Past, present and future of the St. Paul's catacombs

St. Paul’s Catacombs

Conformation, discoveries and conservation of the earliest and largest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta

The Catacombs
St.Paul’s Catacombs are a typical complex of underground, sometimes interconnecting.

St.Paul’s Catacombs are a typical complex of underground, sometimes interconnecting, Late Roman cemeteries that were in use between the 4th and 8th centuries AD.

They are located outside the city wall of the old Roman capital of Melite (which included today’s Mdina and a large part of Rabat), since Roman law prohibited burials within the city.

This catacomb complex represents the earliest and largest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta.

The site was cleared and investigated in 1894 by Dr A.A. Caruana, one of the pioneers of archaeology in Malta.

Caruana was also responsible for the Government’s acquisition of the fields now known as St Paul’s West, which also include catacombs attributable to Jewish and Pagan rites.

Site
The St Paul’s Catacombs are situated in the zone of Ħal Bajjada in Rabat, in a number of fields known as Tad-Dlam (of the darkness). 

The site consists of two large areas called St Paul’s East and West, and are littered with more than 30 hypogea.

The main complex, situated within the St Paul’s East cluster, comprises a complex system of interconnected passages and tombs covering an area of well over 2000 sqr meters.

The cluster gets its name from the myth that it was once connected with St Paul’s Grotto, which was once also partly re-cut into a Palaeochristian hypogeum.

The origin of the main catacomb most probably started from a cluster of small tombs of the Punico-Roman type and hypogea which were eventually enlarged and joined organically to create the complex system of passages and tombs used in the late Roman period.

The focus of the main complex is the large hall that was the centre of activity for most of the various uses of the catacomb.

Part of the hall was possibly used in the 13th century as a shrine but the remaining section is much older.

It preserves two examples of the reclining tables, a well renowned and recurrent feature in Maltese Palaeochristian hypogea which was possibly used to conduct commemorative meals.

Doorways in the hall lead to numerous passages fanning out in different directions, all lined with a bewildering series of tombs.

Discoveries

The most imposing tomb inside the catacombs is the Baldacchino tomb with its stone-carved canopy resting on corner pilasters, sometimes bearing traces of lavish painted or carved decoration.

Unfortunately very little traces of the tomb decoration survives.

What remains is enough to give us a glimpse of the importance given to the final resting place by the communities living on the Island in the Late Roman and Palaeochristian times

Inscriptions were originally important as they were a means in which people could convey a message or simply decorate part of a tomb.

Today they are important as they give us invaluable information on the religions, tastes and, very rarely, intimate and personal details on the deceased.

Although apparently mundane incisions like this ship, also gives us insight on the person that carved it or was buried here. Was he a sailor, a ship owner or was he a Christian?

Before the complex catacombs were carved out in the bedrock, the area was occupied by an earlier cemetery.

This cemetery was used from at least the Punic period (from around the 4th century BC) all the way through the Roman period until the smaller tombs evolved into full catacombs in the 4th century AD.

These earlier tombs were often marked by stone grave markers, often similar to statue bases or intricately decorated pillars with architectural features mirroring those seen on the buildings of the time.

Funerary triclinia were a common feature in a Roman funeral as they were used for the refrigerium, a funerary meal held at the end of the funeral and on particular dates to commemorate the deceased.

What makes the tables in Maltese catacombs special is the fact that it is only in Malta that these tables are carved out of the living rock in particular areas of the underground chambers.

The refrigerium was one of the Pagan rituals also taken up by early Christians. This was transformed into the Agape, a meal of love that became an integral part of the early Eucharistic ritual until it was banished by the religious authorities.

Lamps were a necessity as they were the main means to create light within these underground chambers.

They were thus also used to symbolise light after death and were often placed in tombs.

North African Lamps, used primarily in the Late Roman period, are also important as their decorative schemes are often representative of particular religions. Some were, however, purely decorative.

Usage, Excavation and Conservation

The Maltese Islands are rich in Late Roman and Byzantine burial sites and the St Paul’s catacombs complex is perhaps the most representative and most extensive of the sites found so far.

Its importance is not solely connected to the fact that this catacomb is the largest complex ever to be found on the island.

It provides valuable information on the burial and the ritual practices of the earliest Christians on the Island from the 4th century A.D. onward.

Unlike other smaller hypogea in the area, and indeed around the island, the main complex was never completely lost.

Sections of the catacombs were at different periods used and reshaped to serve other purposes.

The complex was probably abandoned and to some extent despoiled during the early medieval period, when burial customs changed dramatically to suit the practices of the new conquerors.

Part of the catacombs were used again 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.

The catacombs were eventually abandoned and the site fell in disrepair.

On the 2nd January 1894 the first real clearing works of the site were started by A.A. Caruana, resulting in the compilation of detailed plans of the main complex of the catacombs.

Caruana’s clearing works made it clear that the site is much smaller than historians of the 17th century so fervently believed.

It is however the largest of over 25 Christian, Jewish and Pagan hypogea dug in the area, which was once an important burial ground just outside the walls of the ancient town of Melite.

Once the site was abandoned it was covered with soil and turned into fields and arable land. As Rabat grew in size, the entire site also became surrounded with private houses.

The site kept being used as an orchard until 2010, when archaeological works by Heritage Malta started to bring it back to light.

Following a decade of work, 20 out of the 25 catacombs were opened to the public on the 2nd of October, 2015.

The ERDF funded project undertaken by Heritage Malta comprises a new extended site including a visitor centre incorporating all amenities and interpretation facilities and a walkway which provides access around the site.

The project also incorporated a number of scientific studies, including archaeological research, environmental studies and ground penetrating radar scans and access to previously inaccessible areas and to a number of catacombs.
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As a result it was essential to construct new visitor facilities, 3D navigation through parts of the site and new interpretation of the site and its different phases.

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