As a small island in the Mediterranean, Malta is endowed with rich natural and cultural heritage. Fittingly, UNESCO has already recognised three places as official World Heritage Sites in Malta; however, the Maltese government would argue that at least twice that many more deserve this prestigious distinction. In 1998, it therefore nominated seven of them.
While UNESCO approval of these seven sites is still pending, their worth is certainly not negated by bureaucratic delays. In fact, their absence from the official list means that they have been kept just outside the UNESCO spotlight and perhaps a little farther off the tourist trail than the three recognised attractions: the capital city of Valletta, the fascinating rock-cut chambers of Hal Saflieni Hypogeum and the Megalithic temples of Malta have been on the list since 1980 and experienced heavy tourist traffic as a result.
Here are the seven additional sites that Malta thinks deserve an equal shot at UNESCO protection and a place in the sun:
The Coastal Cliffs
Whereas the three official World Heritage sites have been categorised as ‘cultural’ heritage, the coastal cliffs qualify as a piece of ‘natural’ heritage. Considered a characteristic feature of the region’s landscape, these staggeringly tall limestone precipices rise vertically from the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean. Severe and inaccessible, they provide an important refuge for a number of endangered Maltese floral and faunal species. Here, endemic species like lizards, crabs and moths flourish alongside human thrill-seekers indulging in climbing and abselling.
Just as ‘natural’ a heritage site is the Qawra/Dwejra area on the Maltese island of Gozo. It contains a wealth of geological history, rocky shorelines and diverse wildlife. What gives this area the “universal value” needed for UNESCO status is significance in ongoing ecological and biological processes, evolution and biogeography; the micro-evolutionary processes and development of communities of plants and animals; the exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance; and the significant natural habitats set aside for the conservation of biological diversity.
Also on the island of Gozo, Cittadella is an ancient hilltop village, the original settlement of which dates back to the Bronze Age. From this elevated vantage point, the earliest inhabitants could keep an eye on coastal waters and defend the island. Some of the most important Baroque architectural remnants in Cittadella are the cathedral, the prisons, the law courts and the old Bishop’s Palace. Concern about deposits in the vicinity that are being disturbed without prior scientific investigation help Cittadella also meet the criteria of a site of archaeological importance.
Knights’ Fortifications Around the Harbours of Malta
The island of Malta is located in a strategic position that has appealed to militaries throughout history. Defending the island has always been a top priority for its people. As a result, Malta contains one of the finest, most concentrated collections of military architecture in the world. In the 16th century, for example, the Hospitalier Knights began work on fortifying the Grand Harbour. They continued building ramparts at other strategic points, such as Birgu and L-Isla. Two hundred years of construction later, the Knights had erected a huge network of permanent fortifications, with the city of Valletta as a focal point.
Mdina (Citta’ Vecchia)
Mdina is the old capital of Malta, and well worth a visit for its Baroque architecture and deep, layered history. Thousands of visitors each year flock to Mdina to see the sights and find out why it is nicknamed the Silent City. Highlights of a Mdina tour include passing though the walled city’s majestic gate and up to the imposing bastions, which open to panoramic views overlooking almost all of the island.
Maltese Catacomb Complexes
Whereas much of Malta’s recognised cultural heritage dates back to medieval times, the republic’s network of catacombs traces its roots as far back as the Roman era of the 3rd to 7th centuries AD. The subterranean burial grounds are concentrated under the town of Rabat. Hewn out of live rock, they represent the co-mingling of religious traditions of the time; rites from Christianity, paganism and Judaism were all practiced within the walls of the catacombs.
Victoria Lines Fortifications
The width of Malta is divided naturally by a geographical barrier called the Great Fault. In the 18th century, the Knights of Malta were the first to use this natural trait to their advantage: they built a series of military entrenchments to protect against invasion from the northern side of the island. Over the next century, the defenses developed into a string of walls and fortresses, armed heavily with cannons and guns. By 1907, the so-called Victoria lines lost their military importance and were abandoned.