Fort Saint Elmo, named after the patron saint of mariners, is a star-shaped medieval Fort in Valletta, Malta’s capital city. The bastioned structure stands on the peninsula between Marsamxett Harbour and the Grand Harbour, known as the Sciberras Peninsula, and commands the entrances to both.
The first structure to be built in that location was an unassuming watchtower, erected by the Aragonese on Saint Elmo Point in 1488. Its strategic location and the Ottoman threat, made it plain that it needed to be rebuilt and reinforced. This is what the Knights of the Order of Saint John did during the 1530s, in order to provide a protective defence for the two harbours. In 1551, an Ottoman raid occurred, after which it was decided that a major expansion of the Fort was needed. In 1552, the original tower was demolished, and a new star-shaped fort started to be built in its place.
In 1565, when the Ottomans invaded Malta during what became to be known as the Great Siege, Fort Saint Elmo took the brunt of a lot of intense fighting and withstood massive bombardments from the Turks. After the siege, Grandmaster La Vallette gave the order to build the city of Valletta, as well as re-build the now-ruined Fort Saint Elmo, which was thereby integrated within the city walls. During the 17th and 18th centuries, further modifications occurred. The building of the original Fort, sometimes known as Upper Saint Elmo, consists of two demi-bastions, two flanks, a parade ground, barracks, and a large raised platform, which was used by soldiers to fire over the main parapet. The bastion also includes a storage space, or magazine.
During British rule during the 19th century, these once again modified the Fort, adding a musketry parapet, as well as converting the magazine into an armoury. The Fort is known to be the location at the centre of the first aerial bombardment in Malta, which took place in June 1940. In July 1940, an MT boat hit Saint Elmo Bridge, which linked the peninsula to the breakwater, during a seaborne attack. The bridge collapsed and was never restored until 2012, when a new one was built with a similar, but more modern design.
The fort’s military history came to an end in March 1972, when the Royal Malta Artillery left. As of 2009, there were major restoration works on the fort, which was seriously damaged due to lack of maintenance, natural aging, and exposure to the elements. The restoration of the building was completed in 2015.
Fort Saint Elmo houses the National War Museum, which contains military equipment and other things related to World War I and World War II. Of particular interest is the silver chalice, reputed to have belonged to Herman Göring, an important leader of the Nazi party, during the Second World War. This was donated by Mr Joseph Said, the former Chairman of Heritage Malta. The museum also contains displays of medieval armour, as well as two halls dedicated to the Inter-War Period, and to Malta’s historical role during the Second World War, where the famous George Cross, Malta’s award for gallantry, which is displayed on our National Flag, can also be admired.
Apart from being used to house the War Museum, other parts of the Fort are currently in use hosting various cultural activities. Every Sunday, historical re-enactment groups organise the events known as In Guardia and Alarme, which are military re-enactments. Fort Saint Elmo was also used as a filming location for the 1978 movie ‘Midnight Express’. Guided tours and educational seminars are often organised within its walls, as well as artistic lectures and workshops. All of this aids in keeping Fort Saint Elmo a dynamic cultural and historic centre.
This month, Fort Saint Elmo will be hosting an Artisans’ Market on Sunday 18th September. Entrance will be free. The event will commence at 8.00am and terminate at 6.00pm.