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Report 2012: Five Days in Malta

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 18 of 24: Rabat - Catacombs

photo by MAW

St Paul's Catacombs - Agape table and tombs

St Paul’s Catacombs are the largest, most impressive and most accessible of the catacombs in Rabat and attract the tour groups. Plan your visit to avoid these as there is little space in the underground passageways. Photography is allowed in the catacombs but no flash.

They are made up of a labyrinth of narrow passages and stairs dating from 3rdC. They contain over one thousand burials with the last shortly before Arab rule in the 9thC. There is a variety of different tomb styles from small children’s recesses dug in the wall to grand canopied sarcophagi. There were professional grave diggers who also acted as guides directing mourners.

After death, the body was treated with oils and perfumes, shrouded and placed directly in the tomb. The head rested in a round shape carved out of the stone. Many tombs were designed for two but were often reused and more bodies added later. After the interment or on the anniversary of the burial, family and friends would gather in the catacomb for a funerary meal at an agape table cut specially from the rock. This had a raised rim with a drainage hole and was usually surrounded by rock cut benches.

The catacombs were partially lit by luminaria, shafts cut through to the surface which let in natural light, as well as small niches which would contain oil burning lamps.

The ticket office has a small museum with examples of oil lamps found in the catacombs and a paleo-Christian inscription “Fufica Galena and Curtius Diadoumenos husband and wife erected this tomb for the well deserving Valeria.”

The entry charge includes an audio guide to the catacombs where there are a series of talking posts. This is well worth following as it gives lot of information. The visitor area of the catacombs is well lit and access restricted to these areas. Outside is an enclosed garden area with stone buildings looking a bit like small Roman Temples with steps down into the catacombs. There are 28 different entrances, each with a number above the doorway. There were both private and public catacombs in this area. The tour takes you into two different areas.

The first (number 4) has an entrance passage with hypogea off it. We could see further rooms off these. Each has agape table. In the corridor is a blocking stone or ‘plug door’ used to block the entrance to a tomb. It was a very tight fit and would be sealed with mixture of lime and crushed pottery. At the end of the passageway is a blocking stone with surgical instruments carved on it.

Entrance 5 is in a much larger and splendid building. A steep flight of steps leads down from the entrance with small tombs for children carved in the walls beside steps. The main chamber has a series of passageways off it. When the catacombs fell into disuse in the 8/9thC, this area was used as a cave church until 13thC.

There is a walkway round the area with numbered posts for use with the audiotape explaining the different types of tombs, burial procedures etc. This is a huge rabbit warren of a place. Every available space was used. We could see lines of tombs; some single, some double. Some were carved out of the walls; others in huge carved sarcophagi in the floor. When they ran out of space, bodies were buried in the floor of the passageways and it is possible to see the depressions left by these graves. This was a very well worth while visit.

St Agatha’s Catacombs are a short walk away, signed down a side street. St Agatha was a Sicilian Christian who fled to Malta to escape persecution. She spent some time living in a natural cave before returning to Sicily where she was arrested, tortured and died. The cave was enlarged in 4th or 5thC and an underground basilica created. In the 16thC a church was built above the underground basilica which was enlarged to form a crypt.

The crypt and catacombs can only be visited as part of a 20min guided tour and no photography is allowed. There were about 20 on our tour which was too many for comfort. The next tour looked a lot quieter.

Steps lead down from the courtyard into the crypt. There are two adjoining chapels. The further one is the larger and has a small free standing altar with a statue of St Agatha. This is a fiberglass replica as the original is in museum. The walls are covered with frescoes. The oldest dating from the 13thC by the door, are in the Byzantine style, and of St Paul and the Madonna. The rest of the frescoes are 14th and 15thC, mainly of St Agatha. They are beautiful paintings mainly in shades of golds, reds and blues. Michael’s camera finger was twitching. Unfortunately the Turks defaced the paintings during attacks in 1551.

The tour then moves into the catacombs dating from second and third centuries. These are a network of long low passageways with tombs on either side, some still with skeletons and remains of their stone cover. There are a couple of Agape tables. We were taken to the site of an underground chapel with the remains of carved stones round the walls and a small apse with a painting of two birds and flowers.

We didn’t bother with the small museum in the building above the ticket office.

This is worth doing for the crypt. For catacombs, St Paul’s is the better place to visit.

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