consists of various tableaux of torture and punishments from the Roman times to Napoleon.  Definitely one for young boys!

The cathedral is dedicated to St Paul and was completed in 1702.  It replaced an earlier cathedral which was damaged in the earthquake of 1693.  It has two bell towers and a dome.  Inside it has one of the best interiors of any church in Malta, second only to the Co-Cathedral of St John in Valletta.  The floor is a riot of coloured marble tombs and memorials.  The altar is supposed to be built over the tomb of St Publius, the Roman governor at the time of St Paul's visit.



 Rabat (from the Arabic word for suburb) lies next to but outside Mdina and is much more populous (11000 cf. 300).  Although less visited than its neighbour, it is worth a wander around and has several very interesting sights to see

Rabat Attractions

Outside the Greek gate lies the Roman Domus (or house).  This is the best preserved example of Roman domestic architecture on Malta.  Unfortunately this consists of only the foundations and some very attractive Roman mosaics..  These date from about 125 to 75 BC.  There are other Roman artifacts on display, including a head of the Emperor Claudius and some Roman glass, including an intact 10" tall amphora.

 St Paul's Outside the Walls stands in what used to be the Roman moat.  (Which give an idea of how much larger Roman Melite was than the present day Mdina.)  The present church was built in 1683.  It has a very large altar piece, with a painting by Stefano Erardi of the Shipwreck of St Paul.

Next to the church is the sanctuary of St Publius.  This is where St Paul supposedly spent most of his three months in Malta.  The site was a place of worship long before the Knights, but the Grandmaster Wignacourt decided to turn it into a place of pilgrimage and it is still popular amongst Catholics today.  The Grotto is cut into the bedrock.  The rock, possibly because of St Paul banishing poisonous snakes from Malta, was reputed to be an antidote against poison, and fortunately, given the amount that was undoubtedly chipped away over the years, it regrows each night.

Of all the catacombs in Rabat, St Paul's Catacombs are the largest and most impressive.  These range in age from the Phoenicians to just before the Arab conquest, but mostly date from the Byzantine period.  There are over 2000 m2 of catacombs, with hundreds of tombs of many different types from the simple Forma or floor graves to the Baldacchino or canopied grave.  Keep an eye out for the round agape or funerary table.