St Paul's Catacombs

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St Paul’s Catacombs View map

Roman law prohibited burials within the city. That is why St Paul’s Catacombs are located on the outskirts of the old Roman capital Melite (today’s Mdina). Serving as a burial ground from Punic and Roman times, the site represents the earliest and largest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta.

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Roman law prohibited burials within the city. That is why St Paul’s Catacombs are located on the outskirts of the old Roman capital Melite (today’s Mdina). Serving as a burial ground from Punic and Roman times, the site represents the earliest and largest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta. Its association to the saint derives from the myth that this cluster of catacombs was once connected with St Paul’s Grotto.

The catacombs form a typical complex of interconnected underground Roman cemeteries that were in use up to the 7th, and possibly the 8th centuries AD. They are located in the zone of Ħal Bajjada in Rabat, which at times is also known as Tad-Dlam. The area is littered with more than 30 hypogea, of which the main complex, situated within the St Paul’s cluster, comprises an intricate system of interconnected passages and tombs that cover an area of well over 2000 square metres.

The entrance to the main complex of St Paul’s Catacombs leads to two considerably large halls, adorned with pillars made to resemble Doric columns, and painted plasters most of which have now disappeared. On keeping with what seems to have been a norm in most Christian catacombs, these main halls are equipped with two circular tables set in a low platform with sloping sides which resemble the reclining couch (triclinium) present in Roman houses. Hewn out in one piece from the living rock, these triclinia, or Agape tables, were probably used to host commemorative meals during the annual festival of the dead, when burial rites were renewed.

The complex was perhaps abandoned, and to some extent despoiled, during the Saracenic period, when burial customs changed dramatically to suit the practices of the new conquerors. Part of the catacombs were reutilised during the re-Christianisation of the Island, around the 13th century, when an open space was re-cut and used as a Christian shrine decorated with murals.

Eventually, the catacombs were abandoned and the site fell in disrepair. The main entrance was blocked off but access was still possible through an independent hypogeum in Djar Ħanżira (now Catacombs Alley). Possibly, it was from here that G.F. Abela accessed the site which he described in his book Della descrittione di Malta. The site was cleared and investigated in 1894 by Dr A.A. Caruana, the pioneer of Christian era archaeology in Malta.

Although much smaller when compared to the catacombs of Rome and other large Roman centres, the catacombs of St Paul are a good example of the Maltese underground architecture which is the result of an indigenous development that was barely influenced by overseas traditions.

Other Heritage Malta sites in the vicinity: Domvs Romana and the National Museum of Natural History

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