On the outskirts of the small Roman city of Melite lies St Paul’s Catacombs, a 2200 square metre hypogea (tomb) that contained over 1,000 bodies. The catacombs came into existence during the 3rd century, at the time Roman law did not permit burial within the city and this is why St Paul’s complex of tombs and others like it existed on the periphery of towns and cities. What is fascinating about the catacombs at St Paul’s is that it shows the important ritualised nature of burial during this time, there are two large halls which would have served as a communal space for festivals and rituals. The main hall has a table and seating area carved out of the rock. Small corridors lead off to a maze of tombs many of these named baldacchino tombs. These are free standing canopied burial tombs. What is interesting about this site is that Christian, Jewish and Pagan burials have been found within the site literally side by side with no obvious divisions.
The catacombs fell into disuse in the 6th century and only became a popular site for pilgrimage again in the 12th and 13th century re-Christianisation of Malta. It is uncertain when they fell into disuse but it wouldn’t be until 1894 when they were cleared and investigated by Dr A.A Caruana.
St Paul’s catacombs are a truly enchanting place, the air is dusty and the maze of tunnels often bewildering and dark. I could have spent much longer here because although cold and foreboding there was a sense of stillness and reverence within its halls. Unfortunately due to time constraints I was unable to visit the nearby St Agatha’s Catacombs, but my trip to St Paul’s was certainly worth the self inflicted poor public transport planning/extended journey!
GPS: 35.88095, 14.3978