Malta’s coastal watch towers and their part in the fortifications

For centuries, the coastline of Malta has been dotted with lookout posts or watch towers that were built by the Knights of Malta during the 17th century.

These towers were manned nightly to watch the seaward approaches and to raise the alarm in the event of an imminent threat.

The positioning of these towers was planned as such so that one could see both neighbouring towers, which acted as an early warning system against invaders.

As soon as one tower spotted a suspicious event, a fire signal was started which was picked up by the neighbouring towers, in so doing carrying on the message.

A number of coastal towers were built during the reigns of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (1601 – 1622), Grand Master Paul Lascaris Castellar (1636 – 1657) and Grand Master Martin de Redin (1657 – 1660).

The aim was to strengthen Malta’s coastal guarding system.

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Wignacourt Towers

A total of seven towers were built under the order of Grand Master Fra Alof de Wignacourt, of which five remain today.

The Wignacourt towers, as they’re referred to, were not just watch towers but formed important strongpoints in the Knights’ tactical defence system for the Maltese islands, of which parts were vulnerable to attack from the coast.

These towers towers were the first to be built, and the Maltese watch tower grid was to be expanded by the Grand Master’s two successors.

The Wignacourt Towers:

  • Saint Lucian Tower – Marsaxlokk
  • Saint Thomas Tower – Marsaskala
  • Wignacourt Tower – St. Paul’s Bay
  • Saint Mary’s Tower – Comino (island)
  • Marsalforn Tower – Gozo (island) (demolished)
  • Santa Maria delle Grazie Tower – Xgħajra (demolished)

Watch tower overlooking Għajn Tuffieħa, Malta
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The Santa Marija watch tower in Comino (Wignacourt)

Lascaris Towers

Under the reign of Grand Master Juan de Lascaris-Castellar, seven towers were built in the period 1637 – 1640. As well as Wignacourt, Grand Master Lascaris paid for the building of these towers out of his own pocket, such was his dedication to fortifying Malta’s coastal defences.

With the exception of St. Agatha’s Tower in Mellieha (built in Wignacourt built), the Lascaris towers are smaller than Wignacourt’s and consisted of two storeys, a flat roof and a parapet.

On some of the Lascaris towers, a cannon was positioned.

The Lascaris Towers:

The watch tower at Dwejra, Gozo (Lascaris)

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De Redin Towers

When Grand Master Lascaris died aged 97, having ruled for 21 years, he was succeeded by Grand Master Marino de Redin, a Frenchman. He was a seasoned soldier and diplomat who was deeply concerned about the Island’s security and vulnerability to seaward attack.

Aware of the deficiencies of the existing system, de Redin devised a coast-guarding plan whose main features wee:

  • Each tower would be inter-visible and able to communicate with its neighbours by day or night
  • Each tower would be manned by 4 men on a daily 24-hour guard basis. The guardsmen would be equipped with a musket and paid a regular monthly salary
  • Each tower would be mounted with a small gun.

Grand Master de Redin built thirteen such towers at his own expense at key tactical sites in Malta, starting from Mellieħa in the North, eastwards to Żonqor, round to Bengħisa and ending near Zurrieq. The rugged Western coast was considered naturally inaccessible and needing no towers.

The cost of the thirteen towers amounted to 6,428 scudi or about €1,246 today, making the average cost of each tower about €96.

De Redin Towers:

  • Ghajn Hadid Tower – Ghajn Hadid cliffs near Mellieħa (ruins)
  • Għallis Tower – Naxxar
  • St. Mark’s Tower or Qalet Marku Tower – Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq
  • Madliena Tower – Madliena
  • Saint Julian’ s Tower – Sliema
  • Aħrax (White) Tower – near Armier Bay at the Northern most tip of Malta
  • Bengħisa Tower – near Birżebbuġa (demolished)
  • Xrobb l-Għaġin Tower – Marsaxlokk (ruins)
  • Triq il-Wiesgħa Tower – Żabbar
  • Delimara Tower (demolished)
  • Żonqor Tower (demolished)
  • Ħamrija Tower – close to Siġġiewi
  • Wardija Tower – between Zurrieq and Ħal Far

Unfortunately, the successor Grand Masters after de Redin did not share the enthusiasm for building new towers and by the late 17th century the watch towers had fallen into disrepair, but eventually did receive attention and were maintained for future generations (and rulers of the Maltese islands).

It is interesting to note that in many locations of the towers built in the 17th century, Medieval watch posts or towers existed previously. This could suggest that the towers built under Grand Masters Wignacourt, Lascaris and de Redin were intended to augment and fortify pre-existing coastal defences.

Visiting the towers

Although most towers are not accessible to the public, a few are opened at specific times by volunteers of the caretaking organisation called Din l-Art Ħelwa. When the towers are open to visitors, a flag is lifted on top of the tower, to signal this event. These are the regular opening hours of the towers that are under the protection of this organisation:

  • St. Paul’s Bay Tower (Wignacourt) – Open Monday ,  Wednesday to Friday and the first Sunday of the month from 10.00-13.00h
  • Santa Marija Tower, Comino  (Wignacourt) – Open from April to October on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10.30am to 3.00pm
  • St. Mark’s Tower, Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq (de Redin) – Open by appointment only
  • Għallis Tower, Salina (de Redin) – Open by appointment only
  • Dwejra Tower, Gozo (Lascaris) – Open all year from Monday to Friday from 09.00-15.00h and on Sundays from 12.00-17.00h
  • St. Agatha’s Tower, Mellieħa (Lascaris) – Open from Monday to Sunday from 10.00-13.00h.  Tuesdays open from 10.00 -16.00h

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