Mdina is a tiny medieval city enclosed in bastions, located on a large hilltop in the centre of Malta. It was the old capital city of Malta and with its narrow streets, few inhabitants and beautiful views over the island; it is truly a magical place to visit. Behind its fortified walls, Mdina’s timeless beauty has been captivating nobilities throughout its 4000 years of existence.
In medieval times Mdina was called Cittá Notabile – the Noble City. It was the favoured residence of the Maltese aristocracy and the seat of the Universitá (governing council). It has been home to Malta’s many noble families, some of which are descendants of the Norman, Sicilian and Spanish overlords who have made Mdina their home in centuries past. The Knights of St John, who were largely a sea-based force, made the Grand Harbour and Valletta their centre of activity, and Mdina gradually receded into the background as a holiday destination for the nobility. Today it is home to around 300 people who live within the city walls. In contrast, the town of Rabat, a short distance away has a population of over 11000 people.
It was the Normans who surrounded the city of Mdina with its thick defensive fortifications and they also widened the moat surrounding the city. After an earthquake in 1693, when serious damage was done, there was the need to redesign parts of the city. This introduced Baroque designs, and the Knights of Malta rebuilt the cathedral as well as the Magisterial Palace and Palazzo Falzon.
Today, with its massive walls and peaceful, shady streets, Mdina is often referred to as the Silent City, a nickname that becomes very appropriate after dark. With narrow, cobbled streets shrouded in an air of mystery, it is always a scene of fascination and intrigue for me. The historic citadel and ancient capital is one of Malta’s most beautiful spots. Perched so high, it can be seen from every corner of the island. As I enter through the massive gate and meander around this mysterious golden-stone Arabic walled city I feel a sense of strange spiritualism and although I sometimes wonder if I may be trespassing or disturbing the slumber of an old ghost town, the magnetism of its enchantment keeps me going.
I can spend many relaxing hours in this old world city, now resting in retirement, but once a hive of activity as the important seat of government. Its main function now is to welcome and charm visitors like me to its beautiful palaces, museums and churches, especially St Paul’s Cathedral, outstanding for its renowned baroque architecture. Malta’s old capital is the island’s most perfectly preserved medieval treasure. The peace and tranquillity is a joy to behold and along its quiet narrow streets and alleyways you can almost touch the sense of history.
For tourists from all over the world, Mdina is a must-see attraction. It’s got everything, history, culture, panoramic views, stunning architecture, palaces, churches, quaint narrow streets opening to lovely little courtyards offering amazing photo opportunities and lots of little restaurants/tea rooms should you want a break as well as little shops offering the beautiful Mdina glass. Not to be missed!
ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL
St Pauls Cathedral, dominating the heart of Mdina is an architectural gem built in the 17th century to replace a Norman cathedral that had been destroyed by the earthquake in 1693. According to the Book of Acts, Paul and his missionary party were shipwrecked on Malta for three months. During his stay, Paul was bitten by a snake and remained unharmed, prompting the natives to regard him as a god. He later healed the father of the governor of the island, Publius, and many other people (Acts 27:1-11). According to tradition, Publius was converted to Christianity and went on to become the bishop of Malta and later of Athens. St. Paul’s Cathedral stands on the traditional site of Publius’ town house and headquarters. The new cathedral took five years to build and caused a significant redesign of medieval Mdina’s city centre; several streets and houses were cleared to create an open square in front of the cathedral.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a unique masterpiece, designed by architect Lorenzo Gafa. Its impressive façade wows visitors as they emerge from Mdina’s narrow streets. The cathedral’s magnificent dome, with red-and-white stripes, dominates the skyline. The dome’s interior has been decorated by a succession of painters; today’s decoration dates from the 1950s.
The lavish interior of the cathedral is similar in many ways to the Cathedral of St. John in Valetta. There are great works by the famous artist and knight, Mattia Preti, and a marble inlaid floor with tombstones carrying the coats of arms and inscriptions of the bishops of Mdina and other members of the cathedral chapter.
Surviving from the original Norman church is a monumental depiction of the conversion of St. Paul by Mattia Preti, between the apse and main altar. Also surviving from the old church are the 15th-century Tuscan panel painting of the Madonna and Child, the baptismal font, the frescoes in the apse depicting St. Paul’s shipwreck, and the 900-year-old portal, made of carved Irish bog wood, which now serves as a door to the vestry.
In my opinion, this magnificent church is second only to St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta for its majesty and splendour. The wonderful baroque architecture, the perfect location and setting, and the grandeur of its interior is a special treat for me and for tourists from all over the world who come every day, gaze in awe, and leave enraptured by the experience.
Located in a splendid 18th century baroque palace, the Cathedral Museum contains a wonderful collection of art works, many by famous Old Masters, The museum was once a seminary built by bishop Paolo Alpheran de Bussan (1728-1757) and is considered as one of the best church museums in Europe, fully deserving the appellation of Crossroad of Faith and Culture.
The museum traces its origins to a fabulous donation made by Marquis Saverio Marchesi, who decreed, in his last will, that once his family became extinct, all the artistic works the family possessed were to be given to the Cathedral Chapter. This came about in 1896. The idea of turning some halls adjacent to the Cathedral into a museum matured during the 1960s. Displaying tapestries and liturgical vestments from St. John Cathedral, the old Mdina Seminary was officially opened and renamed the Mdina Cathedral Museum in 1969.
The eclectic and rich treasure trove of historical artefacts, includes engravings by Rembrandt, woodcuts and copperplates by Albrecht Durer, archived documents from the Inquisition, a rare coin collection spanning 2000 years, a set of 15 Silver and Gold statues of the Apostles, and a silver collection bequeathed to the Cathedral Museum by Dr Jimmy Farrugia, former Speaker of Malta’s House of Representatives.
A visit to this stunning museum following a breathtaking tour of the Cathedral is an amazing treat for art lovers and will undoubtedly be the highlight of your trip to the Silent City of Mdina.
THE MDINA DUNGEONS
Situated beside the main entrance gate, just inside the great walls of the Silent City is the Mdina Dungeon Museum. It is located underneath the Vilhena Palace and in olden times it was actually used as a prison.
The dungeons comprise a series of underground passageways and chambers which portray the “dark side” of Malta history and visitors can explore and wander around at leisure. Here the various types of torture which was practised in Malta in its ancient past are recreated using lifelike waxwork figures. The histories covered in this museum represent the Roman, the Knights of Malta and the Arab periods.
This is gory stuff. The scenes recreated are gruesome, as you would expect from torture chambers, but the intriguing aspect of it is the fact that a lot of the acts of torture which are depicted in these chambers actually took place in these same rooms and cells. During the Roman period, the Maltese Islands were used as a slave colony and in those times, crucifixion, torture and beheading were very common. During the Arab period, a common form of torture was to crush the victims beneath very large stones. The Knights of St. John also brought many brutal torture methods.
When the Office of the Inquisitor was established in 1561 to suppress heresy among Catholics, some hideous forms of torture were used in that suppression. Likewise during the French occupation period, torture and brutality was practised. These are all depicted in the Dungeon Museum in all their gruesome detail.
For some, this can be fascinating and entertaining. I have to admit that one visit to view the recreations of those gory days was more than enough for me. But for those who wish to see re-enactments of this dark and ancient history; feel free. It is another hidden part of Mdina, The Silent City.
AN EXCERPT FROM ‘In Love With Malta’ (The Hidden Treasures) By Paddy Cummins.