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Extensive restoration works are currently underway on some of the most important historic fortresses of the Maltese islands.The project is being part-financed by the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund under Operational Programme I and will cost around 36 million Euros. These works, which are being co-ordinated by the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs represent the first ever major large scale restoration intervention on Malta’s historic fortifications which are aimed at safeguarding and promoting the island’s military architecture heritage as a central feature of the nation’s cultural assets - a unique heritage that draws heavily on Malta’s European culture.
WHY THE FORTIFICATIONS?
One of the most important assets of the Maltese islands lies in the astonishing wealth of physical remains from their past - buildings and sites which stand monument to a unique historical experience spanning thousands of years. A central pillar of this built-up heritage is the defence architecture. Malta’s strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, coupled with her excellent natural harbours, translated into a leading role in the military struggle for the region - a historical process which was invariably accompanied by an incessant investment in the fortification of the island. To many, this legacy of forts, fortresses, citadels, towers, batteries, redoubts, entrenchments and concrete pillboxes represents one of the finest collections of military architecture to be found anywhere in the world and constitutes, in the words of the late Professor Quentin Hughes, a monumental heritage ‘for sheer concentration and majesty quite unmatched’.
Despite its inherent historical and architectural significance, the larger part of this defence architecture is to be found in a poor state of preservation. The effort that is now necessary to redress this state of affairs is inevitably a massive undertaking by any standards and will absorb considerable resources for many a decade.
The story of its predicament can be largely traced to the last fifty years or so and begins with the terrible punishment inflicted during WWII to be followed by sometimes insensitive development that accompanied the industrialization and urbanization of the post-war period. The overall picture that unfortunately emerges today is one of an accelerating deterioration of the architectural fabric, one compounded further by an overall under appreciation and under utilization of such important assets.
The effort that is now necessary to redress this state of affairs is inevitably a massive undertaking by any standards. Suffice it to say that in the Grand Harbour area alone, there are over 25 kms of ramparts and bastions. Added to these are then the fortified citadels of Mdina, Gozo, and Fort Chambrai, together with 12 km of Victoria lines, dozens of forts, and scores of towers, batteries, redoubts, entrenchments and hundreds of WWII concrete pillboxes and defences, - in all forming a combined total of some 60 km of ramparts
A NEED FOR RESTORATION
Aware of the scale and magnitude of such a task, the Maltese government had sought, as way back as 2004, to benefit from the assistance offered by the European Union through its various programmes to fund the study, documentation, and intervention on historic fortifications.
Realizing, however, that attempting to addressing the whole span and extent of the conservation problem in the short term, was both unrealistic and financially difficult, the Maltese authorities opted to adopt a restoration strategy based on priorities and holistic programmes of restoration rather than piecemeal interventions.
To this end, four major sites were chosen for restoration, namely the land front of the fortified city of VALLETTA, Malta’s most important work of military architecture, the fortresses of VITTORIOSA and MDINA, and the CITTADELLA in Gozo. The choice was not a subjective one, but one based on criteria of historical and architectural importance and significance of the sites; on the extent of damage and decay to their physical fabric, and last but not least, the sites’ inherent economic and tourism potential.
Even so, these four projects still comprise a substantial investment, in all involving some 135,000m2 of rampart elevations over a combined perimeter length of around 6 km at an estimated cost (involving rehabilitation and lighting) of around 36 million Euros, spread over a period of seven years – no mean task by any standards. This project is part-financed by the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund under Operation Programme I ‘Investing in Competitiveness for a Better Quality of Life’ for Cohesion Policy 2007-2013, with a co-financing rate of 85% EU Funds (ERDF) and 15% National Funds.”
DESIGN & IMPLEMENTATION - THE RESTORATION UNIT
The design, implementation, and co-ordination of the fortifications restoration project was entrusted to the Restoration Unit within the Works Division, in the Ministry of Resources and Rural Affairs. The Restoration Unit is the government entity charged with the restoration of public property. First set up ion 1997, it now comprises a specialized workforce of restoration professional and technicians and totals some 180 people but can also call on the wider resources of the Works Division of which it forms part.
The projected works, for which specialized studies and tenders have been under preparation by the Restoration Unit for the past number of years, will enable large parts of the historic ramparts to be cleaned, repaired, and opened to the public as places of cultural and leisure activities.
Already, these works have begun to give results. The preparation works for the consolidation of the Mdina ramparts, made possible by another project have unearthed important and previously unknown remains of medieval outerworks – impressive works of fortification that have lain hidden for centuries. These will now serve to enrich the understanding of the development of Mdina’s ramparts and, simultaneously, provide an added attraction for visitors to this ancient capital city of Malta.
The significance of this restoration project extends far beyond the physical restoration of the architectural structures of the fortifications. Like all historical buildings, these ramparts of stone provide a unique sense of place and a continuity with the past, fostering an emotional attachment to the land and an enduring bond between generations. Perhaps above all, the unique military architecture heritage make Malta and Gozo different from other places – providing an important national asset in the Islands’ tourism product.
The restoration programmes are also aimed to boost the regeneration of the areas within and around these fortifications, provide an improved quality of life for the communities living in and around these historical sites and also help create the potential for new jobs in the field of restoration, as well as provide great scope for further specialization in this field.