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A Visit to St. Paul’s Catacombs in Rabat, Malta

by Silke Elzner

Visiting St. Paul’s Catacombs in Malta had not been exactly part of our Malta itinerary. After all, we had already paid a visit to the mysterious Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum earlier which had been a fascinating place to visit. With this first experience already done and dusted we thought we had already conquered enough of Malta’s underground world. Consequently, we thought that checking out St. Paul’s Catacombs as well would be a waste of our time.

But then we spent the day in beautiful Mdina just outside of Rabat, and since St. Paul’s Catacombs were really close and we had some spare time at our hands we somehow did end up visiting this well-known Malta attraction too.

In this article, I want to share my experiences with you so that you can get a better idea of what it’s like to visit St. Paul’s Catacombs in Malta. Who knows, it may be something you’d like to add to your Malta bucket list, too.

For many centuries, early Christians, pagans and Jews were buried side by side in the catacombs in Rabat, Malta. The symbol of a menorah indicates a Jewish burial.
For many centuries, early Christians, pagans and Jews were buried side by side in the catacombs in Rabat, Malta. The symbol of a menorah indicates a Jewish burial.

What are St. Paul’s Catacombs anyway?

St. Paul’s Catacombs are situated right in the centre of Malta’s main island in the city of Rabat. They are considered an important relict of the period of early Christianity in Malta, covering roughly the time between the 3rd and the 8th century AD.

The earliest tombs date back to the times of the Phoenicians and the Romans. They were part of an old city that today no longer exists, Melite. The area is today known as the cities of Rabat and Mdina.

The catacombs stretch over an area of roughly 2,000 square metres, which makes it the largest in all of Malta. There are 30 entry points into the underground maze of tunnels, chambers and tombs, of which 20 are accessible by the general public.

St Pauls Catacombs in Rabat, Malta are the largest underground burial chambers of the island nation. They have been constructed between the 3rd and the 8th century AD.
St Pauls Catacombs in Rabat, Malta are the largest underground burial chambers of the island nation. They have been constructed between the 3rd and the 8th century AD.

Our Visit to the Catacombs

In the beginning we weren’t quite sure if it would be a good idea to visit St. Paul’s Catacombs with the children. This is a graveyard, after all, and a dark, claustrophic underground version of a graveyard at that.

Knowing our children we didn’t expect them to get frightened or spooked by the catacombs, but we weren’t sure if they would find it interesting enough to have a good time (and consequently, to allow us parents to have a good time). To top it off, we were visiting Malta around Easter time, which meant extra large crowds were to be expected.

Atmospheric light installations and modern steps help modern-day visitors explore the site. Having said that, if you are scared of dark, enclosed spaces, the catacombs may not be for you.
Atmospheric light installations and modern steps help modern-day visitors explore the site. Having said that, if you are scared of dark, enclosed spaces, the catacombs may not be for you.

In fact, when checking Google Maps we were warned that there were more visitors than usual. This made us think for quite some time whether or not we should risk it and just give it a go. As it turned out, it was only the waiting line at the entrance that was holding us back, and quite unnecessarily too. Since each visitor got a thorough introduction to the site by the cashier it took around 30 minutes until we reached the front of the line.

After having paid our entrance fees we were free to explore the grounds in our own time. There were no big crowds to speak of. The first station we passed was the visitor centre at the entrance where we got to see some relicts found on site. Big signs explained the significance of the catacombs, the burial rituals of the time and lots more.

A ship inscription is clearly visible and may refer to the person who was once buried here. Maybe he was a sailor, a fisherman, a shipbuilder, or he had come from across the sea?
A ship inscription is clearly visible and may refer to the person who was once buried here. Maybe he was a sailor, a fisherman, a shipbuilder, or he had come from across the sea?

The Catacombs of St. Paul

After this rather theoretical introduction we crossed the street to get to the other half of the museum grounds. Over there was the majority of access points down into the catacombs. We were soon to learn that visiting St. Paul’s Catacombs was a bit like playing mini golf, as each tomb was numbered, and we were guided around the site following this number system.

At the front of each tomb there was sort of a map with a sketched plan of the underground burial chambers. Here you could identify what you had to look out for when accessing the underground tombs including hidden burials, inscriptions in the stone walls or agape tables (what that is, see below).

The maps in the front also indicated the accessibility of each of the sites, since not every visitor would have the same degree of mobility. We also found panic buttons inside, in case of someone having issues with darkness and with enclosed spaces.

St. Pauls Catacombs are in excellent shape and still show many intricate details such as this agape table.
St. Pauls Catacombs are in excellent shape and still show many intricate details such as this agape table.

Exploring a Whole New World

We took the metal steps downstairs, one by one, exploring each of the different underground tombs. First we checked the maps in the front, memorising all the important sights we were supposed to find at the bottom of the stairs.

Some of these sights were hard to find, even though the location was pointed out in the map. Sometimes we all had to resurface and exchange our experiences and impressions to find out if we did actually see everything that there is to see downstairs. In a couple of cases, some of us needed to take another look underground to find all the interesting details.

There are almost no skeletons left in the catacombs. They have disappeared over time or have been removed. However, there is one exception to demonstrate how the site may have looked like at some point in time.
There are almost no skeletons left in the catacombs. They have disappeared over time or have been removed. However, there is one exception to demonstrate how the site may have looked like at some point in time.

You may be relieved to hear that almost all of the skeletons had been removed or disappeared over time (with one exception). But even without the dead present there was plenty to see: religious symbols carved in stone, for example a Jewish menorah for the Jewish graves. An image of a ship – maybe the person buried here had been a shipbuilder or a fisher or he had come from across the sea?

There were niches in the stone walls, some of which still sealed and intact. Circular shaped agape tables, used for rituals by the mourning family who would came to visit their dead ancestors. Endless long dark tunnels dug deep into the stone, intercepted by large chambers with baldachin ceilings under which there were multiple open sarcophagi.

In a sense, our visit to St Pauls Catacombs reminded us of an Indiana Jones style scavenger hunt. There was a lot to discover but we had to put in the work to make it all happen.
In a sense, our visit to St Pauls Catacombs reminded us of an Indiana Jones style scavenger hunt. There was a lot to discover but we had to put in the work to make it all happen.

So Did we Enjoy our Visit to the St. Paul’s Catacombs?

In the end, our visit to St. Paul’s Catacombs was much more enjoyable, interesting and family-friendly than we first anticipated. We descended into the underworld multiple times, each time learning something new. Even the kids had a lot of stuff to discover. The educational pavilions all over the site provided additional background information.

We learned a lot about the first peoples of Malta and the burial rites of early Christianity. Walking along the dark, empty corridors which where set in scene by clever light installations, gave us very atmospheric insights. The though that these underground chamber had once been populated by dozens of dead people sent shivers down our spines.

There are many interesting sights in the city of Rabat, Malta
There are many other things to discover in Rabat and surrounds, so it makes sense to combine the visit to the catacombs with at least one other Malta attraction.

Some Last Tips Before you Visit

There are actually quite a few sights in the city of Rabat which you can explore together with the catacombs. The main attractions of Rabat include Casa Bernard, the crypt and catacombs of St. Agatha, and St. Paul’s Grotto.

After our visit we had a great experience with Café Wignacourt (Parish Square, College Street, Rabat; closed on Mondays), a fantastic Italian-style restaurant with a quiet courtyard which even had a small excavation site in one corner of the dining room. The lovely Silent City of Mdina is just a couple of minutes up the road and a worthwhile attractions to see when holidaying in Malta.

Further information on St. Paul’s Catacombs can be found on the official website.

For more great things to do in Malta, check out my other blog posts which cover Malta, Gozo and the island of Comino.

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