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Mdina (Citta' Vecchia)

Date of Submission: 19/05/1998
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Government of Malta
Coordinates: Malta (Central Mediterranean)
Ref.: 983

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Mdina is situated high above terraced fields thus dominating the rural skyline. It attracts large amounts of visitors mostly foreigners (about 80,000 each year). Mdina contributes greatly to the glorious heritage of the Maltese Islands with its original setting of Baroque palaces and churches and so it deserves every degree of protection possible to ensure its survival for the benefit of both future generations and national pride.

Mdina is only one of the surviving place names. The city has been renamed according to the various periods in local history. Other names were Melita (Roman occupation), Medina (Arabic occupation), Citta Notabile (Knights of St. John) and Citta Vecchia (after Valletta was built). This city was the home town of the Maltese nobility before the 1565 Siege as well as the capital city of the Islands. Considerable building took place during the reign of Grand Master Vilhena. The urban form it was built upon is the one still standing to the present day. Today it is also referred as the Silent City since it inspires tranquillity at any time of the day or night.

The origins of Mdina are attested in ancient texts and identified with Roman Melite. The township of Mdina is a fortified hill-top urban settlement located at the very heart of the Maltese Islands. In existence since the Bronze Age, Mdina has acted for almost two millennia as the administrative and political capital of the Maltese Islands. It is to this day the scat of the Malta episcopacy.

The history of this township has been archaeologically documented to date back to the Bronze Age, even though no major structural remains pertaining to this period have been located as yet. The arrival of Phoenician colonizers on the Maltese Islands in the 8th Century BC gave added impetus to this particular settlement, which developed in importance far more than any of the surrounding Bronze Age settlements. By Hellenistic/Early Roman times - 5th to 1st Centuries BC - the township had developed considerably covering an area which is considerably larger than the current extent of Mdina.

The classical town of Mdina - then known by its ancient name of Melita - is documented by ancient authors as well as by the archaeological record as having contained various fine patrician houses and public monuments. Important artistic remains - statuary and mosaics - have been discovered over the last two centuries that testify the high standard of cultural achievement enjoyed by this provincial Hellenistic town.

It is most likely that since the 5th/4th Century BC Melita/Mdina also acted as the administrative capital of the Maltese Islands.

The town was drastically scaled down in size in the course of the medieval centuries going from the 7th to the 12th Centuries AD. In this period Melita/Mdina was taken over successively by Byzantines, Arabs and Normans - all of which added their own contribution to the town's present layout. However it appears to have retained its political prominence within the Maltese Islands.

One of the most important contributions of the Islamic occupation is Mdina's street system, which is organised into a series of alleys and winding thoroughfares - a feature which is very characteristic of medieval Islamic urbanism in the Maghreb and in Sicily. Later Christian/Feudal insertions into the urban fabric of Mdina included the Bishop's Seat and Cathedral and a Royal military strongpoint.

The defenses of Mdina were also entirely re-modeled in the middle-ages in conformity with the medieval defensive practices of the period - this included the use of dry ditches, square and round towers, barbicans, drawbridges etc. Most of these medieval defenses are no longer visible, but survive as part of the town's archaeological record.

After 1530 Mdina stopped acting as the political centre of the Maltese Islands, which was moved towards the Island's principal harbour area.

In the 18th Century Mdina witnessed a further radical redevelopment with the insertion of fine Baroque architectural elements within the urban fabric. The key innovation was the rebuilding of the Cathedral itself, which still constitutes one of Malta's finest baroque buildings to be designed by a Maltese architect. Important modifications were also carried out to the town's fortifications with the insertion of expanded moats, demi-bastions, artillery platforms and extensive outworks. The majority of Mdina's baroque heritage is still in good condition today and largely accessible to the general public.

Rabat and Mdina areas are also being proposed to be designated as an Area of Archaeological Importance.

Mdina has been designed an Urban Conservation Area due to its historical and architectural character. This conforms with Structure Plan policy UCO 1 which seeks to protect and enhance the most important areas of townscape value.