The Marsa, as its Arabic name implies, was a sheltered inlet within the inner reaches of the Grand Harbour and so an attractive proposition to the Phoenician traders and subsequently the Roman seamen who much appreciated and therefore frequented this busy safe haven. Forming a basin where two valleys meet, the extensive marshes inland of the harbour shore became in medieval times a fief of the realm of Alfonso, king of Naples and Sicily.
As such, in 1440, the land was first passed on to the distinguished warrior Pietro Busco who then died without heirs. The Marsa lands were then granted to Giovanni De Nava in the year 1469. This honorable gentleman was the appointed Castellan who held hereditary possession of the castle Sant’ Angelo in the Grand Harbour, outside the jurisdiction of the Maltese authorities ensconced at Mdina. De Nava was also granted a title of nobility, becoming the first Barone della Marsa, a title doomed alas to extinction.
Then in that historic year 1530, the Grandmaster of the Knights of the Order of St. John, His Most Eminent Highness Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam, recently ousted from the Order’s headquarters in Rhodes, came to Malta to take possession of the island. He established himself at Sant’ Angelo, whilst also taking possession of the Marsa lands in lieu of a life pension to the owner.
Years later in July of 1551, the quiet of these same meadow plains was broken by the thunder of horses’ hooves as the valiant English knight Nicholas Upton led his Maltese horsemen into a fierce battle against the invading enemy forces landed from the Turkish galleys of the famed corsair Dragut. Although a resounding victory was to be had by the native army, it came at the highest cost to their illustrious leader who subsequently died of the many wounds he had taken.
After the passage of some fourteen years, on a hot Saturday in spring on the 19th of May of that momentous year 1565, it was another awesome sound that rose above the sweltering heat as tens of thousands of turbaned Ottoman troops from the mighty army of the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Scourge of Heaven, appeared on the horizon and advanced to make their camp on the Marsa grounds.
The beating of drums and the playing of fifes joined the bellowing of oxen and other beasts of burden as they strained to pull high-laden cartloads of supplies to their appointed place, urged on by the shouts and beatings of their drivers and scouts. What a spectacle must have greeted any who witnessed the grand scale of that frightful event.