The secrets of the citadel (1)

I love Gozo’s citadel: its vast solidity as a hilltop fortress reflects it impressive history of swords and scimitars, and yet, glowing soft yellow amber, with green-carpet views rolling away to the deep blue sea in every direction, it has a beauty and romance that might have been lifted directly from Scheherazade’s Arabian nights: it’s easy to imagine characters from Persian folklore flying through its twisty streets on a magic carpet.

I thought we’d explored every corner.

However last week we took a turn and found three huge hidden silos hewn into its monumental rock walls. These enormous tear-shaped flasks, more than two double-decker buses tall, were constructed in the early seventeenth century during the era of the Knights, to store grain for bread, the island’s staple food should the population be besieged by Ottoman raiders. They were used in this way for more than 200 years. Then, in 1877, the British repurposed these silos, as storage for the water from the Ghajn Luqin spring at Xaghra which was channelled across the Marsalforn valley and they were used as a city reservoir until 1980, storing 100 tonnes of water for not only to  Rabat/Victoria but also to villages including Gharb.

Whilst once these vast underground vessels were accessed from their tops, visitors can now stroll into and between them via narrow tunnels. Standing at the bottom of the cavernous red bell-shapes, deep in the medieval walls, the space echoes with an eerie beauty. You feel as if you are deep in the centre of the earth, or inside a giant medieval stone beast, the organic-red hue a reminder of how these silos  maintained the life of the citadel and the island beyond in years past.

Here too, below the 100 tonnes of water stored in the silos, the citadel’s walls also served as war shelters, the island’s residents and refugees from Malta seeking sanctuary from airborne attacks during the Second World War. One small series of rooms here were hollowed from the sides of an old passageway, the passage from which you can now reach the silos, between a golden courtyard and old bastion stocked with ancient iron cannons and panoramic views.

Outside, carved into the outer surface of these same walls, we paused to look at the nineteenth century graffiti, from dated initials to a ship progressing across the golden stone. I was particularly excited to find a horse too cantering beneath the midday sun, a handspan in length; and while he may be a local horse commemorating the annual horse race up Republic Street for the Santa Marija fest, standing in this extraordinary spot it’s seems more likely to me that we have found the enchanted horse ridden across the sky by the Prince of Persia, here in the heart of the Middle Sea.

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