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From Hammuna to Borgo del Castello - Birgu
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From Hammuna to Borgo del Castello - Birgu
Birgu’s peninsula’s is sheltered by three hillocks from the violent North Easterly wind and must have been an ideal spot to become the first known inhabited area in the Grand Harbour. It is not known for how long man has lived on the Birgu promontory. The site was referred to as Melita and/or Hammuna and it is believed that in the vicinity of the area now referred to as the Mandraġġ, and facing a square which is now Fort St Angelo, a temple in honour of the Phoenician sun Goddess Hamuna may have once stood. This temple was probably built to complement another temple in the vicinity that was dedicated to the moon deity Astarte. However these theories still lack concrete evidence.

Birgu Clock Tower

Whatever the significance of Classical Birgu, the town must have been abandoned and allowed to fall into decay. In the 9th Century, the Byzantines set it up again, although its existence and survival as well as its history were mainly dependent on and intimately linked with that of the nearby Castrum Maris – the Castle by the Sea. Attracting first the settlement of fishermen and later that of sailors, as trade increased following the Christianisation of the Islands in 1127, the growing harbour town also attracted port workers. Later, this group of fishermen’s huts which had sprung up on the landward side of the Castle were collectively known as Il-Borgo del Castello – the suburb of the Castle – hence the medieval name of Birgu derived from the Arab ‘borg’, meaning ‘suburb’.

When Malta was divded into two parishes; Birgu acquired a certain ecclesiastical status as the second Maltese parish to that of Mdina. Similarly, some centuries later, when in 1530, the Order divided Malta into two municipal districts- Mdina and Birgu, it conferred a significant civic status on Birgu.

The heterogeneous beliefs of those early fishermen and seafarers who settled around Hammuna must have led to a certain religious tolerance and freedom of worship by Phoenicians, Romans, and Christians alike. This tolerance survived during the eras of the Byzantines and Arabs, and extended to the Jews that inhabited there. In fact, by 1246 Kalkara Creek next to the Castrum Maris was known as Jews’ Creek and there is evidence that towards the end of the 1400’s Birgu had developed a small and self-contained Jewish Community with its own synagogue facing Kalkara. However the attitude towards the Jews must have changed in later years, and the Jews often found themselves pelted as they were on their way to the synagogue, while its doors and lamps were frequently broken.

In a formal edict of 1492 by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille. The Jews had been expelled from all the territories belonging to Spain - all Jews had to leave unless they converted to Christianity by January 1493. Malta was then part of the kingdom of Sicily and as such the Jews had to leave as well. Thus in the early years of the Order’s rule, the only Jews around were slaves. However some Jewish merchants from the north Italian towns and the Maghreb appear to have later settled in Birgu.

During the 1400’s, Birgu had developed as the home port of Malta’s merchant fleet and corsair vessels. This contributed significantly to the process of ethnic admixture that was brought on by the presence of Genoese, Pisan, and Venetian sailors and merchants during 13th and 14th Centuries.

In spite of Birgu’s flourishing maritime activity and Malta’s abundance of olive, pine and juniper trees providing excellent timber for shipbuilding in boatyards within harbours, there is no evidence of any such facilities existing in Birgu until November 1374. The first record of stonecutting to set up an arsenal along Galley Creek dates back to the 22nd June 1501.

Even though part of its population dwelt in rock-dug caves, medieval Birgu had its churches, houses, taverns, shops, and open spaces. The town was ransacked by the Turks in 1488, as they took cotton and cloth besides capturing some 80 persons. This indicates that at least on one occasion the Castle was unable to offer much protection to its suburb.

By 1500 the situation had not changed much. From the lists of signatories to an ecclesiastical petition, G. Wettinger (Birgu – A Maltese Maritime City, P59) concludes that – ‘Birgu was (then) purely a humdrum commercial, maritime and perhaps fishing centre without any particular, prestigious, social connotations’. However he does identify a few craftsmen or artisans that formed the nucleus of an emerging industrial working class.

The general lack of any building planning in the area is first reflected in a 1515 proclamation directing that all building sites from the St Lawrence church to Bormla and to St Nicholas, and from St Nicholas to and along the quay, had to leave a passage wide enough so as to allow two loaded donkeys to pass each other. Later, a 1523 proclamation directed that buildings on the seashore had to leave a gap after every two houses for the common benefit of the Borgo.

In 1522 Jean Quintin noted that the suburb’s focal point was not the church but a clock tower in the Main Square towards which all streets converged. He also described many of the dwelling places as being small, partly single-storied, and partly dug in rocks. They were also in a state of utter poverty, neglected, dilapidated, and falling apart. Most of the houses, which he referred to as ‘African huts’, had unfinished or crumbling walls built out of a combination of ashlar and rubble, and were covered with either mud tiles or reeds.

In 1530, on the eve of the landing of the Knights of St John, Quintin again describes Birgu as a wretched vicus or hamlet, with some of its inhabitants still dwelling in caves. However, on the other hand, he did note a number of transactions involving temporary mortgage of property, as well as a number of partnership deeds intended to participate in or to finance trading operations. This indicated the emergence of a thriving commercial bourgeoisie dealing in trading and financial activities.

However Birgu’s first proper breakthrough in its social and economic way of life had to wait for the arrival of the Knights.
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