St Paul's Catacombs
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People like being scared! Otherwise, why would spooky places thrive as tourist attractions? There are plenty of them across Europe. Most – like the ones that go by the name of ‘dungeon’ - are fake spooky. But Malta has one that is spookily real - the St Paul’s Catacombs in Rabat!
So if you want to see the genuine article and be genuinely freaked out then this is the place to come. There are no fake stories here, tales dressed up and adjusted for the benefit of scare and shock values. These are Roman catacombs that incorporate the tombs of more than 1,000 bodies.
It’s a labyrinth of interconnected, underground cemeteries and they hail from the 3rd century AD. The Rabat complex also represents the earliest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta.
The Catacombs of St Paul take their name from St Paul’s Church and Grotto, which are both nearby. You’ll find them on the fringes of what was the old Roman capital Mdina, in Rabat. They were not in the city itself because Roman law prohibited burials within the walls.
There are two large areas of catacombs that comprise more than 30 underground burial chambers. The main complex comprises a complicated system of interconnected passages and tombs.
One the walls inside are murals, which themselves are of significant interest. To date they remain the only surviving evidence on the Maltese Islands of painting from the late Roman and early medieval periods.
The main entrance to the complex takes you into two large halls, complete with pillars, which look like Doric columns. The halls are equipped with two circular tables set in a low platform with sloping sides hewn out in one piece from the living rock. This resembles the reclining chaise longue style couch that would have been present in Roman houses.
The tables are known as Agape tables. Their most likely use was to host commemorative meals during the Roman’s annual festival of the dead.
It is thought the catacombs fell out of use and were abandoned during the period of Saracen occupation of the island. During this period burial customs changed.
Evidence suggests that they were back in use, however, during the re-Christianisation of the island somewhere around the 13th century before they were once again abandoned.
The site was finally cleared and excavated properly in 1894 by Dr A.A. Caruana - the pioneer of Christian archaeology in Malta. His work went a long way to unearthing and paving the way for the tourist attraction that now exists.
If you want to visit the catacombs, they are open from Monday to Sunday between 9am and 5pm. Admission is €5 but there are reduced rates of €3.50 for students and OAPs. It’s €2.50 for children aged 6 to 11 and free for under 6s.
Mdina is the walled city and former capital, which is almost part of Rabat. It’s well signposted and easy to get to by car or on any of the many bus services that operate.
You’ll find the catacombs in St Agatha Street, a narrow artery that runs through the town centre. It’s not hard to find and there are plenty of signposts to guide you to the catacombs. If you’re in a car, then there is plenty of parking near the former Roman villa and now museum known as the Domvs Romana. St Paul’s Catacombs are about 5 minutes’ walk from here.
Address: St Agatha Street, Rabat RBT 2013
Phone: +356 2145 4562
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