Malta – Northern Region – Mdina – St. Paul’s Catacombs

These catacombs date from the Phoenician and Punic periods, although were used for over 1,500 years at various stages. There’s also a museum which I’ll detail in another post, as there are enough photos below already….

The site is enormous, with most of the entry points involving walking up and down steps. The first catacomb that visitors enter is spacious inside, probably nearly half a mile of various walkways in what is a maze inside. There are panic buttons located all over the catacombs, which worried me as I wondered why there were lots of panic buttons all over the site.

Fortunately, this is one of the catacombs which is currently closed off.

This is how visitors get into most of the catacombs. There are fifteen or so of these sets of steps to go down, as although the catacombs mostly connect together, you’d never get visitors around them. I suspect that Dylan and Leon would have been able to explore at will though, and there were some catacombs that could only really be visited by short people or tall people willing to crawl.

Nearly all the access points have metal steps, which have been inserted over the top of older steps, which are mostly quite worn. This part was inaccessible and so there are just the old steps.

Lots of walkways…..

This is graffiti that I think dates to the Second World War when these catacombs were used as air raid shelters. I thought initially that it might be relatively tolerable down here, but most of the stone feels damp to the touch, so it couldn’t have been very pleasant.

The dampness is more evident here.

This is a blocking stone inserted to, well, block off a burial area. The stone was reused from a Doric frieze.

 

 

 

There were hundreds of these, stone cut corridors and tombs for someone’s final resting place. Well, not final as it turned out. Although there’s actually no explanation for where the bones are, with the exception of some in the site’s museum. There are explanations that the site has been looted over the centuries, but I can’t imagine the bones were lifted out at that time, so I assume that it’s more recent.

The surface, with each of those stone hut type things being the entrance into one of the catacombs.

Each of the catacombs had a sign such as this by it, with the appropriate warnings such as the maximum number of visitors and some height and width restrictions. The site had a few other visitors when I was there, but no real number to mean that I had to wait to enter any of the catacombs. I imagine during the summer months that the wait is rather more tiresome.

These maps were interesting to see on the surface and they often told visitors what to look for. However, in the larger catacombs it’s difficult to get a sense of where anything is relative to this plan. There are nearly no descriptions downstairs, so I think I missed quite a lot.

The catacombs are also more extensive than visitors can see, and there are separate, but still part of the same complex, areas which can only be seen with an appointment.

I’ve seen two explanations given for these circular tables, of which there are several throughout the catacombs. The first is that they are tables where individuals would come for a final meal, as part of the ceremony after burial when the individual was laid to rest. The second is that they were used for an annual Roman ritual of celebrating the dead, but it’s probably the case that both are true.

I must say though, Malta is a country which is rather pleasant in terms of the temperature. I’d have thought a final meal two metres above in the sun would be more pleasant, but such are the rules of burial rites I suppose…. There are also Christian and Jewish burials at the site, and of course many people were buried here before those two religions were established.

So, this is a substantial site which it can easily take a couple of hours to explore, with a history dating back thousands of years. It’s full of atmosphere, character and intrigue, so I thought that I’d better check TripAdvisor to see what some visitors thought.

“We came here half an hour before closing but could not see anything more than a few caves, no Bones.”

Firstly, I wouldn’t come to a substantial site half an hour before closing, but each to their own. And a few caves? The largest catacombs in Malta with hundreds of metres of pathways? Hmmmmm.

“Seen one seen them all! Not a through trip but up and down separate stairs to see holes in the ground!”

Yes, burial sites are so samey…. Although there is some logic to this, many of the burials were quite similar in style. I like though that the site has to get a bad review because it’s simply not possible to link the catacombs together without getting visitors to crawl through them.

“It costs 5 euros to visit the catacombs that have nothing to offer!”

No, just thousands of years of history….

All in, a really interesting experience, but I did have a lot more questions when leaving than answers, so I’d prefer for the interpretation centre to perhaps be a little more involved with details than perhaps it was.