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Fort St Elmo, Valletta

View from Fortress St Elmo of entrance to the harbour                   @hf Sept 2014


The participants of the conference were given a guided tour of the newly restored Fort St Elmo by architect Perid Edward Said.


           Welcome by architect Perid Edward Said


The Fortress St. Elmo

The Fort Saint Elmo stands at the top of the Sciberras peninsula that divides Marsamxett Harbour from Grand Harbour, and therefore was used in the past to guard the entrance to both harbours.


Gateway into the Fortress St Elmo

The fortress has been newly restored. As a matter of fact, the participants were practically the first visitors. An extensive clean up had been done while an expensive new kind of ground was laid (see pathway). Here already Perid Edward Said made the critical remark that it meant covering up many archaeological traces which are underneath.

The fortress has a long history but was used last as a police academy. Restoration efforts are made in anticipation of events which shall occupy Malta e.g. Commonwealth summit in 2015, EU Presidency in 2017 and European Capital of Culture in 2018.

The fortress is itself evidence what marked this island once the Knights of St. John were driven out of Rhodes and decided to defend themselves against the Sultan's army and navy in Malta. Impressive are the walls. Much was financed by the Knights coming themselves from weathy families. Over time, this high sense of morale and morality in the name of certain ideals suffered underneath the surface of glamour. Also the fort St Elmo was at one point in time sturmed and the knights which had sought refuge in a chapel were all slaughtered.

It is most telling that Valletta 2018 wishes to revamp the image people have of Malta and its history. Consequently restoration becomes a balancing act between modernisation and preserving cultural heritage. The main question posed throughout the guided tour was whether the restoration is positive or does it amount to an overkill, literally speaking, since it will not leave sufficient traces for future archaeologists, historians and others to discover what took place by digging through the various layers of experiences making up a part of that history?


    Entry into the newly restored fortress, a former Police academy

The fortification for the canons







View from the fort




Entrance to harbour



             A single door in a huge wall - fortification and silence


                                         What do all these stones whisper

                                                    about former times

                                       when identity was a matter of religion

                                           and wealth grew like cucumbers

                                     on invisible fields the conquerors crossed

                                    before they themselves became the hunted

                                                  in need of a new place

                                               where they could lay to rest

                                                 their bodies and swords









          Said explaining why certain persons had a memorial plaque


Incredible is the wide open space expanding till meeting the horizon, there where the sea gulls dip into the water and then fly off in the far distance of the Mediterranean still calling for all to remember the names of those who crossed the sea from Europe and Africa and vice versa, in order to keep human communication open made possible by just listening what the waves say.

Yet modern times bring something else in view: the New Town development in Malta comes at a high prize and may even mean a transformation of the island which all shall regret in the long run. The fashionable and the expensive is something like a luxury item for those living most of the time in London or New York. It is a heavy price to pay if only to gain some income out of real estate!




Sometimes there are spots which allow for contemplation. Said told the group it is a beautiful walk at the bottom of the fortress, beside the sea. On an island like Malta this is crucial if one wishes to escape the language of only stones and of claustrophobia. Thus many memories are touched upon when listening to the stones and after overcoming their silence, or is it reluctance to tell the true story.

The fate of the Fort St Elmo as being directly connected with the fate of man in history as told in many variations of stories about the knights requires a critical reflection, insofar as the knights were not merely the noble folk, but had been on crusades and thus were a definite force of colonisation in the name of Christianity. Also once they had settled down in Malta, it became apparent that underneath the aura of being followers of a high ethical order, there were other practices which contradicted sharply this public image.

Wikipedia has following short description of events leading up to that "great siege" of Malta and what happened to the knights who had hovered out on the fortress St Elmo:

"Prior to the arrival of the Knights of Malta in 1530, a watchtower existed on this point. Reinforcement of this strategic site commenced in 1533. After a raid by Dragut in 1551, during which the Turks sail unopposed into Marsamxett Harbour, work commenced on a major expansion, and by the time of the Ottoman Siege of Malta in 1565, this fortification had been reinforced and extended into a modest star fort.

Fort Saint Elmo was the scene of some of the most intense fighting of the 1565 siege, and it withstood massive bombardment from Turkish cannon deployed on Mount Sciberras that overlooked the fort and from batteries on the north arm of Marsamextt Harbour, the present site of Fort Tigné. The initial garrison of the fort was around one hundred and fifty knights and six hundred soldiers, the majority of which were Spanish, and sixty armed galley slaves. The garrison could be reinforced by boat from the forts across the Grand Harbour at Birgu and Senglea.

During the bombardment of the fort, a cannon misfired and hit the top of its parapet, sending shards in all directions. Debris from the impact killed the gunner and mortally injured the corsair and Ottoman admiral Turgut Reis, one of the most competent of the Ottoman commanders. The fort withstood the siege for 28 days, falling to the Turks on 23 June 1565. None of the defending knights survived, and only nine of the Maltese defenders survived by swimming across to Fort St. Angelo on the other side of the Grand Harbour after Fort St Elmo fell. The long siege bought much needed time for the preparation of the other two fortresses and the arrival of reinforcements from Spain, which drove the Ottomans off of Malta in a bloody massacre.

The fort was rebuilt and integrated into the fortifications of Valletta after the Great Siege."

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Saint_Elmo

The last place into which the knights fled from the incoming Turks was a small chapel. Perid Edward Said took the participants to that spot and once there he let the narrative about that part or history interlink with questions about how far should restoration really go.


        Perid Edward Said explaining in front of the chapel's entrance



  "Just listening": Llus Bonet, Christine Merkel, Nadia von Maltzahn, Philip Dietachmair

Second row (behind): (...), Karel Bartak and his wife

With what life shall be filled this newly created empty space in which still resound footsteps of history, often by those aghast by the coming of an onslaught that never ends since no one remembered in time to fly the dreams like a kite up, up. 


The last stop was a church undergoing restoration with many kinds of interventions which can be considered highly controversial.




 Khadia El Bennaoui



Aside from the history of Malta being connected to the Knights, there is the more recent experience of Malta during Second World War. The famous saying about the "guns of Malta" made into a movie resonates in the mind. Malta withstood the onslaught of the Germans, and for which the King of England awarded the Maltese with the George Cross for the bravery shown during the war. Roosevelt followed this up with a letter of recognition of his own.

A turning point in Second World War came when Italy ceded and the allies ordered the Italian fleet to set sail for the Grand Harbour in Malta. Some arrived early, others not at all due to German airplanes bombarding them, while the main fleet arrived on 11th of September 1943.

That other perspective on war, but also how memories are kept alive through specific symbols like the George Cross but likewise by monuments erected in the various communities of Malta, connects to the significance of Malta over time and in history. It shall be examined by Alexandro Debono in an article to be published in 2015 within the following edition:

Heritage and Memory of War

Responses from Small Islands

Edited by Gilly Carr, Keir Reeves

Routledge – 2015 – 224 pages

"Every large nation in the world was directly or indirectly affected by the impact of war during the course of the twentieth century, and while the historical narratives of war of these nations are well known, far less is understood about how small islands coped. These islands – often not nations in their own right but small outposts of other kingdoms, countries, and nations – have been relegated to mere footnotes in history and heritage studies as interesting case studies or unimportant curiosities. Yet for many of these small islands, war had an enduring impact on their history, memory, intangible heritage and future cultural practices, leaving a legacy that demanded some form of local response. This is the first comprehensive volume dedicated to what the memories, legacies and heritage of war in small islands can teach those who live outside them, through closely related historical and contemporary case studies covering 20th and 21st century conflict across the globe.

The volume investigates a number of important questions: Why and how is war memory so enduring in small islands? Do factors such as population size, island size, isolation or geography have any impact? Do close ties of kinship and group identity enable collective memories to shape identity and its resulting war-related heritage? This book contributes to heritage and memory studies and to conflict and historical archaeology by providing a globally wide-ranging comparative assessment of small islands and their experiences of war. Heritage of War in Small Island Territories is of relevance to students, researchers, heritage and tourism professionals, local governments, and NGOs."

Link: http://www.tandf.net/books/details/9781138831728/

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