Refurbished Birgu Ditch
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Għajn Ħadid Tower and Aħrax Tower; Two De Redin Towers in Mellieħa.
By Simon MIFSUD
Mellieħa is a large village found in the North West of Malta. It contains some of the most picturesque beaches and enjoys an idyllic countryside. Today its beaches have become popular seaside resorts attracting locals and tourists alike. However, there was a time, up to a couple of hundred years ago, when this village was still a relatively remote and insecure area that attracted a different kind of visitor – the marauding corsairs. For many centuries, this remote and defenceless anchorage, provided corsair galleys plying the local waters in search of easy prey, with a suitable landing place for their razzias. It was the only the Knights of Saint John, in the seventeenth century, who sought to remedy the situation by erecting fortified structures designed to provide Mellieħa with some form of permanent defence. The first of these were small coastal towers, little more than simple watch posts designed to warn of the approach of enemy ships, but by the eighteenth century these were augmented with more aggressive fortifications built to fire on the ships approaching the shore – coastal batteries, redoubts and entrenchments. The knights invested massively in their attempts to secure the area, making Mellieha, and its nearby areas, as a result, one of the heaviest fortified sections of the coastline in the island.
During the seventeenth century, the tower was the most common type of coastal fortification around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The first coastal tower to be built by the Knights in the Maltese Islands was actually in Gozo – the so called Garzes Tower, erected in 1605, in an attempt to safeguard Mġarr Harbour and the island of Gozo. The design of the coastal towers changed throughout the course of subsequent years. Whilst those built by Grand Master Wignacourt were large fort-like structures built to serve as fortini (miniature forts), those erected by Grand Masters Lascaris and De Redin were much smaller and simpler in design. These were built to serve mainly as watch towers rather than gun batteries, making very little use of artillery. The increasing preference for small towers was probably due to the fact that the Order did not have the necessary manpower to post a large number of troops at every possible landing space. The area around Mellieha acquired three towers in the course of the 1600s. Two of these were built by Grand Master De Redin and form the focus of this brief paper.
The Thirteen De Redin Towers
In 1657, Fr. Martin de Redin was proclaimed Grand Master of the Order of Malta. His gift to the Order, or ‘gioia’, consisted of thirteen coastal towers. These towers were erected all along the coastline from the north of the island down to Qrendi in the south, augmenting those already built by his predecessors, to create a network of some twenty three towers The string of these towers was erected in the years 1658 and 1659. Each tower was erected within sight of the neighbouring ones and all were meant to relay their signals from one to the other, all the way down to Valletta. The signals were transmitted by means of a cannon shot or smoke during the day and by fire during the night.
The design of the thirteen De Redin towers followed a singular, standard plan, itself based on that evolved late in the reign of Grand Master Lascaris in the form of the Ta’ Xuta Tower in Wied iż-Żurrieq, which was more durable than the earlier watch towers at Lippija, Għajn Tuffieħa, Blat Mogħża and Qawra. The De Redin Towers consist of two floors, with a sloping lower base. Furthermore the roof of the ground floor rests on a series of arches while the roof of the first floor is made up of a barrel vault. This structural feature is the distinctive characteristic between the De Redin and the earlier Lascaris Towers. The barrel-vaulted ceiling allowed the structure to support the weight of the guns mounted on its roof necessary for its defence. However, despite the tower’s more solid structure, they were still not strong enough to mount a prolonged and active defence to an attack. Their primary role was that of coastal surveillance and to warn the approach of enemy vessels thus preventing any surprise attacks from taking place.
Image 2: Ta’ Xuta Tower in Wied iż-Żurrieq (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 3: One of the thirteen De Redin Towers i.e.: Ta’ Ħamrija Tower. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Għajn Ħadid Tower
Image 4: Although partially demolished, Għajn Ħadid Tower provides an insight on how these towers were constructed during the times of the Knights (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Għajn Ħadid Tower was the first of the series of thirteen towers to be built by Grand Master De Redin. Its construction began in March 1658 and by May of the same year, the tower was ready. It was built in the mere space of two months at a cost of 530 scudi. Għajn Ħadid Tower is located on top of a cliff face overlooking Mġiebah Bay from where it commanded uninterrupted views of l-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa, Comino, Gozo as well as San Pawl il-Baħar and Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq.
Image 5: A breath taking view of Saint Paul’s Isles and Qawra Point as seen from Għajn Ħadid Tower. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Unfortunately the tower collapsed on the 12th of October 1856 because of an earthquake. According to Cesare Vassallo (a lawyer who resided in Selmun Palace in September 1856), the ground around the tower was covered with wide cracks and crevices. In fact, Vassallo was surprised that the tower had not collapsed yet. It seems that he foresaw the collapse of this tower, as a month later, the tremors caused by the earthquake brought down the upper floor of Għajn Ħadid Tower.
The fact that these thirteen towers were built almost identical to each other means that one can compare one tower to another to discover the exact structure of Għajn Ħadid Tower. In addition the partially demolished structure of the tower gives us an insight on how these towers were actually built. The walls making up the ground floor still contain the remains of the three arches that once supported the floor of the upper room. Another intriguing feature is the construction of the scarped walls of the ground floor. The angle of the scarped walls was achieved by actually tilting the masonry blocks rather than reshaping the surface of the stone.
Image 6: An inside shot of the ground floor of Għajn Ħadid Tower. Notice the remains of the three arches that once supported the roof of the ground floor. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
A curious feature present among the remains of Għajn Ħadid’s ground floor is two pair of openings facing each other. Their exact function is still a mystery but since the ground floor of these towers served as a store room, these could have supported two wooden beams which in turn held a wooden rack in order to maximize the storage capacity of the tower.
Image 7: A basic diagram of the ground floor of Għajn Ħadid Tower showing the way in which the wooden rack (black and white part of the photo) could have stood in relation to the remaining structures. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
The sole entrance inside De Redin’s Towers was through a doorway that was located on the first floor. This could have only been reached by means of a retractable ladder made up of wood or rope. It seems that the militia stationed inside Għajn Ħadid Tower accessed this sole entrance by means of a wooden ladder. This is stated in the 1743 report when all coastal towers were inspected due to the fear of a plague reaching Malta from Sicily.
Above the main doorway of Għajn Ħadid Tower once lay a marble plaque bearing the following inscription:
FRA DON MARTINVS DE REDIN
M.MGR. MELITAE ET GAVLOS PRINCEPS
TVRRITIS PROPUGNACVLIS INSVLAM
AERE SVO, CIRCVMMVIENS, HOC PRIMV
FAVESTE EREXIT ANN. MDCLVIII
Image 8: The marble plaque that once crowned the main entrance of Għajn Ħadid Tower. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Roughly translated, it states that Fr. Martin De Redin is Prince and Grand Master of Malta and Gozo. Furthermore it states that this tower was the first of its kind to be erected in the year 1658. Nowadays this inscription lies in Tas-Salib Square in Mellieħa together with the cannon that fell from on top of the tower during the 1856 earthquake. The cannon was retrieved in 1975 thanks to the Historical Society of Mellieħa.
Image 9: Nowadays the marble plaque and the cannon can be found in Tas-Salib Square, Mellieħa. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
The tower is surrounded by a number of fields enclosed within rubble walls. These fields were probably used by the militia stationed here to plant vegetables and house farm animals. In addition a few metres away from the tower, there is a well dug into solid rock still covered with a waterproof plaster. Since the Għajn Ħadid cliffs lie on the outskirts of Selmun, they are quite difficult to reach, implying that it was fairly difficult to supply this tower with food and ammunition. For this reason, the fields and well highlight the self-sufficiency of this tower.
Image 10: These small fields were probably used by the militia sentinels stationed in Għajn Ħadid Tower to plant vegetables and house farm animals. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 11: The well that used to supply the soldiers at Għajn Ħadid with water. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Accompanying the tower, one finds a number of interesting structures. A few paces south to the tower lies a small defensible room, probably used to house the militia. The roof of this small room consisted of stone slabs (xorok) resting on a series of wooden beams instead of stone arches. This room has two musketry loopholes; one built within the northern wall and the other in the southern one. These allowed the soldiers to fire their muskets and protect the area around the tower. Having said this it is not yet clear why a large window was built on the eastern wall, as this created a substantial weak spot in the defence of this room. The period to which this room belongs to is still a subject of debate as it is still unsure whether this building predates the tower or whether it was built after.
Image 12: The small defensible room next to Għajn Ħadid Tower. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 13: One of the musketry loopholes of the small defensible room next to Għajn Ħadid Tower. (Image Source: Author’s collection)
Image 14: The roof of this room consisted of stone slabs (xorok) resting on a series of wooden beams. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Furthermore south-west to the tower, lie the remains of another small sentry room. According to an old plan from Mons. Mifsud’s unpublished work, this small room was fitted with three musketry loopholes and a flight of steps that presumably led to this room’s roof.
Image 15: An old map of Għajn Ħadid Tower from Mons. Mifsud’s unpublished work. The location of the small sentry room is marked by the red arrow. (Image Source: Selmun- A Story of Love; 1996; Borg. P. Paul; page 49).
Image 16: The remains of the small sentry room. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
These guard rooms together with the rubble wall enclosed fields are unique features to the Għajn Ħadid tower.
In 1743, Għajn Ħadid Tower was inspected by the Notabile and Valletta jurists and their report reveals that the tower was armed with two bronze cannons of Libre 4 di Francia, gun wheels and stock, eighteen cannon balls, fifteen rotolos of gun powder, four muskets and twelve rotolos of musket balls. Furthermore the tower was manned by six people; a capo torriere, three torrieri, a bombardiere and a soldier for day watch.
Ta’ Ħoslien or Aħrax Tower
Aħrax Tower (more commonly known as the White Tower) rests on small hill on the Aħrax peninsula between two shallow inlets, namely the Daħlet ix-Xmajjar and Ir-Ramla tat-Torri l-Abjad. Aħrax Tower enjoys breath-taking views of the South Comino Channel, Comino and Gozo. This was the sixth tower to be built in the series of thirteen De Redin Towers and was completed by the end of November 1658 at a cost of 590 scudi.
Aħrax Tower shares most of the characteristics of the other De Redin Towers. The walls making up the lower room were scarped up to the level of the cordon (a string course of stone work going all the way around the tower). However slight differences between one tower and another do exist. For example the square base of Aħrax Tower was one metre longer than that of Għajn Ħadid.
Image 17: Aħrax Tower. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
The main entrance was located securely on the first floor and like the Għajn Ħadid tower, the militia sentinels stationed here had to use a retractable ladder in order to gain access to it. Just above the main door one finds a marble plaque stating:
FRA DON MARTINO DE REDIN MAGNO S.R.H. MAGISTRO
SEXTAM SPECVLAM PRO CARINARVM AC IN COLARVM TVRIORI
STAT ILERIGENTI, MELITEN POPVLVS PRINCIPI SVO
CLEMENTI PROVT IN CORDE, SIC IN L RIDE GRATES
DEBITAS REDDEBAT. AN. 1658
Image 18: The marble plaque on top of Aħrax Tower’s sole entrance. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
This inscription means that the Maltese nation thanks Grand Master De Redin for building the sixth watch tower. Moreover it also says that the tower was built on a raised spot to safeguard the Maltese people and was built free of charge in the year 1658.
Crowning the main doorway are the remains of an escutcheon bearing the De Redin coat of arms. Unfortunately this escutcheon is no longer in place, and moreover shows signs that it was replaced by a larger escutcheon, probably during the British period when it is documented that the tower served for a while as the summer residence of the Governor.
An intriguing feature on the eastern wall of Aħrax tower are the corbel supports for a box machicoulis. The machicoulis (Maltese: Gallerija tal-Misħun) was a medieval form of defence in which stones, molten lead or oil could be dropped onto the attackers at the base of the tower. However in the case of this tower, this machicoulis was not a functional one but constitutes only a retardataire feature (i.e.: features that harp to bygone times). Most probably the Aħrax’s tower machicoulis was used as a water sprout to drain the tower’s roof from rain water.
Image 19: Remnants of a decorative machicolation on the eastern wall of Aħrax Tower. (Image Source: Author’s collection)
As pointed out earlier, the roof of the ground floor rests on three arches whereas the roof of the first floor consists of a barrel vault. Access to the roof top was by means of a spiral staircase located on the left hand side of the main entrance. This spiral staircase did not lead to the ground floor, implying that the torrieri stationed here, as in all the other De Redin towers, had to access it via a rope or wooden ladder.
Image 20: During the times of the Knights, this was the only entrance that led into Aħrax Tower. Next to this door, lies another doorway which led to the spiral staircase. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 21: The spiral staircase. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 22: The three arches that support the roof of the ground floor. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 23: The barrel vaulted roof of the first floor allowed the De Redin Towers to mount heavier artillery on their roof tops. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Just like the Għajn Ħadid Tower, Aħrax Tower was equipped with a well in order to meet the militia sentinel’s needs. Up till 1715, the Aħrax Tower lay alone guarding the northern shores of Mellieħa. In the early years of the 18th century, the Order embarked on a highly ambitious programme of defending each and every vulnerable bay / inlet with batteries, redoubts, and entrenchments. The Aħrax coastline facing Comino was fitted with three batteries (Batteria di Wied Mussa, Batteria in Mezzo delle Marine nel Canale del Freo and Batteria della Harach) and four redoubts (Ridotto della Ramla Tal-Bir, Escalar Redoubt, Ridotto della Barriera and Ridotto della Ramla Ta’ Hossiliet). Batteria della Harach (Aħrax Battery) was constructed next to the De Redin Tower in order to repel any enemy ships approaching that particular area.
The battery consisted of a semicircular gun platform facing ‘Ir-Ramla tat-Torri l-Abjad’ and a blockhouse built adjacent to the western wall of the tower. The semicircular gun platform was surrounded by a shallow ditch and a glacis made up of rubble stones dug up from the ditch. Unlike other batteries, Batteria della Harach’s semicircular gun platform was ringed with a low parapet, without any embrasures, i.e.: its guns were meant to fire en barbette. In fact the Order’s records on this battery, fail to mention any troniere, canoniere or merlon (words that refer to embrasures), further stressing the en barbette arrangement of the guns.
In the Order’s records of expenses entitled Misura e Conto Sommario dell’ Opere di Fortificationi fatte nel lido delle marine dell’ isole di Malta, Chemunna e Gozzo nell’ anni 1715 e 1716, in the Batteria della Harach, it is stated that there were feritori (i.e.: musketry loopholes). Since the blockhouse lacks any visible evidence of musketry loopholes (this has to be fully established, however), this might imply that some sort of enclosing walls were built, which in turn where pierced with such loop holes.
The layout of the battery’s landward enclosure is still something of a mystery as it is both presently incomplete and not much information survives to shed light on how this was originally built or on how it developed over the subsequent centuries. According to a 1761 plan (Pianta Ideale del Golfo della Melleha e delli Freghi Con li Trincieramenti da farsi), Aħrax Tower had two enclosing walls erected at two of its corners in such a way to secure the landward approach to the gun platform while at the same time using two of the tower’s outer walls to serve as a redan.
However, when one visits the site, the arrangement of the tower, the blockhouse, the enclosing wall and the semi-circular gun platform do not quite correspond to the 1761 plan. The tower was not arranged in a diagonal fashion with respect to the semi-circular gun platform, the enclosing wall is in the wrong position, and the 1761 plan fails to show
the appearance of the blockhouse clearly. This raises various questions, as in most instances the 1761 plans almost invariably provided exact and correct details about the various coastal batteries and redoubts. It seems that Batteria della Harach, however, may be an exception. Could it be that the battery built in 1715 had to undergo some sort of alterations in order to provide defence to the other adjacent bay i.e.: Daħlet ix-Xmajjar?
A careful study of the structures on this site revealed the presence of a thick wall built from masonry which is quite similar to that of the blockhouse. This is placed diagonally adjacent to the northern wall of the tower, but stops short of the revetment of the circular battery. It appears that this walls was dismantled about two-thirds of its length from
the tower, but it originally linked up to edge of the platform. Indeed one can see two types of masonry employed at this point where the semi-circular gun platform terminates i.e.: neatly cut masonry blocks resting alongside the plastered pietra a secco revetment of the scarp wall.
Could it be that the neatly cut masonry stones served as some sort of foundation to the enclosing wall? Could it be that the mentioned thick wall formed part of the enclosing wall that the battery was given in 1715? The answer to these questions is not as simple as one may think. The fact that in the British era, and later in the 20th century, the tower
underwent various significant alterations, makes this issue a complex one and far from straightforward. Ultimately, short of any documentation, it will have to be settled through an archaeological investigation.
Fortunately, there are a number of other clues that can help shed light on the matter. A British 1911 survey map does show what can be interpreted as the remains of what appears to be a diagonally-placed wall on the southern side of the tower. This might imply that up until 1911, there was some sort of standing structure on the southern side of the tower similar to that which survives on the other end. Could this enclosing wall on the southern side of the tower have been part of the original 1715 battery enclosure? Unfortunately, no trace whatsoever of the southern enclosing wall remains, to be seen above ground today. This may mean that this wall might have already been in ruins at the time (1911) and was probably cleared away at some later stage as it had became a source of inconvenience to the occupants of the tower. Unfortunately, the area around the tower is nowadays covered by a layer of concrete, and this makes it very difficult to trace the foundations of such a wall. The presence of this presumed southern enclosing wall and its date of construction can only be ascertained by an archaeological investigation of the site. Further research, therefore, is required here.
During the construction of these batteries, the military engineers experimented with various forms of blockhouses and redans. Most of the batteries, had a free-standing musketry wall with a projecting redan, often fitted with blockhouses, but the Batteria della Harach lacked such a feature, due to the fact that the gorge walls appear to have connected with the tower in such a way to leave one of its sides completely exposed to the enemy. This arrangement is very intriguing, as it makes the tower-battery combination at l-Aħrax a very poorly designed fortified enclosure, defective in its most basic principles of defence, given that the area at the foot of the outer wall of the tower could not be enfiladed in any way, thus creating a dangerous stretch of dead ground. This is why most batteries employed the V-shaped redan trace in order to eliminate
such a threat. It would seem then, that the gorge walls of the Batteria della Harach were mainly added simply to enclose the gorge and protect the gun-crew from incoming shots, and were designed to work more in the form of flanking traverses rather than defensible perimeter walls.
Another intriguing feature of the Aħrax tower and battery combination is whether the rectangular blockhouse grafted to the foot of the tower was initially designed independently of the tower and if this was linked internally to the latter. In the present structure there is an arched passageway cut through the thickness of the tower’s wall thus connecting the interior of the blockhouse with that of the ground floor of the tower. It is not clear yet, however, if this was part of the original arrangement done during the time of the Knights or if this was a later adjustment made in the course of the nineteenth century.
Images 24a and b: The 1761 plan showing the proposed plans of entrenchments. Since the Aħrax Tower is placed diagonally on top of the Aħrax peninsula, the military engineers would have made use of two of the tower’s outer walls to form the redan of the Batteria della Harach. The two proposed enclosing walls can be seen emerging from two corners of the tower. (Image Source: Courtesy of the National Library of Malta).
Image 25: The 1911 Survey Sheet shows the buildings at Aħrax Tower. Note the two diagonal walls on the northern and southern sides of the tower (Image Source: Il-Mellieħa - Its History in Pictures; 2011; Muscat Jimmy; page 67).
Image 26: Remains of the proposed northern enclosing wall of the Batteria della Harach (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 27, 28, 29, 30: Graphic reconstruction of the Aħrax Tower and its 1715 battery by Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri, based on the author’s hypothesis (Image Source: Courtesy of Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri, Ph.D.)
Image 31: The arched entrance of the blockhouse. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 32: A view of the interior of the blockhouse showing two of its four stone supporting arches. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 33: Part of the semi-circular gun platform of the Batteria della Harach. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 34: A view of the Blockhouse of the Batteria della Harach. This is the only visible part of the blockhouse since most of it lies engulfed within the other buildings. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 35: One of the walls that encloses the landward approach to St. George’s Redoubt in Birżebbuġa. Most probably the walls enclosing the Batteria della Harach were very similar to this one (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Image 36: A view of the rock-hewn ditch surrounding the gun platform of the Batteria della Harach. (Image Source: Author’s collection).
The Aħrax Tower was armed with two bronze cannons of Libre 5 di Francia, gun wheels and stocks, sixteen cannon balls, four muskets, one rotolo of musket balls and ten rotolos of gun powder according to the 1743 inspection.
In 1770, the battery was armed with ten 12-pounder iron cannons together with 700 iron balls and 150 sachetti di mitraglia (grapeshot rounds). Like most of the other coastal batteries in Mellieħa, the gun powder was kept stored in St. Agatha’s Tower.
As time passed Aħrax Tower did not fall into disuse like the majority of the coastal fortifications that were built by the Knights. Instead the British used the tower as a Naval Station. The British built several additions to the tower’s original structure because of the limited space available inside the tower and the blockhouse. After the war, the tower came to be privately owned for a number of years but eventually it was abandoned.
The Towers today
Natural elements and human intervention have not been kind to these coastal works. Għajn Ħadid Tower was partially demolished by an earthquake and most of its stones were taken up to be used for other buildings whereas Aħrax Tower was heavily modified throughout the years. These modifications were so substantial that it is very difficult to decipher the original structure of the tower and the battery. Furthermore the soil and rubble infill making up the gun platform of the Batteria della Harach have supported the growth of various plants including a palm tree. The roots of such plants are pushing the masonry stones out of place causing significant stretches to collapse. If nothing is done, this gun platform will eventually vanish in this manner.
Image 37: The collapsed masonry revetment of the Batteria della Harach’s gun platform, revealing the soil and rubble infill (Image Source: Author’s collection).
Aħrax Tower was passed onto the Mellieħa Local Council on September 2009 and hopefully this transfer of property will serve to catalyze the process of restoring the tower and its adjoining battery, so that they can attain their once rightful place in Mellieħa, and Malta’s, history. One must remember that in the past these coastal works defended our forefathers, but now it is our turn to rise and defend them from being lost forever.
The author is in debt to Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri for his assistance in the compilation of this study. Furthermore, the author would also like to thank the Mellieħa Local Council who provided permission to access Aħrax Tower.
Borġ Paul P., Selmun - A Story of Love, Malta, 1996
Catania J. (ed), Mellieħa - Through the Tides of Time, Malta, 2002
Muscat Jimmy, Il-Mellieħa - Its History in Pictures, Malta, 2011
Muscat Jimmy, Fortifications of the Knights Hospitallers in Mellieħa, Malta, 2012
Spiteri Stephen C., Fortresses of the Cross: Hospitaller Military Architecture, Malta, 1994
Spiteri Stephen C., The Art of Fortress Building in Hospitaller Malta, Malta, 2008
Date and Time to be