From the 3rd to the 6th centuries CE, the Roman city of Melite developed a complex system of burial grounds on its outskirts under the modern town of Rabat, a village outside of Mdina, the medieval capital of Malta. Roman law prohibited burials within the city, which derives its name from the Arabic word for suburb.
Known today as the St. Paul and St. Agata catacombs, the burial grounds form an important part of Malta’s early Christian history. The catacombs include tombs for more than 1,000 bodies in 2,200 square meters.
The organizational and architectural complexity of the catacombs points to the ritual importance of burial grounds in early Christianity. The catacombs were planned in a centralized manner, providing private space for numerous family units, while leaving a lot of communal space for festivals and rituals. The entrance to the main complex of St. Paul’s leads to two large halls, adorned with pillars made to resemble Doric columns and painted plasters. The main hall is equipped with large circular tables and couches, carved out of rock. They were probably used during burial rituals and festivals of the dead. In some places the burial corridors were cut in three subterranean stories.
The catacombs were abandoned sometime in the 7th century during the later stages of the Byzantine Empire. They were reopened during the re-Christianization of the Island after 220 years of Fatimid rule. The catacombs became a popular site for religious pilgrimages in the 12th century and a Christian shrine was recut in the 13th century.
There are a number of smaller catacombs dating back to antiquity in Malta. One was rediscovered within a traffic roundabout close to the Malta International Airport in 2006. The Hal Resqun tomb was originally excavated in 1912. Soon after its discovery, the catacomb was covered up by a road surface, following the development of the Luqa Airfield.
- Wikipedia: St. Paul's Catacombs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Paul%27s_Catacombs
- World Heritage Convention: Maltese Catacomb Complexes: http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1113/