For centuries it's been said that the crusading Knights of Malta constructed an underground city on the Mediterranean island of Malta, sparking rumors of secret carriageways and military labyrinths. Now a tunnel network has been uncovered beneath the historic heart of the Maltese capital of Valletta, researchers say. But the tunnels—likely from an ahead-of-its-time water system—may render previous theories all wet.
The newfound tunnels are said to date back to the 16th and early 17th centuries, when the knights—one of the major Christian military orders of the 11th- to 13th-century Crusades—fortified Valletta against Muslim attack.
The tunnels were uncovered on February 24 during an archaeological survey of the city's Palace Square in advance of an underground-garage project.
"A lot of people say there are passages and a whole new city underground," said survey leader Claude Borg of the Valletta Rehabilitation Project. "But where are these underground tunnels? Do they exist?
"We've now found some of them, at least."
First Sign of Subterranean Valletta
Experts think the newly revealed tunnels—though tall enough to allow human passage—formed part of an extensive water system used to pipe vital supplies to the city.
The tunnels were found beneath Palace Square, opposite the Grandmaster's Palace. Once home to the leader of the Knights of Malta, the palace today houses Malta's legislature and the office of the Maltese president.
First, workers found what's believed to have been an underground reservoir just under the paving stones of Palace Square.
Near the bottom of the reservoir, some 40 feet (12 meters) down, they discovered a large opening in a reservoir wall—the entrance to a tunnel, which runs half the length of the square and connects to channels, some of which lead toward the palace.
Efforts to follow these branches have so far failed, as they were blocked off at some later date, Borg said.
Restoration architect Edward Said, of the Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna (Malta Heritage Trust), describes the discovery as "just the tip of the iceberg." Said suspects the tunnels formed part of a state-of-the-art plumbing system, complete with ancient passageways for access and maintenance.
Thousand-Year-Old Fighting Force
Also known as the Knights Hospitaller and the Order of St. John, the Knights of Malta, established in 1099, gained a formidable military reputation as enemies of Muslims during the Crusades, a series of Christian military campaigns that originally had the goal of capturing Jerusalem.
In 1530 Holy Roman Emperor Charles V offered the knights the island of Malta for the princely sum of one falcon a year.
The Christian order, though vastly outnumbered by Ottoman Turks, triumphed in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.
The experience, though, inspired them to found the fortress city of Valletta on a high peninsula that was secure but lacking in natural water sources.
Water security was a major priority during the city's construction, the goal being to maintain the supply even during future sieges, according to Said.
"They soon realized that the rainwater and the wells they had were just not enough," he said.
Water was therefore transported to the city from valleys to the west via an aqueduct, the remains of which still stand.
The Palace Square location of the newfound tunnels supports the idea that the network was intended for water, the team said.
The tunnel apparently fed a grand fountain in Palace Square via the underground reservoir. The fountain was later moved when the British ruled the island, from 1814 to 1964.
"This fountain marked the very important achievement of getting water to the city," survey leader Borg said.
Centuries-old lead pipes and metal valves for operating the fountain have been found, according to Said. The tunnel's connecting branches may have included service passages used by the Knights' chief hydraulic engineer, or fontaniere.
"Together with his team, [the fontaniere] was in charge of monitoring and maintaining the fountains and conduits," Said added. "They were also responsible for switching off the fountains at night."
Knights of Sanitation
Other rumors of underground Valletta include a secret carriageway from the city to the palace of the Roman Catholic inquisitor—charged with rooting out heretics—under Valletta's harbor.
Such tales of secret military passages have more solid foundations, according to Said, since underground passages do run beneath the battlements protecting Valletta's landfront.
But Said suspects many of the subterranean legends spring from water-supply and drainage tunnels.
Valletta was hit by plague in the 17th century, when the 1340s Black Death epidemic still loomed in people's minds, he said.
"They wanted to make sure this problem never happened again," Said added.
In fact, the city's plumbing system was highly advanced for the 16th and 17th centuries, he noted.
The Knights of Malta Today
In 1798 Napoleon banished the knights from Malta. Today, based in Rome but still called the Order of Malta, they are involved mainly in humanitarian enterprises.
Still, this month the Maltese government announced that, following the discoveries, the underground-garage plan has been shelved.
A new fountain, based on the original, is slated for the square, and Said is hopeful that the secret tunnels will eventually be opened to the public—one more reminder of the knights that still bear the island's name.