In the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, on the small rocky island of Malta, deep beneath the ground, labyrinths of dark, narrow passageways lead to countless eerie openings carved in the stone walls and floor. Tombs. Dating back hundreds, even thousands of years, these systems of subterranean graveyards are silent witnesses of the funerary rites of ancient Romans, Byzantines, members of the local Jewish community, and early Christians. One such complex underground funerary monument is St Paul’s catacombs.
Located beneath the town of Rabat, St Paul’s catacombs are one of the two such complexes in Malta (the other being the nearby St Agatha’s) that are large and elaborate enough to be appropriately called the catacombs. Although underground funerary archaeological monuments are abundant in Malta, most are smaller structures than catacombs and are referred to as hypogea. Pointing to the importance of both St Paul’s and St Agatha’s catacombs, Anthony Bonanno writes:
History of St Paul’s Catacombs
Excavated in 1894, this subterranean burial complex is believed to have originated long before Christianity became a widespread religion in Malta, despite it bearing a Christian saint’s name (more on the name in the next post). In fact, Heritage Malta, the Maltese national agency for museums, conservation practice and cultural heritage, provides the following interesting story to the visitors of St Paul’s catacombs:
“Up to a few years ago, school children were taught that catacombs were places in which early Christians hid to escape the Roman persecutors. However, there is no evidence of Christianity in Malta before the 4th century AD and even less so for them being persecuted. Moreover, the location of catacombs was well known, making them not much of a hiding place.”Heritage Malta at the St Paul’s catacombs museum
The reason the location of the catacombs was well known must have been the simple fact that Malta was part of the Roman Empire until approximately the end of the 4th century AD, and the underground tombs here were also used for Roman burial needs. Later, from about the mid-6th century AD, Malta became part of the Byzantine empire, with Christianity establishing itself as a widespread faith. Therefore, St Paul’s catacombs contained resting places of people from various cultures representing this funerary site’s ancient history and gradual development.
As Bonanno notes, the structure of the catacombs we can see today, with an approximate area of 2000m2, must “have taken shape after a number of minor hypogea, some of which being enlarged Punico-Roman tombs adapted to the current needs, were linked together and extended further both horizontally and, to a limited extent, vertically to cater for the burial needs of late-Roman and Byzantine Melite [an ancient local city].”*
While taking its current shape and being adapted to the developing beliefs of the emerging Christian faith of the local community, two new design features were introduced. They are recognized today as the more frequent characteristics distinguishing the early Christian graves in these catacombs from the older rock-cut tombs: ‘headrests’ carved in the rock (reminding an impression of a head in a pillow) and double-spaced graves intended for two bodies side by side. Why this was done is, of course, speculation, but an interesting one:
With such a long, culturally rich history of serving as the underground burial site for generations of different people, it is easy to imagine how this vast system of dark corridors, tombs, and narrow openings became the topic of stories, legends, and myths. For example, until the excavation at the end of the 19th century, it was believed that St Paul’s catacombs were so extensive that the tunnels ran 15 miles (about 24 km) in all directions. However, according to Heritage Malta, “That would have meant that the St Paul’s catacombs extended below the whole island and well under the sea bed!” The biggest island of the Maltese archipelago is actually fairly small. It is only about 9 miles (14.5 km) wide and 17 miles (27 km) long.
What to Expect Next?
I visited St Paul’s catacombs in the first week of this year. It turned out to be a much more exciting experience than I had expected, so I decided to write a short series of articles about it. It will not be just about the catacombs, though. Rather, it will be about the things I learned there and researched later.
While I dedicated this first part of the series to exploring the history of St Paul’s catacombs in Malta, in the next week’s post, I will address the obvious question – why are they called St Paul’s? After all, this burial site is older than Christianity’s establishment in Malta and served the funerary needs of the local community’s various faiths.
This will lead us to further questions about burial rites and people’s changing perceptions of a proper burial, which can be linked to the shifting ways of preferred identification during and after life. But these will be topics for later posts in the series. So, stay tuned, and if you enjoyed this post, make sure to come by for the next week’s article.
*Anthony Bonanno “Malta: Phoenician, Punic and Roman” (2005)
All pictures are photos taken by the author of this post
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