Advert

Comino Tower turns 400, and still going strong

Members of the Historical Re-Enactment Group gave a glimpse of life at Comino Tower over the years during a recent open weekend organised by Din l-Art Ħelwa.

Members of the Historical Re-Enactment Group gave a glimpse of life at Comino Tower over the years during a recent open weekend organised by Din l-Art Ħelwa.

While crossing to Malta or Gozo by ferry or boat, one cannot but admire the imposing watchtower overlooking the channels.

Din l-Art Ħelwa volunteer and Comino Tower warden Joseph Attard.Din l-Art Ħelwa volunteer and Comino Tower warden Joseph Attard.

Standing tall close to the cliff’s edge, St Mary’s Tower – more commonly known as Comino Tower – has been guarding the islands for 400 years. It was one of six towers built by Grandmaster Alof de Wignacourt in the 17th century to serve as a defence and communication link between the Citadel in Gozo and Mdina.

At the time, corsairs often raided the coasts. However, there are no accounts that the bastioned tower was involved in fierce battles or attacks, says Din l-Art Ħelwa volunteer and tower warden Joseph Attard.

Over the years, the site had different functions, including that of a prison, an isolation hospital, a wintering pen for farm animals and even served as a film set. Nowadays, it is perhaps Comino’s most popular attraction, after the Blue Lagoon.

The tower is a large, square structure with four turrets, located 80 metres above sea level. It is 12 metres tall and stands on a plinth some eight metres high.

According to Mr Attard, one of the most interesting features of the tower is that it has very thick walls, about six metres deep, making it look big from the outside but actually much smaller on the inside.

However, he says that the best thing about the tower is “that it has fantastic views of both channels and the Blue Lagoon”.

DLĦ is, in fact, nowadays not just promoting the tower for its historical aspects.

“We are also working to promote the tower as an important building in the centre of the biggest Natura 2000 site we have in the Maltese islands,” says Mr Attard.

“Many Maltese and schoolchildren have yet to discover this gem.”

DLĦ took over the restoration of the tower in 2000, after decades of neglect.

“It was close to collapsing,” Mr Attard points out.

The restoration was carried out in two phases – external and internal – and most of it involved traditional masonry works which saw the replacement of deteriorated and missing stones with new ones.

 “The project was the biggest ever undertaken by a local NGO and logistically had many difficult challenges,” Mr Attard said.

Vodafone Foundation and Malta Maritime Authority were the main sponsors. The works finished in 2005 and a guardianship agreement was signed with DLĦ. The same agreement was renewed in 2014.

The tower, however, needs constant upkeeping but Mr Attard, a retired school administrator from Mellieħa, has been travelling to and from his ‘workplace’ for the past 10 years. He describes his job as very rewarding.

“I feel proud to be caring for one of the most significantly important buildings in the islands, more so doing it voluntarily,” he says.

“I cannot describe why I do it… but voluntary work gives back a lot of satisfaction. It has also been a very enriching experience as I have met people from all walks of life.”

The Comino Tower is open to visitors from April to October on most days of the week.

“It all depends on the number of volunteers available,” Mr Attard adds. “At the moment, we are 15, the majority of them from Gozo, and managing a four-day a week roster. We are open on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

The tower gets an average of 80 visitors a day but, Mr Attard says, very few are Maltese.

In a bid to attract more locals and celebrate the tower’s 400th anniversary, Din l-Art Ħelwa recently organised an open weekend earlier. Volunteers were on site to answer visitors’ questions and members of the Historical Re-enactment Group Malta gave a glimpse of the activity at the fort along the centuries.

The Historical Re-Enactment Group members together with Din l-Art Ħelwa volunteers.The Historical Re-Enactment Group members together with Din l-Art Ħelwa volunteers.

The tower’s history

■ The tower was built by Grandmaster Alof de Wignacourt in 1618. It formed part of the early system of towers which the Order set up to facilitate defence and communication between the Citadel in Gozo and Mdina.

■ It is said that funds for the tower were raised by means of the sale of Comino brushwood, which was used by bakers at the time to start their fires. The brushwood is the dried plant of the wild artichoke or white thistle, in Maltese, called qaqoċċ selvaġġ or xewk abjad.

■ Records show that the total cost was around 18,628 scudi. The scudo was the currency of the Order of the Knights of St John. According to Wikipedia, in 2011, one scudo was the equivalent of €4.35.

■ The tower’s architect is unknown. There are claims that it was engineer Vittorio Cassar. However, research shows that Cassar was dead when the tower was built.

■ The tower served different purposes over the years.

■ During the French blockade of 1798-1800, the tower served as a prison by the Maltese insurgents and their British allies for suspected spies or French sympathisers.

■ During the British period, the tower was important for the protection of the anchorage and communications between Gozo and Malta, together with Fort St Agatha (the Red Tower) in Mellieħa and Fort Chambray in Gozo.  

■ During World War I, the tower was used as an internment camp for German prisoners of war.

■ After the 1980s, the tower was used by the Armed Forces of Malta as a look-out and staging post to guard against contraband and the illegal hunting of migratory birds at sea.

■ The tower posed as Chateau d’Iff in the 2002 film The Count of Monte Cristo, starring Jim Caviezel.

The coat of arms of Grandmaster Alof de Wignacourt.The coat of arms of Grandmaster Alof de Wignacourt.

Comments not loading? We recommend using Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox with javascript turned on.
Comments powered by Disqus  
Advert
Advert