Malta catacombs

Go Underground In Malta’s Astonishing Collection of Catacombs and Tombs

Written by Albert Fenech
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As a young six or seven-year-old boy in Malta, I remember seeing pictures of Hindu funeral bier cremations and shuddering at the thought of a human body being burnt after death. It seemed highly barbaric. Little did I realise that 5,000 years ago my Maltese forbearers had a similar cremation process. Mainly carried out underground in stone-hewn catacombs, the burial process involved a considerable number of rites and practices, and evidence of these rituals have been found throughout the Islands.

Though you might be planning a holiday in Malta for its sparkling blue sea and pervasive sunshine, a dive into these underground worlds will not disappoint.

Here’s what not to miss.

Malta Catacombs

St Paul’s Catacombs cover an area of more that 2000 square metres (Photo by Hnapel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

St Paul’s Catacombs and St Augstine Catacombs

Many Roman remains centre around the old Maltese capital city Mdina, which they named ‘Melite’ (thought to have originated from the Greek word for honey), but later renamed Mdina by the Arabs after their own city of Medina today in Saudi Arabia.

On the outskirts of the city are two complex burial chambers and catacombs: St Paul’s Catacombs and St Augustine Catacombs, both of which offer a fascinating glimpse into the burial rituals of early Christians in Malta.

St Augustine’s Catacombs originally formed part of the vast cemetery that sprawled outside Melite’s walls. Today’s entrance leads to a set of three small chambers, which feature a number of baldacchino tombs and triclinia. These catacombs were also used for shelter during WWII.

The vast St Paul’s Catacombs cover an area of more than 2000 m2  and date back to the 3rd century BC. It is believed they were in use up until the 7th century AD and contain around 30 hypogea, or tombs.

The catacombs also show evidence that Christians, Muslims, Pagans, and Jews were buried together.

Malta Catacombs

Domus Romana is now a museum  (Photo by Sudika – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

St Agatha’s and St Cataldus Catacombs 

While in Mdina and Rabat be sure to check out St. Agatha’s crypt and catacombs, a natural cave underneath the small Roman Catholic church of the same name in Rabat.

St Cataldus Catacombs, often overshadowed by Malta’s more well-known catacombs. is notable for the agape table, a platform hewn from rock and used for early Christian funerary rituals and meals.

While visiting the beautiful cities of Mdina and Rabat, be sure to take a look at Domus Romana, a lavish villa accidentally discovered in 1881, and containing floor mosaics and marble statues, some depicting the reigning imperial family. It’s now a museum and home to the only set of marble statues portraying Emperor Claudius and his family. Also on display are an extensive collection of coins, Roman glassware, jewellery, perfume bottles, weaving bobbins, tableware, and terracotta theatrical masks, all dating from the Roman period on Malta.

 

Malta catacombs

Mdina was once Malta’s capital city (Photo by Nancy Cachia – CC BY-SA 4.0)

Reenacting Funeral Rituals and the Agape

Some years ago, Heritage Malta commemorated the lengthy and elaborate funeral rituals during Roman times, and staged a reenactment, called Mortem, inspired by the nine-day ancient Roman festival Parentalia which occurred from the 13th to the 21st of February in honour of the ancestors and the departed.

These rituals were explained in detail by the St Paul’s Catacombs Curator, David Cardona who estimated that over 10,000 people had been buried in these catacombs.

The lengthy ritual saw a person making a eulogy speech, followed by musicians, then paid wailers who cried and wailed in anguish over the body. A mimer also imitated the life form and achievements of the deceased, followed by enslaved people who had been released from slavery as an act of benevolence following the person’s death.Others carried funeral masks and bringing up the rear would be the funeral bier bearing the body of the deceased, which was surrounded by family and relatives.

A funeral meal was held on the day of the funeral, as well as on the following nine days. During these celebrations, Romans and early Christians renewed funerary rites and hosted commemorative meals known as the refrigerium or agape. The meal was held on tables carved out of stone in the catacombs. Cardona said these tables are unique in Malta and don’t exist anywhere else in the Mediterranean region.

Not all catacombs in Malta are publicly accessible, but those that are shed insight into the burial rites of Roman times.

For more info about visiting Malta’s extensive and astonishing catacombs and other Roman remains, go to HeritageMalta.com and VisitMalta.com

 

Malta

St Agatha’s Church in Rabat  (photo Bby Nenea hartia – CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

***

BeSeeingYou In: Malta’s astonishing underground

Good To Know: There are hundreds of catacombs in Malta, principally found in and around Mdina, the former capital city

WOW! Factor: They go back 5,000 years

Tip: Book visits in advance here

 

Author bio: Albert Fenech

Find more travel inspiration at BeSeeingYou

Albert Fenech
Born in 1946, Albert Fenech’s family took up UK residence in 1954 where he spent his boyhood and youth before temporarily returning to Malta between 1957 and 1959 and then coming back to Malta permanently in 1965. He spent eight years as a full-time journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking up a career in HR Management and Administration with a leading construction company building the Benghazi Hospital in Libya, later with Malta Insurance Brokers, Malta’s leading insurance Broker and finally STMicroelectronics Malta, employing 3,000 employees and Malta’s leading industrial manufacturer. Throughout he actively pursued freelance journalism and broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel. He was Publications Editor for the Malta Football Association for 25 years and has written for a number of publications both in Malta and overseas, as well as publishing two e-books.

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