for National Geographic News
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.
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