Porta Grecorum

Mdina’s medieval gate.

Perhaps the most visible and most evident vestige of the medieval defences of Mdina is Greeks Gate, or Porta Grecorum. Although this was not the main entrance into the city, but merely a porta falsa, or secondary gateway that went down directly into the land front ditch, it is nonetheless the only complete medieval entrance in all of the Maltese islands to have survived to the present day and, therefore, tells us much about the nature and workings of fortified medieval entrances.

As it stands, however, Greeks Gate can only be best appreciated when seen from the within the city, where its distinctive horseshoe profile is immediately visible. Its external façade, although still intact, is enclosed within a vaulted passage way which was grafted onto the medieval ramparts when a baroque portal was erected in front of it in the early eighteenth century by the French military engineer Charles François de Mondion.

The original medieval gateway itself consists of two adjoining vaulted arches, both of pointed-horseshoe profile, spanning through the width of the medieval rampart.  The interior vaulted arch, which rises to a height of five metres, is nowadays partially filled in by the wooden framework of an aedicule of the Baptism of Publius.  This intrusion also witnessed the lowering of the crown of the outer arch, resulting in a lowering of the gate opening. The gate’s wooden door, which opens in two leaves, although still in situ, does not appear to date from earlier than the Hospitaller period.


Detail of arch of Greeks Gate


Greeks Gate was flanked by a solid wall tower. This feature was still visible up to the early eighteenth century before it was absorbed into the adjoining  curtain wall built by the knights. In effect, it is still there, enveloped within the Hospitaller rampart. Its left flank, however, built from  large blocks of masonry is clearly visible inside the vaulted passage way that leads through to the gate. This wall-tower had a D-shaped plan with curved outer face. It  was  one of the  four towers which defended Mdina’s land front fortifications. The other wall-towers were the Turri Mastra or Turri dila bandiera, which controlled the main entrance into the old city (later replaced by the Torre dello Standardo though  this retained the original role as a watch-out/ signalling post);  the Turri di la Camera , a kind of  mastio (keep) which once formed part of Mdina’s castle before it was partially dismantled in 1453; and a more obscure Turri di Caruana, probably sited in the centre of the enceinte.


Eighteenth century facade of Greeks Gate


An important feature of Greeks Gate is that it is still set within a good stretch of the original medieval rampart  -  a wall some three metres thick at the base and rising ten metres in height.  The outer skin is built of smooth faced ashlar typical of fourteenth and fifteenth century work, but the inner revetment facing the courtyard to its rear, is largely constructed of coursed rubble-work with increasingly larger stone boulders in the lower courses, implying a greater antiquity to this section of the enceinte. Indeed most of the stones used in the construction of this inner wall were re-utilised from earlier Punic and Roman buildings or ramparts which once formed part of the significantly larger walled city of Melite.  Many reutilized blocks, including column drums and shafts, can be found in various parts of Mdina enceinte.

Medieval records reveal that Greeks Gate was served by a wooden drawbridge. It is not  possible to say, however, what type of lifting mechanism was employed. The vaulted gateway itself betrays no such clue. There are no apertures for the passage of lifting chains or vertical slits for wooden beams of counterweighted mechanisms. The aedicule unfortunately prevents any inspection of the inner side of the vaulted arch and only serves to hide any possible clues. The bascule type of drawbridge was the most common type employed throughout the middle ages for its simple counterweight mechanism – indeed it remained in use well into the eighteenth century. The drawbridge of the main gate at Mdina is known to have comprised the use of wooden beams  and metal chains, for in 1527 a large quantity of iron was purchased the town council to produce the ‘catinj dilo ponti’.   The drawbridge ‘tavolatura’ (planking) was made from planks of oak, at one time brought purposely from Messina and, judging by the entries in the records, that at Greeks Gate was continually in need of repair. It would appear that the two gates had different mechanisms, with Greeks Gate possibly employing a simpler mechanism as shown in the illustration, also common through out the period.


Mdina, circa 1565, showing position of gateways and early Hospitaller bastions.


The city’s medieval ramparts may have been provided with posterns and sally ports for sorties and furtive getaways, but no vestige of these have survived, as has remained, for example, on the medieval ramparts of the Cittadella in Gozo.  The mandati documents of 1527, for example, mention the need to wall up an exit into the ditch through a magazine.  Another interesting missing feature of the Mdina fortifications, one related to the defence of the entrance into the city,  was the barbican mentioned by Gian Frangisc Abela in 1647. This was in the shape of a circular tower, a ‘torrione forte di forma circolare con fosso e cistrena’ . It was built to protect the far side of a bridge leading to the main gate of the city.  Dr. Albert Ganado,  citing the history of the Inguanez family, states that this was built by Antonio Desguanecks sometime after 1448.  Giacomo Castaldi’s map of Malta (1551) shows Mdina with a turreted barbican although the actual details must not be taken too seriously especially when other obvious landmarks are shown so confusingly in the same map.  By the 15th century, barbicans were a standard component of most European castles - even the Gozo Castrum had one.

Video showing sectional cutaway through Greeks Gate and passageway created by Hospitaller additions:

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Video showing reconstruction of Greeks Gate and Tower based on existing evidence:

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Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri (C)2010 -


Dr. Stephen C Spiteri - Military Architecture

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