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Your Guide to Malta and Gozo - Introduction to Catacombs

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The Catacombs

Elsewhere in the Roman Empire, Christianity was outlawed and adherents to the new creed ran the risk of persecution and meeting a cruel fate. These early Christians had to practise their religion, quite literally underground - in catacombs, subterranean complexes that also doubled as extensive burial sites. Historians agree the catacombs in Malta were never used as hide-outs by the Christians.

There is evidence of Punic, Jewish and Christian activity in these underground cemeteries. The Phoenicians constructed these burial sites outside the precincts of the city of Melite which included the land occupied by Mdina and much of present-day Rabat. It is thought that these massive complexes started their existence as individual clusters of burial chambers which would then be connected by passageways to create a much larger and elaborate structure. Over the years, the catacombs were abandoned and later pillaged and ransacked by the Arab invaders; the order of the Knights of St. John went as far as officially systematising their further desecration by issuing licences to treasure seekers.

Aeroforma, shafts that connected the subterranean with the outside provided a supply of fresh air to the catacombs and luminaria, shafts of a similar structure also allowed daylight to reach the dark passageways. You may see these perforations punctuating the ceiling of the corridors, yet most have been closed off as buildings have been erected above the catacombs. Further illumination was provided by terracotta oil lamps housed within frequent recesses on the walls of the corridors.

A characteristic peculiar to the Maltese catacombs is the agape table, or the “table of love” within the chambers. These are platforms the cross section of which is often in the shape of a round biscuit with a part bitten off. The agape table has a diameter of about 80cm, raised some 60cm above the floor. A rim, about 6cm wide runs along the circumference Although the actual function of these structures is somewhat obscure, it is thought that they were used in meals to commemorate the deceased during the funerary rites, or during an annual commemorative festival in honour of the dead.

 

Within the catacombs are several types of tombs. The most simple are the loculi, small chambers hewn into the walls with barely enough room for the body of a crouched infant. These would be sealed with a stone or terracotta slab, and made air-tight with mortar. Also cut into the live rock are other types of chambers which include the arcosolium – a vault with a half-dome back, the entrance of which is walled off. The dead body would have been introduced through either of two windows, one on either side of the wall, about 50cm in width. Window graves were of a similar construction with a flat back. Table graves are so-called because of their form, often consisting of pairs of troughs in raised platforms within alcoves in the walls, frequently for a husband and a wife. After the burial, the troughs would be covered over with a rocky slab. More elaborate are the baldacchino tombs, with a rocky canopy supported by arches on four stone columns above the tomb which again would be covered over with a slab, giving a table-like appearance. The agape tables themselves may also have been used as tombs.

Despite the vastness of the catacombs sadly, only a few chambers are open to visitors.