Preserving the secret history of Valletta’s underworld

Beneath Valletta lies another universe, with a history just as rich and diverse as the capital city above it. Malta’s Planning Authority now seeks to preserve the legacy of Valletta’s underworld by capturing it as a 3D model, as Deputy Director for ICT, Mapping and Digital Services Joseph Gauci explains


The story of Valletta is one of intrigue, struggles and acts of sheer courage. Ever since its foundations were laid by the Knights of the Order of St John centuries ago, Valletta has stood on the front line of Malta’s most historic events, evolving into a contemporary capital city that seamlessly blends the present with the past.

Yet, this fascinating heritage is not only found above ground. Beneath Valletta’s surface, a vast network of subterranean structures still stands as testament to the city’s rich history.

“The extensive underground labyrinth below Valletta is a treasure of our past. Still in relatively good condition despite being constructed during the time of the Knights, the place has cleverly engineered water and drainage systems, passageways and roads connecting landmark palaces and other important buildings in Valletta. Tunnels also connect shelters that were constructed during World War II – some of which are only a few metres wide,” explains Joseph Gauci, Deputy Director for ICT, Mapping and Digital Services at the Planning Authority (PA). “These structures give us important insights into what life must have been like for people back then, so preserving them for future generations is paramount.”

To do so, the PA, in collaboration with Professor Saviour Formosa from the University of Malta, has embarked on a project that aims to create a 3D model of Valletta’s underworld to safeguard its legacy using innovative scanning software. The PA’s project’s team has sourced specialised equipment and software, including terrestrial data scanners, to gather and process the colossal amount of data and site photographs required to create an accurate model of this kind.

“It has been a steep learning curve, which has inspired the development of new techniques and a shift in the way we operate internally,” shares Mr Gauci. “Nevertheless, this is a hugely interesting project that will help us determine exactly what lies beneath our capital city – information that is valuable to so many authorities and organisations across Malta.”

Working with Heritage Malta, the team’s findings will also clearly indicate the extent of restoration required to conserve the subterranean structures. Likewise, the launch of the SIntegraM portal in late 2019 officialised the sharing of this data between relevant local authorities. Besides enabling a deeper understanding of Malta’s development capacity, such data sharing ensures that the sites are carefully reviewed when installing underground utility supplies, for example.

“The scan allows us to determine what exists below our feet and ensures preservation through planning,” continues Mr Gauci. “This seven-year project is led by the PA, so one of its primary goals is to strategise a way of collating data to bring together the stakeholders among Malta’s authorities. Through integration and cooperation, we can take a fresh look at how we process spatial data to work with Malta’s assets and boost people’s awareness of them.”

Scanning these subterranean structures has also been eye-opening for the project’s team. “I was born in Valletta, and it had always been my dream to learn more about what lay under my feet as I roamed the streets of our Capital,” remarks Steve Austin, a technical officer on the project. “When I first made the descent, I was in awe of the tunnels’ huge size and sheer number of WWII shelters. But I was most impressed by the large cisterns built by the Knights, in which we could even see roots hanging down from the ceiling, belonging to the trees in front of the Law Courts.”

Emanuel Pisani, also a technical officer on the project, had a similar experience, as he recalls. “To explore the hidden treasures and mysterious underground world of Valletta, my team and I used three entrances to access the labyrinth of lost tunnels leading to the huge cisterns. Despite the humidity, some tunnel shelters are still decorated with beautiful tiles and paintings revealing religious devotion. There are also graffiti, symbols and historical marks from enemies who attacked Malta at the time, a sign of the torment suffered. The experience has shown me that there is so much more to Valletta than what first meets the eye.”

Giving the public a way to also experience this subterranean network first-hand is another key driver of the project, Mr Gauci explains in conclusion. “Valletta’s underworld is a significant part of our cultural heritage, with enormous scope not just for tourism but also for education. Imagine a student seeing a 3D model of these sites instead of solely learning about them via text descriptions. Plus, those who can’t venture down to the tunnels in person, for whatever reason, will still be able to experience these structures through the model. We believe we’re making history come alive through our work, and we hope to inspire the continued study and celebration of Malta’s legacy for years to come.”

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