The Grand Harbour (Maltese: il-Port il-Kbir), also known as the Port of Valletta, is a natural harbour on the island of Malta. It has been substantially modified over the years with extensive docks, wharves, and fortifications.
The harbour mouth faces north east and is bounded to the north by Saint Elmo Point and further sheltered by an isolated breakwater and is bounded to the south by Ricasoli Point. Its north west shore is formed by the Sciberras peninsula, which is largely covered by the city of Valletta and its suburb Floriana. This peninsula also divides Grand Harbour from a second parallel natural harbour, Marsamxett Harbour. The main waterway of Grand Harbour continues inland almost to Marsa. The southeastern shore of the harbour is formed by a number of inlets and headlands, principally Rinella Creek, Kalkara Creek, Dockyard Creek, and French Creek, which are covered by Kalkara and the Three Cities: Cospicua, Vittoriosa, and Senglea. The harbour has been described as Malta's greatest geographic asset.
With its partner harbour of Marsamxett, Grand Harbour lies at the centre of gently rising ground. Development has grown up all around the twin harbours and up the slopes so that the whole bowl is effectively one large conurbation. Much of Malta's population lives within a three kilometer radius of Floriana. This is now one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. The harbours and the surrounding areas make up Malta's Northern and Southern Harbour Districts. Together, these districts contain 27 of 68 local councils. They have a population of 213,722 which make up over 47% of the total population of the Maltese islands.
The Maltese islands have a long history, mainly due to its strategic location and natural harbours, mainly the Grand Harbour as well as Marsamxett. The Grand Harbour has in fact been used since prehistoric times.
Megalithic remains have been found on the shores of the Grand Harbour. The Kordin Temples, the earliest of which date back to around 3700 BC, overlooked the harbour from Corradino Heights. Another megalithic structure possibly existed underwater off Fort Saint Angelo, but this can no longer be seen. Punic and Roman remains were also found on the shores of the harbour.
By the 12th and 13th centuries, the Castrum Maris had been built in what is now Birgu. It might have been built instead of ancient buildings, possibly Phoenician or Roman temples, or an Arab fortress.
The Grand Harbour was the base for the Order of Saint John for 268 years, from 1530 to 1798. They settled in the city of Birgu and improved its fortifications, including rebuilding the Castrum Maris as Fort Saint Angelo. In July 1551, Barbary corsairs and Ottoman forces raided Malta. They landed at Marsamxett and marched upon the Grand Harbour, but did not attack as they found the town of Birgu too well fortified to attack. Although this attempt was unsuccessful, the Ottoman force later managed to sack Gozo and conquer Tripoli within the same campaign. After the attack, Fort Saint Elmo and Fort Saint Michael were built to better protect the harbour in any future attacks. The city of Senglea was also founded soon afterwards.
Later on in the 1550s, a tornado struck the Grand Harbour, killing 600 people and destroying a shipping armada.
The area was the scene of much of the fighting in the Great Siege of Malta of 1565 when the Ottomans attempted to eject the Order of St John but were ultimately defeated. After the siege, the capital city of Valletta was built on the Sciberras peninsula on the north west shore of the harbour. Over the years, more fortifications and settlements were founded within the Grand Harbour, including Fort Ricasoli and the towns of Floriana and Cospicua.
During the French occupation of Malta, the harbour area was blockaded by Maltese rebels on land and the Royal Navy at sea. The French eventually capitulated in September 1800 and Malta became a British protectorate, later a colony. During the British colonial rule, the harbour became a strategic base for the Royal Navy and the base of the Mediterranean Fleet.
The whole area was savagely bombed during the Second Siege of Malta during World War II, as the docks and military installations around the port became targets for Axis bombers. However collateral damage wrecked much of Valletta and The Three Cities, and caused large numbers of civilian casualties.
Malta Dockyard is still active but with the departure of the British Military the harbour lost much of its military significance. A considerable part of Malta's commercial shipping is now handled by the new free port at Kalafrana, so the harbour is much quieter than it was in the first half of the 20th century.
The Grand Harbour, the backdrop to Malta's history, is set to experience a regeneration as in September 2007, the Maltese Government unveiled 20 proposed projects that would revamp the area while respecting its historic value.
The 20 proposals are these:
Fort Saint Angelo
Fort Saint Elmo
St. Elmo Bridge