Catacombs of St Catald / St Paul and Ste Agatha, Rabat
The early Christians were forbidden by Roman law to bury their dead within the city limits and, as cremation was not an acceptable solution, families and fraternities developed the intramural catacomb. Hewn out of living rock, there are six variants, which date in this area from the first to the eighth centuries.Catacombs are dotted all over the island and all have had diverse uses ever since.
St Paul Catacombs
Seventy meters from the square into Ste Agatha Street is the main entrance to a large labyrinth of catacombs dating from the third C. In all it accommodated more than 1,000 corpses throughout its 2,200 sq.m. Not all are accessible, but different types of tombs can be seen.At the bottom of the steep steps, seven meters into the catacombs, are two striking rooms divided by a central pillar. The main crypt, just to the right, has a high ceiling and at either end a raised plinth and agape tables (circular table and a semicircular bench, unique to Malta). Down a couple of steps, the crypt to the left has been called a chapel and has a recess at the far end, which may have been an altar. Here are Luculus tombs (small rectangular recesses cut into a wall, for infants and children). To the right are two long corridors, each approximately 25 meters long, leading to groups of canopied and saddle-backed tombs (tombs in which the body was interred underneath the pitched roof via an opening in the lower wall). To the left, apart from another small group of canopied tombs, there is a long twisty passage leading to a lower level.
Catacombs and Museum of Ste Agatha
One hundred meters past St Paul's catacombs are the more exciting catacombs and frescoes of Ste Agatha. Entrance to the catacombs is down a few steps via the crypt, again hewn out of rock, where Ste Agatha is said to have spent her time in exile praying and teaching. On the walls are 31 detailed frescoes in varying states of restoration from the 12th to 15th centuries, many of which are of Ste Agatha in pious poses.The tour of the catacombs lasts 20 minutes and takes in only 10% of the honeycomb necropolis which is said to cover 400 sq. m. The ceilings are disorientingly low, but the tombs, including the arcosolium (consisting of window graves, resembling arched windows cut into the rock at a lower level), are much better lit.The museum, one of the island's better-kept secrets, contains a little of everything.Among the exhibits are coins, vestments, ancient pottery, an eccentric mineral collection and a remarkable one-meter-high statue of Ste Agatha, carved from a solid piece of alabaster in 1666, which was originally the crypt's altarpiece.
St Catald Catacombs
Just outside the perimeter ditch of the Roman city and diagonally opposite the parish church is the tiny 18th century Church of St Catald, built on the site of one said to date back to A.D. 400. Hollowed out beneath it is a small group of catacombs dating from the late second and early third centuries in what was originally a Punic burial shaft. One of the best examples of an agape table (circular table and a semicircular bench, unique to Malta) is on the left at the bottom of the stairs, and the majority are fine canopied tombs.