The three fortified towns, Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua also known as THE COTTONERA takes their name from Grand Master Cottoner (1663-1680) who commissioned, at his own expense, the extensive lines of these fortifications of what is also known as the Three Cities. The latter name was a term used during the French Occupation (1798-1800) when Napoleon decreed that Malta should be divided into a number of administrative units.
The Cottonera lines begin at the Kalkara creek and proceed westward in a semicircular curve up to the French Creek, presently, Malta Drydocks. The fortified arch, some 3km in circumference, is made up of eight bastions and two demi bastions joined to each other by massive curtain walls, which are pierced by five gates. The central one, known as Zabbar Gate, is a huge monumental gateway adorned with the bust of the Grand Master with a Latin inscription commemorating its construction in 1675.
The fortifications, on the other hand, were started in 1670. The area would have held some 40,000 refugees including their livestock should a siege or invasion was forthcoming. It took more than 100 years to build the existing works and to this day they are not entirely completed. Together with Valletta's fortifications, the Cottonera can be classed as formidable and unique in the whole of Europe.
These small cities who also go by the names of Bormla, L-Isla and Birgu, have withstood the onslaught of two sieges; that one of the Turks in 1565 and the one of the Axis Powers in 1941.
The oldest of the three is Vittoriosa (Birgu). In 1530, The order of St. John established its Headquarters in what was still a small village known as Borgo del Castello. The Knights who were aware of the imminent strikes by the Turks began to strengthen forts fortifications particularly those of Fort St. Angelo.
In May 1565 the Turks invaded Malta with a force of 40,000 men, this was the start of a siege that lasted over three months. Fort St. Angelo was made the headquarters of the Knights by Grand Master La Vallette who directed the operations. The Turks abandoned their plan having suffered great losses and since Birgu was never captured it was given the title of Vittoriosa, the victorious one, in recognition of its stubborn resistance to the siege.
During the Second World War, Birgu, like other places around Grand Harbour, was submitted to an alarming increase of air attacks. More than 60% of its buildings were wiped out. Famous buildings within Birgu include the Sacra Infermeria, now converted to a convent of cloistered nuns; the Inquisitor's Palace, the Maritime Museum and also the famous Fort St. Angelo.
The small city of Senglea stands on the narrow promontory, which protrudes into Grand Harbour between two creeks. L Isla, as preferred by the Maltese means 'The Island'. Fort St. Michael protected Senglea on its landward side with Fort St. Angelo on its eastern flank. The Unconquered City, during the 1565 siege was given the title of CITTA INVICTA by Grand Master La Vallette. Built in 1743 and nearly destroyed during the Second World War, the Collegiate Church of Our Lady of Victories houses the statue of the Bambina, which represents the nativity of Our Lady. The feast falls on September 8 which also happens to be the date when the Turks were defeated in 1565 whilst on the same date in 1943, it was the turn of the Italians to surrender to the Allied forces. No wonder then that this date is attributed by many as victorious because of the intercession of Our Lady; hence the feast is widely known as II-Vittorja; the Victory. Some 75% of Senglea's buildings were destroyed during the war however it rose again and now houses some 4,000 inhabitants. A superb view of the Grand Harbour can be admired from Safe Haven Garden where the well-known vedette, can be accessed. The sculptured figures of the eye and ear on the window lintels are the symbol of vigilance.
Cospicua, which is the largest of the three, earned its name because of its conspicuous role in the 1565 siege. Most of its shoreline is taken by Malta's largest industrial enterprise, the Drydocks. The chief monumental building in this city is undoubtedly the church of the Immaculate Conception. It is not only rich in treasure but also an exquisite work of art.