Malta's Old Necropolis, St. Paul's Catacombs

Shipwrecked and sodden, the apostle St. Paul arrived on Malta under less than ideal circumstances. The people he met there were apparently gracious and friendly - Roman citizens, technically, but far removed from Rome and with their own customs and habits. During his three month stay on Malta in AD 60, Paul converted Publius, the island's de facto leader, cured an old man of dysentery, wowed the population and established a strange relationship between Christianity and Empire in Malta.
Some two hundred years later, as they were digging graves in the Maltese limestone, the residents of Melite (now Mdina) mixed these two influences in a strange and fascinating way. Above, a marker for the subterranean grave of a doctor.
On a recent sunny morning we descended into the cool, dark world of St. Paul's catacombs, where about 1,000 people were buried during the third and fourth centuries. We were in the relative center of Malta, just on the edge of Mdina and Rabat, the twin "cities" (villages is a more appropriate word) that constitute the old capital of the country. The towns occupy a pretty little bulge in the land, where yellow limestone rises above the green fields below.
Underground, a maze of interconnected caverns and passageways spreads out into the rock, the walls pockmarked with hollows and archways - the biggest necropolis found on the island.
St. Paul's catacombs actually have nothing to do with Paul, other than that they are nearby to the cathedral built in his honor. They were dug to house the remains of Melitta's dead, which - under Roman law - were required to be interred outside the city walls. Compared with similar catacombs in Italy and elsewhere, the complex is only of middling size. But, at 24,000 square feet, the place feels huge. Graves were dug into walls, next to one another and, eventually, into the floor as space grew scarce. There are markers adorned with carvings that gave some information about the person's livelihood and guild. Most of this is normal.
But because Malta was isolated to an extent from the rest of the Empire, the architectural style of the tombs is unusual and distinctly local, particularly because of how varied the different graves are. A few badly damaged remains of murals also survive, which are almost unique to the site. But the main point of interest is that the catacombs seem to have been (at least in part) a Christian necropolis dug in the time before Rome converted.
St. Paul's cathedral stands on the spot where Paul and Publius, according to legend, were said to have met. It's a large, rebuilt structure - an older church was destroyed by an earthquake, the current iteration was constructed around 1700. It soars suddenly out of an open square, a surprise in the tangled, cramped lanes of Mdina. When the Normans conquered Malta from the Arabs, during the 12th century, they cleared a large part of the city to build the church on ground they considered especially holy. Today, Malta is the most religious European country, and one of the most homogenously Roman Catholic in the world - the tradition of Paul and his miracles still runs very strong here. But, surprisingly, there is no proof of Christianity in the years directly after the apostle's visit.
It's been suggested that early Maltese Christians were too afraid of Roman reprisals to express their religion outwardly. After all, Publius himself was killed by emperor Hadrian for his beliefs. One of the most important parts of the catacombs is that they represent the earliest concrete evidence of Christianity on the island, apparently while the Empire still condemned it. Tomb inscriptions and figures of the cross show up in both wall carvings and in the mural fragments, and some of the stranger features in the underground architecture have been attributed to a non-Roman religion.
Probably the most curious and illustrative Christian features of St. Paul's catacombs, though, are the "agape" tables. Circular, low and carved directly out of the rock, the tables were probably used for feasts during the burial, as well as on the day of the dead, on which it's believed that Roman Christians held a festive dinner near the graves of their relatives. Agape tables are common only in Christian necropolises, and are almost always surrounded by a kind of "banquette" made of stone, where the family members could lie down to drink and eat. There are several at this site, all with a strange notch in one side that's hard to explain.
Unfortunately, the human traffic and the humidity we bring in has all but destroyed the paintings and the more important inscriptions. Wandering around the catacombs is a tight and confusing experience. At times, there's quite a bit of space, but often the going is narrow and low. There's interesting variation in the size of the graves - some are tightly packed in small alcoves, other feature large, carved stone drapings and deep troughs. Quite a few feature small headrests, like pillows. Only a small part of the entire complex is open to the public, but it still takes more than an hour to explore.
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