In Maltese, Gozo is known as Gh¯awdex (pronounced ‘audesh’), which translates as ‘joy’. And indeed, Gozo is a joyous place. One of the three main islands of the Maltese archipelago, it is a 25-minute ferry ride from Malta. Steeped in the same deep and complex culture as Malta, it has a gentler pace of life, with its wide open unspoilt spaces, limestone farmhouses, and hidden beaches. Many older locals tell me that Gozo reminds them of the Malta from their childhood. However, even Gozo is changing, including significant conservation projects at two of the island’s most important heritage sites: the Ċittadella and the megalithic temples of Ġantija.
Celebrating the Citadel
The purpose of my visit was to see the new work at the Ċittadella, or the Old Citadel as it is also known. Dominating the island’s capital of Victoria, the monumental Ċittadella has been on Malta’s tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1998. Unfortunately, the great site was steadily degrading: both the sandstone bedrock on which it stands, and the coralline limestone from which its walls were hewn, are incredibly friable. In 2010, a conservation masterplan was therefore drawn up for the citadel. Six years and €21 million later, the work (co-financed by the EU) was in its very final stages when I visited in mid-June, due to be completed in mid-July 2016.
John Cremona, Project Leader, took me on a tour, beginning in the Ċittadella’s attractive new visitors’ centre, which outlined the deep history of the site. Here we discovered how the site, as with neighbouring Malta and with Sicily, was occupied by successive waves of people, including the Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs. Perhaps the most dramatic period occurred from AD 1541, after the Knights of the Order of St John took control of the Ċittadella, strengthening the walls to protect against ever-increasing attacks by the Ottoman corsairs who raided the Maltese islands for slaves. The largest of these attacks took place in 1551, when a force of around 10,000 Ottomans invaded Gozo, besieging the Ċittadella and capturing an estimated 5,000 people who had taken refuge within. It is said that only around 40 elderly people were spared, while around 300 others escaped. Exaggeration or not, this was clearly a devastating time for Gozo.
Half a century later, the Knights began their programme of renovation on the broken city. From 1599 to 1622, they rebuilt the walls. Various bastions, cavaliers, and batteries were also built within its boundaries. And so the Knights transformed the Ċittadella from a relatively small castle into a gunpowder fortress. It was only in 1868 that the massive fortifications of the Ċittadella were finally decommissioned by the British.
Restoring the past
It is the Ċittadella’s vast walls – mostly dating to the time of the Knights, but including sections from the medieval era and earlier – that have been the focus of the conservation work. As John Cremona explained, the team first made a complete photogrammatic survey of the walls, identifying absolutely every stone that needed to be replaced, which they matched with the exact same stone, though – in line with current conservation aesthetics – they sought to limit intervention. Steel rods were inserted into the bedrock in order to help consolidate it. Great care has also been taken to landscape and beautify the previously run-down surrounding area.
Having walked the outer walls, John and I entered the citadel. The streets are tellingly curved, bent to protect against enemy arrows, but also to create a shady breeze. It is here that we step back in time to experience life in a fortified town. A selection of site museums lie within the grounds, including the 17th-century ‘Historic House’ with its many storeys and enclosed garden; the site’s prison, built in 1548 and still in use in the 18th century – complete with prisoners’ engravings (mostly ships: the work of pirates perhaps?); and a good archaeology museum that covers all types of artefacts and charts the site’s occupation back to the Bronze Age.
The Ċittadella is a place to explore at leisure, so do allow yourself at least an afternoon (I took two). While a largely uninhabited heritage site (bar its two permanent residents), it still has fully functioning elements, including law courts and the capital’s grand Catholic cathedral, built in 1697.
On the subject of religion, no archaeological visit to Gozo is complete without a pilgrimage to its monumental temples. I was last on the island in 2007 (CWA 24), and a great deal has changed since then. The Ġantija Heritage Park with its splendid 3600 BC temples received €3.1 million of funding, and three years ago a major new visitors’ centre was built, while the entire surrounding area has been landscaped, transforming the visitors’ experience. Yes, the joyous island is changing – but only for the better.
All photos: Nadia Durrani, unless otherwise stated.