I recently re-visited the catacombs of St Paul. The last time I was in this underground necropolis I was just a child. Visiting the place as an adult felt vastly different. The tombs are empty but I could not help thinking about the lives of the people who had lain here. It’s easy to become morbid in a place like this so let’s move on to the historical facts.
The catacombs of St Paul are situated in the town of Rabat. In the past, when Melite (modern day Mdina) was much larger, this area would have been just outside the gates of the city. The catacombs in Malta were used solely for burial purposes since there is no record of any type of religious persecution during this era. These catacombs were the last resting place of Christians, pagans and Jews. St Paul’s catacombs were used up to the 4th century AD. The complex covers an area of 2000 square metres. One enters the catacombs by going down a flight of steep steps which lead into a main hall. This hall was used for the various activities associated with funerary rites.Two reclining tables, known as agape tables, were probably used for commemorative meals.
It is thought that in the 13th century this hall may have served as a shrine during the re-Christianising of the island. Doorways in the main hall lead to various passages, carved out from the limestone, which are lined with a numerous array of tombs.
Some of the tombs were closed up with blocking stones, some of which had carvings on them. This one is decorated with surgical tools of the time which suggests that it is the burial place of a surgeon and his family or, possibly, a group of surgeons.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these catacombs is the large number of tombs known as ‘luculus tombs’. These small tombs were the final resting place of children and babies and the large number that can be seen hewn in the rock is a poignant reminder of the high infant mortality rate that existed at the time.
In the past these catacombs were lit by oil lamps that were placed in small nooks in the passage-way walls. Vents in the ceiling provided fresh air and some light during the daylight.
At present, St Paul’s catacombs are being monitored for temperature and humidity levels. It is expected that full restoration of the catacombs will be complete by 2013.
The catacombs of St Paul are on UNESCO’s tentative World Heritage List. It is, indeed, important that sites such as this are studied and maintained for future generations. They not only provide us with a glimpse of the past but, on a human level, a link to our ancestors.
This link from Heritage Malta should enable you to see the catacombs in 360.
St Paul’s Catacombs
St Agatha Street