St. Paul’s Catacombs

Rabat, Malta

St. Paul’s Catacombs are some of the most prominent features of Malta’s paleochristian archaeology. The archaeological clearing of the site has revealed an extensive system of underground galleries and tombs dated from the fourth to the ninth centuries AD. Two catacombs are open to the public, but these are only a small part of the entire St. Paul's and St. Agatha’s complex.

St. Paul’s catacombs are part of a large cemetery once located outside the walls of the ancient Greek city of Melite, now covered by the smaller Mdina and Rabat. It also comprises the catacombs of Saint Agatha, San Katald, St. Augustine and many others. The cemetery probably originated in the Phoenician-Punic period. Like in Roman tradition, Phoenician and Punic burials were located outside city walls. Many tombs discovered in areas outside the known line of the Roman city suggest that the city of Melite was close to equal size.

The early tombs consisted of a deep rectangular shaft with one or two chambers dug from its sides. This type of burial was used well into the Roman occupation of the islands, but the chambers grew larger and more regular in shape over time. It is probable that this enlargement joined neighboring tombs and led to the creation of small catacombs, which became the norm by the fourth century AD.

The site that is currently open to the public comprises two catacombs out of the 24 in the St Paul’s cluster. The main complex, covering an area of more than 2000 square metres, is so far the largest catacomb ever to be found on the island. It is large enough to have served as a communal burial ground in successive phases of Malta’s history. The two halls at the bottom of the entrance stairs show two agape tables (circular tables hewn out of the living rock and used for ceremonial meals commemorating dead relatives). One of the halls was transformed into an early church following the expulsion of Arab conquerors in the second century AD.

Although the complex contains almost all of the burial types found in the Maltese repertoire, the best represented are so-called baldacchino tombs. These free-standing, canopied burials dominate the main corridors of the complex; their four elegant arches and supporting pillars are exemplary. Other decorations within this catacomb include illustrations and written messages in red paint.

The second catacomb that can be visited is much smaller than the first. The surgical tools carved in relief on one of the three blocking stones in the inner chamber suggest that it was the burial place of a particular family or group of surgeons.

The catacombs of St. Paul illustrate the religious diversity of the Maltese islands during the Roman period. The 24 catacombs show evidence of Christian, Pagan and Jewish burials side-by-side and no visible divisions.

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Details

Founded: 300-400 AD
Category: Prehistoric and archaeological sites in Malta

Rating

4.2/5 (based on Google user reviews)

User Reviews

James Jones (2 years ago)
This is a very interesting experience. There isn't much to see deep down in the catacombs except empty rooms. The passageways are narrow and low in some areas. I don't recommend exploring for anyone with difficulty walking or children. The museum above ground has beautiful historic relics to view.
Francis Darmanin (2 years ago)
St Paul's Catacombs are an integral part of Maltese Heritage. The tomb spaces (below ground) cut into the walls and floors of these catacombs make for a memorable visit. The tombs are clean and well maintained and atmosphere is not one of death but of a holy place with permission to be explored.
Jenny Jones (2 years ago)
Probably worth visiting if you're in Malta. I quite enjoyed walking around and looking through the tombs, but it's one of those places where you've seen one, and the rest is quite samey. More information boards would have been good.
Peter Devonshire (2 years ago)
Interesting place. Friendly staff. Great visitors centre. Very reasonable admission price. If visiting Mdina then we'll worth visiting the catacombs too as they are so close to each other.
KSchnizzle (3 years ago)
Really cool to see the Catacombs. It was quite eerie exploring the catacombs in the morning when there weren't many people about. Entrance fee wasn't expensive at all and the gift shop had some good items for cheap. Would maybe have liked a bit more interaction or information to go with the history of the catacombs but still worth a visit
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