Since the 17th century the coastline of Malta and Gozo have been dominated by large, square structures. Built by the Knights of Malta, these lookout posts were manned throughout the day and night, watch towers constructed to keep watch for any danger from the seas surrounding these two islands. Today these coastal towers provide a glimpse on another period in these island’s past.
The Mediterranean Sea has long been a battleground for competing kingdoms and empires. Sitting in its midst are the islands of Malta & Gozo, two small islands repeatedly conquered over the centuries. To protect itself from invasion and piracy, Malta’s inhabitants have heavily fortified its coastline, with many of these forts and towers surviving today for the archaeological explorer to visit.
Many of the towers are similar in design and only a keen military architecture enthusiast would wish to visit them all. Anyone wanting to do this would need a week, if not two. Those with a less focused interest may wish to combine trips to several of the towers with visits to other archaeological and historic monuments, something that is easily done and which I accomplished on a recent trip to Malta and Gozo to see the Megalithic Temples.
Dwejra Tower, Gozo.
What is the history of the towers?
From 1530 until 1798, a Catholic military organisation known as the Order of St John controlled Malta. They oversaw the construction of watchtowers around the island’s coast, particularly during the 17th century when they found themselves in conflict with the expansionist Ottoman Empire. In 1614, an Ottoman force raided the area around Żejtun before the Order’s soldiers repulsed them. From 1610 to 1620, they constructed the Wignacourt towers, followed by the Lascaris towers from 1637 to 1652, and then the De Redin towers from 1658 to 1659. From these towers, guards could look out across the sea and raise the alarm if they spotted any ships.
The towers nevertheless failed to protect the island forever. The French seized control of Malta in 1798, shortly before the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars. An internal rebellion backed by the British resulted in the island becoming a British protectorate in 1800. They also utilised the country’s fortifications for its defence, with many of these seeing usage during the Second World War.
Fort St Agatha, or Torre Rossa (the red tower), in Mellieħa.
How do I get to the towers?
The watchtowers are dispersed across the Maltese coastline, and thus it is not practical to visit them on foot. Transport will be essential. Public buses are one option, and although fares are very reasonable, the buses can be unreliable and often late.
A second option is to make use of a private bus service dedicated to historical and touristic sightseeing. When visiting Gozo, Malta’s smaller northern neighbour, I boarded one such tour, run by the Hop On, Hop Off bus service. The bus took a tour route which included the Xlendi Tower, one of the Lascaris Towers which was built in 1650. At the time, I remained on the bus, getting a good look at the tower from the open top deck, although there was the option of getting off, exploring the site in greater detail, and catching the next Hop On, Hop Off bus forty minutes later.
A third alternative is to travel around Malta and Gozo by hired car, which is probably the best option if you wish to visit as many of these towers as possible. In such a scenario, it is likely that you will have to obtain a separate car in Gozo from that used in Malta.
Are there impressive views?
Għajn Tuffieħa Tower from the sandy beaches below the cliffs.
In standing atop the cliffs and overlooking the sea, many of the towers offer breath-taking views of the surrounding landscape. The Għajn Tuffieħa Tower for instance stands atop a cliff promontory with sandy beaches on either side. The architect and inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani designed the tower, which was built in 1637, and it has since been renovated. The beaches themselves – and particularly that on the tower’s southern side – are worth visiting. Aside from being a lovely place to spend a few hours, they also offer impressive views of the Għajn Tuffieħa Tower above.
Can I go inside the towers?
Although the interiors to many of the towers are closed to the public, there are exceptions. The Wied Iż-Żurrieq Tower, also known as the Sciuta Tower, is one of the Lascaris towers and dates from 1638. After it fell into dilapidation, the Din l-Art Ħelwa voluntary organisation undertook a renovation program to restore the watchtower to its former glory. It is now open to visitors for a small fee. One of the main attractions in the small village of Wied Iż-Żurrieq, the tower is very close to both a bus stop and carpark, making it ideally situated for those unable to trek long distances over uneven ground.
A visit to the tower can easily be combined with an amble down to the village harbour, where fishing boats can be hired to take you to see the nearby Blue Grotto, a majestic natural archway surrounded by cool aquamarine waters that is rightly regarded as one of Malta’s great natural wonders.
Can I combine the towers with Malta’s famous Neolithic temples?
Ħamrija Tower, a stone’s throw from the Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim temples.
Another option for combining a visit to a tower with another site of archaeological interest can be found at the Ħamrija Tower near Qrendi. Positioned several hundred metres away from the Neolithic temples of Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim, this site was built in 1659 as one of the De Redin towers. To get close to the building, you will have to buy a ticket from the Mnajdra/Ħaġar Qim visitor’s centre, which also provides access to the two fascinating megalithic monuments (read my tips and suggestions for visiting the temples of Malta & Gozo), which lay undiscovered at the time of the tower’s construction. There is no delineated path to the tower, it can only be reached by crossing rocky ground. Nevertheless, it is well worth the effort; I found it an ideal spot for a picnic!