And then of course the Knights of St. John came here in 1530 – still licking their wounds from a resounding defeat which resulted in the forced abandonment of their previous island home in Rhodes. Immediately after the very testing Great Siege of 1565 they set about throwing up defences everywhere…massively walled cities complete with dry moats, coastal forts, watch towers and entrenchments. These assured that the dreaded Ottomans would never mount another serious attack to take over the islands. The defences were indeed impregnable: so much so that when the Knights meekly surrendered the Islands to Napoleon some two hundred and fifty years later - and the islanders in turn rebelled against the latter conquerors - the French managed to hold on inside Valletta’s thick walls for more than a year, and then it was only the total blockade of the city by the British that ultimately forced the French capitulation.
The British continued in the steps of all previous occupiers. They built a series of low profile, inconspicuous coastal forts more adapted to the warfare technology of the time. And after being here for nearly a century they were still jittery about the north coast’s vulnerability to invading forces and so they came up with an altogether fantastic and pretentious project...
The concept of the Victoria Lines was a great defensive wall practically dividing the island between the more populated and well defended south, and the sparsely inhabited and less crucial (to British interests) north. The wall was planned to follow a natural geographical barrier which cuts across the island, running roughly from Madliena in the east through to Kuncizzjoni at its western end – a total of approximately twelve kilometers. Construction started in the early 1870’s and the works were only completed in 1897 – the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
At each end of the wall – Pembroke and Kuncizzjoni – barracks were constructed, and the wall itself includes massive forts in strategic places; Fort Madliena, Fort Mosta and Fort Bingemma – each one guarding vulnerable locations – the first the eastern end of the wall where the terrain is flat, while the latter two guard areas where the natural cliff barrier is breached by an easily accessible valley.
The project took so long to build that by 1900, a mere three years after completion, steady advances in warfare technology revealed that the Victoria Lines were of dubious defensive value and by 1907 the whole defensive system was practically abandoned.
It is not easy to walk the line in its completeness. There are parts where time has taken its toll and it is difficult to trace out the wall. In other places modern roads and construction have wiped out or made the wall traces all but easy on the eye.
One notable exception is the stretch of the wall from Bingemma to Falka Gap - the part known as the Dwejra Lines. Here one can get a good feel of the wall and its clever meandering along steep cliffsides. Setting off from near the small chapel at Bingemma, you can start with a small diversion to the valley bed beneath –across which rises Malta’s largest rock-cut complex of tombs – a collection of more than 30 hypogea honeycombing the hillside. Opinion varies whether this site is of Phoenician or Roman origin but at any rate it’s worth exploring this ancient burial ground.
Backtrack up to the chapel, and a little way uphill and to your left (near a sizeable info board) there is a small path that will take you across the massive wall that crosses the valley. Once across, turn right and follow the line along some of its steeper edges – there are impressive views over the countryside below for the two kilometers or so of this part of the wall with the picturesque village of Mgarr with its oval dome featuring prominently over the surroundings. You can take time to explore bits and pieces of the wall itself; the ditch, gun emplacements and ancillary structures run along the length of the wall.
Once at the Falka end of the Dwejra lines, make your way back along the country road that runs more or less parallel and at some distance to the wall, and which takes you back to Bingemma. This road overlooks the Qlejgha Valley, more popularly known as Chadwick Lakes, so named after the engineer who constructed the massive water catchments in this important and flood prone valley. It is a quiet country road with beautiful vistas over to Mtarfa ridge and Mdina beyond, dotted with typical farmhouses and the odd country villa. The whole walk is less than five kilometers long and the gradients and terrain are mostly easy. Come any time during the week to enjoy the silence and solitude but be warned that all of this area is a favourite playground for the locals on any Sunday in the cooler months – which is not too bad an idea if you want to mingle… or just smell the barbecued sausages!
This article was first published in the November 2013 edition of Il-Bizzilla -
the Air Malta inflight magazine