The mysterious golden-stone Arabic walled city of Mdina crowns the hilltop, and is a world apart from modern Malta. Its hidden lanes offer exquisite architectural detail and respite from the day-tripping crowds, who largely stick to the main street.
The citadel of Mdina was fortified from as long ago as 1000 BC when the Phoenicians built a protective wall and called their settlement Malet, meaning ‘place of shelter’. The Romans built a large town here and called it Melita. It was given its present name when the Arabs arrived in the 9th century – medina is Arabic for ‘walled city’. They built strong walls and dug a deep moat between Mdina and its surrounding suburbs (rabat in Arabic). The moat has recently been landscaped to become a garden with surreally neat lawns, a pleasant place for a stroll and a venue for regular festivals.
In medieval times Mdina was called Cittá Notabile – the Noble City. It was the favoured residence of the Maltese aristocracy and the seat of the universitá (governing council). The Knights of St John, who were largely a sea-based force, made Grand Harbour and Valletta their centre of activity, and Mdina sank into the background as a holiday destination for the nobility. Today, with its massive walls and peaceful, shady streets, it is often referred to as the Silent City, a nickname that becomes appropriate after dark.