02 April 2012

Castle Hunting: Victoria Citadella

Tiny Gozo is dominated by its diminutive capital of Victoria (population: 6,500), which in turn is dominated by its old walled city, the Citadella. Set in the center of the island, on a rocky hill, the Citadella was, for years, home to essentially the only community on Gozo – a people terrified of marauders and pirates, afraid to leave the shadow of their capital’s walls. It turned out they had good reason to worry. In 1540, Ottoman admiral Turgut Reis captured the Citadella, razed the island and took the entire population of Gozo into slavery.
The castle remains, its yellow limestone a bright mass in the middle of town. From the top of its walls, one can see virtually the entire island. It’s a beautiful, green sight – a far cry from the horrors of the middle ages.
Malta has two main islands – Malta itself and Gozo, which is quite a bit smaller. While Malta was heavily fortified by the Knights of St. John, with massive castles, walls and coastal batteries, Gozo was left mostly exposed. Piracy was a continuous problem, before and after Turgut Reis decimated the place, and raids on islanders were common. In fact, until the late 18th century, there were no real coastal villages of any kind – almost everyone on the island huddled around the relatively safe Citadella.
A long list of peoples and rulers have captured Malta and Gozo, and settlements here are often defined by numerous architectural and structural influences. The hilltop where Victoria and the castle stand has been fortified since pre-history, when bronze age citizens used it as a watch place and may have built some wooden walls. The Phoenicians and Romans enlarged the fortifications, and some foundational aspects of the current structure date back to those periods. The kingdom of Aragon built much of the northern side of the present Citadella, while the town’s most prominent rulers – the Knights of Saint John – enlarged and gave shape to the rest, especially where the castle meets the town.
The Knights of Saint John, also commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller, were a strange, religiously based group of country-less warriors who were nominally attached to a hospital in Jerusalem. Dedicated in theory to the crusades, even long after the crusades were over, the militaristic arm of the group developed to protect pilgrims in the holy land during Christian occupation. After the fall of Jerusalem in 1209, the knights were a group without a home. They lived a semi-itinerant life on the continent and on several Mediterranean islands for centuries, never able to find a real place to settle, relying mostly on kindness from a group of Christian monarchs to survive. In 1530, after being pried away from Rhodes and spending a last seven years on the move, the order were given Malta as a gift. Malta became their stronghold – the knights would reshape and rule the islands until Napoleon showed up.
Malta under the Knights faced threats from corsairs, North Africans and others, but the most important assailant of the early years was the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans during the 16th century had launched a powerful naval force, and were attempting to claim as many of the Mediterranean islands as possible, as well as land along the southern coast of the sea – it had been them, in fact, who had dislodged the Knights of Saint John from Rhodes.
Recognizing the huge threat, the knights undertook a huge fortification project that was centered around what is now Valletta. In contrast, Gozo was left mainly to its own devices. The fact that there were so few people actually helped the defense of Gozo – there wasn’t much to attack, and the knights considered the Citadella strong enough to protect the few people there were. It was a lonely, isolated place.
Turgut Reis (also known as Dragut)is a famous and beloved figure in Turkey – and an infamous, hated man in the rest of the Mediterranean. Born a Greek, he was himself captured and enslaved by corsairs as a child. After converting to Islam, he eventually had a long and (almost impossibly) eventful career in the Ottoman army and navy, becoming a master cannoneer and having various enthralling exploits. In the 1530’s he was installed in the somewhat humdrum position of governor of Djerba (in Tunisia), which was a little too boring for him – so he captured a few Genoese ships and went marauding on his own. It was then that he sacked Gozo. When he arrived, his force was met with almost no resistance, the Citadella was too poorly armed to put up a fight.
Turgut Reis returned to the Maltese islands twice more, after he had been promoted to Admiral of Turkey and Chief governor of the Mediterranean – both these later trips ended in defeat, and he was killed trying to take Fort St. Elmo near the Valletta harbor.
The Citadella began as a fortified town, with the majority of Gozo’s population living within the walls during the early medieval period. The fortifications that are visible now mostly date from after Turgut Reis’ sack, built up from 1599 to 1603 as the Knights of Saint John were expanding and solidifying their small kingdom.
Walking around the castle today is enjoyable mostly for the views. The buildings inside date from later periods – a church, a few fine houses (now mostly museums), a pretty little square. Interestingly, most of the space inside the Citadella has been left in ruin. As Gozo was being repopulated by people from Malta, the fortifications were considered strictly defensive and the new settlers built mostly outside the walls. There are still low walls, filled in with grass and cacti, where once stood small townhouses. The outline of streets are still visible, the place would feel eerie if not for all the tourists.
Visiting is fun to a certain point – but there’s not a whole lot to see. There’s no entrance fee, but all of the museums and shops are overpriced. The most fun we had hunting Victoria's Citadella was trying to get a decent shot of the front of the walls. Victoria, or Rabat as it's known to the locals (not to be confused with Rabat on Malta island), spills directly down from the old gate, and there's absolutely no way to get a clean line of sight up at the fortifications. To get the second photo in this post (the distant shot of mostly sky), we had to sneak into an office building and make our way out to a balcony through a disused space. Quite the adventure, but the picture still isn't great.

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