Sally-Port Unearthed in Vittoriosa

A late seventeenth-century sally-port has recently been brought to light in Vittoriosa (Birgu),

the fortified maritime city of the Knights of Malta. The postern was unearthed during the course of the ongoing restoration works on the fortifications that are being partly-financed by the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund.


The removal of the modern rubble from within the narrow ditch enveloping the outer faces and flanks of the counterguard, known as Couvre Porte, has exposed a small sally-port in the left flank of the said counterguard.  This narrow ‘advanced ditch’ was filled-in with rubble and earth in the course of the early decades of the twentieth century so as to widen the pedestrian areas around the outer faces of the counterguard, thereby robbing the ramparts of their true height and imposing mass.

Above, Views of Couvre Porte Counterguard and its advanced ditch, shown in the process of being cleared of the debris that was used to fill it in with the unearthed sally-port cut into the flank.  (Image Source: www.militaryarchitecture.com).

Above, Graphic Reconstruction of the Vittoriosa land front fortifications c.1798, showing the layout of the Couvre Porte Counterguard and the location of the re-discovered sally-port in relation to the system of outworks (Image Source: Copyright Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri Ph.D., 2010).


The counterguard was a defensive feature which was added to protect the approaches to Vittoriosa’s main gateway, the Porta Superiore (situated in the right flank of St John Bastion) and was built during the reign of Grand Master Antoine de Paule (1723-1736).

Couvre Porte counterguard underwent various alterations during the course of the eighteenth century, when it was fitted with a Baroque gateway and enveloped with a new system of out works that involved a stretch of covertway fitted with traverses, and a reverse glacis (the only one of its kind to have been built in the Maltese islands).  The series of plans (shown below), beginning from the 1680s, and going through the 1700s up to the middle of the nineteenth century, document the manner in which both the counterguard and its outworks evolved over time. During the British period, a barrack block was built within the counterguard and this edifice is still in use, having served for a number of years as the premises for the Birgu Local Council.  A plan and sectional elevation of Couvre Porte Barracks, as these barracks were known to the British military, are shown below.

Details from two plans showing the development of Couvre Porte Counterguard and its outerworks; Top, Mederico Blondel's manuscript plan showing the counterguard and its ditch, but still lacking a covertway, in the late 1600s; Above, Plan by the French military mission headed by Brig. Jacob de Tigne, showing that a covertway had been fitted by 1715, but this was still lacked traverses and was largely incomplete, lacking even a banquette (Image Source: Courtesy of the National Library of Malta). Below, Manuscript plan from around the mid-1700s, showing that the covertway had acquired traverses and place-of-arms, but still missing the pas-de-souris that was eventually built into the left side to service the sally-port (Image Source: Courtesy of the National Library of Malta).

Above, Detail from Col. Lewis plan of Vittoriosa (1860) showing the Couvre Porte Counterguard  - note the pathway leading out of the sally-port through the ditch and up the place-of-arms.  (Image Source: Dr. Stephen C. Spiteri Collection). Below, Detail from a plan of the Vittoriosa fortifications, drawn around the 1850s, showing the layout of the Couvre Porte Countreguard with its sally-port. (Image Source: www.militaryarchitecture.com) .

A late nineteenth-century photograph of Couvre Porte and the area immediately outside it, shows the counterguard and the layout of the complex system of out works, with its covertway, traverses, and place-of-arms, as well as the reverse glacis (see photograph below) still intact. These outworks, in cluding the alteration to the counterguard and the new Baroque gateway, were designed and implemented by the resident French military engineer, Charles François de Mondion.

View, taken from Senglea across the creek, showing the Vittoriosa land front fortifications with the Couvre Porte Counterguard and its outworks, covertway, and reverse glacis still largely intact as built by the Knights of St. John (Image Source: Courtesy of the National Museum of Archaeology).


Unfortunately, none of the outer works have survived to the present day, as the areas outside the fortifications were heavily remodelled in the course of the twentieth century, particularly after the traumatic  upheaval and destruction of the Second World War when much of the urban layout had to be rebuilt and adapted for modern needs.  The present clearance of the rubble from within the ditch, therefore, will serve to help redefine the layout the profile of the ramparts and introduce a greater degree of legibility to the fortifications of Couvre Porte.



The unearthed sally-port is one of two posterns which opened directly into the narrow ditch of the counterguard;  the second sally-port (and probably the first to be built) is situated beneath the main gate. Both sally-ports appear to date from the late-seventeenth to early-eighteenth century, when they would have become indispensable to communicate with the covertway. This was achieved via two pas-de-souris (shown in many of the plans, see below), one of which  may still be buried beneath the present road leading to the bridge spanning the ditch.

A vaulted passage way, set within the flank of the Couvre Porte Counterguard, led from the open interior of the counterguard to the sally-port. The high vaulted ceiling of this short passageway echoes the characteristic features of the covered passageways found in St. Michael’s Counterguard, on the Valletta land front, which, for their part, date to the around the late 1640s.  Interestingly, this ditch at Couvre Porte is perhaps the only example of its kind in the Hospitaller fortifications in Malta which stands at a higher level than that of the piazza within the structure:  i.e., the flight of steps within the passageway leading to the sally-port went up rather than down to reach the ditch!

Above, Plan and sectional elevation of the Couvre Porte Counterguard and its British- built barracks. The sally-port is shown highlighted by a red box, on the left flank together with the vaulted passageway leading to it. (Image Source: Dr. Stephen C Spiteri Collection) 

Present view of the inner end of the high vaulted passageway leading to the newly re-discovered sally-port at Couvre Porte, Vittoriosa, (Image Source: www.militaryarchitecture.com) .


MilitaryArchitecture.com  is pleased to see another important feature of Vittoriosa’s unique system of fortifications being brought back to light and given its proper legibility.  It is augured that  both the sally-port, and the vaulted passageway that leads to it, are eventually restored and opened up to the public so that these features can be utilized in a manner that reflects their original architectural and military function. They provide a means to explore and understand the exciting features that make up the  complexity of Baroque military architecture.

MilitaryArchitecture.com (C)




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