Catacombs-Tombs
JOHN SCERRI
CHURCHES AND CHAPELS OF MALTA AND GOZO
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Catacombs and Tombs
Catacombs: Latin-catacumba, Italian-catacomba: Subterranean cemetery composed of galleries or passages with side recesses for tombs. (from Online Encyclopaedia Brittanica)
It is a fallacy to say that the first Christians hid in Catacombs away from the eyes of the Romans. Moreover Malta was a 'Foederata Civitas' enjoying special liberties from Rome and at one time we even had a Roman Governor ordained as our first Bishop, Publius.

Granted that underground Catacombs were their burial grounds, but so were Jews buried in similar structures. The first Christians who usually celebrated Mass in each other's house, met to celebrate the Holy Supper in an area of the Catacombs with a round raised platform called the Agape or Triclinium, some examples of which we can still find especially in Rabat. This is one of the main things that distinguishes a Christian Catacomb from others, at least in Malta. Even in the absence of an Agape, other signs or carvings of crosses sometimes Byzantine style, mark it as such. Below I will give only examples of Christian Catacombs.

Not all were buried in Catacombs, but the first Christians, even in Malta kept the same style of burial as the Phoenicians and Jews, so we can find remains of this style of tomb or sometimes clusters or even mini Catacombs all over the islands. Again with tombs, I will mention a few clusters that were really identified as Christian.

After the breakup of the Roman empire, Malta seems to have fallen under the jurisdiction of the Eastern or Byzantine part. This period between approximately the fourth century A.D. and the Muslim conquest of 870 encompasses what we call Paleochristian and Byzantine Malta. Of this time we can find a few catacombs or tombs and also remains of a Basilica on the surface. The latter I will mention later on in another chapter.

Gudja - Hal-Resqun

A tomb with carving that some have interpreted as a scene from the afterlife with three persons praying and thus Christian. The space above the entrance to a window-tomb is crammed with the deeply cut outlines of animals, birds and fish and three human figures with outstretched arms seemingly in the glory of Heaven. Others interpret this carving as the Biblical account of the creation of the world. The figure of God appears in the upper segment of the arch stretching His hands over everything else. The heads of humans appear barely visible on the sides.
Kirkop - Karwija Catacomb

Being cleaned up of rubble and soil in 2006 under the supervision of Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna. There are three chambers characterised by arches, pilasters decorations and headrests. After cleaning, the area will be fenced off and the Local Council will erect an explanatory plaque. The tombs are from the fifth century and can be classified as Christian because of the Greek inscription on shards of pottery, that is 'CHI-RHO', an early symbol denoting Christ.
Mgarr - Tar-Raghad

Cleared of debris in 1985-1986 by the members of an amateur archaeological group, the catacomb consists of two narrow corridors reached by a common shaft. There are suggestions of enlargements and recuttings of a Romano-Punic tomb being modified and reutilised by an early Christian community before it was recut into the miniature hypogeum which we see today. There are only window-tombs eight in one corridor and three in the other. A twelfth tomb is formed in the wall of the shaft at the opposite end of the entrance. A Greek Cross is carved in bold relief in the conch of the apsed head-recess of the chamber of one tomb. This helps us indicate Christian presence and also date the catacomb. One does not find Crosses until 314 A.D. Two of the tombs are dug into the apsed wall at the back of an Agape at the entrance to the smaller corridor. This Triclinium is the only one cut out of the solid rock like the agape at St.Pauls catacomb at Rabat. Tar-Raghad Plan Below.
Mosta - Ta Bistra Catacombs

An extensive network of first century early Christian catacombs in the area known as il-Bisbezija close to Targa Gap with individual entrances from the face of the ridge looking towards St.Paul's Bay. There are 16 groups of chambers with the first one being the largest. The site was first unearthed in 1891, and another part recently during roadworks in 2005. The group includes different types of burial chambers and the typical agape tables, an inseparable feature of these early Christian catacombs. Pictures Right.....
Mqabba - Tal-Mintna

Tal-Mintna Catacombs were discovered in 1860 by Dr. A Caruana and Captain Strickland. The complex was a number of detached underground sets of burial chambers grouped collectively next to each other. Originally separate, these three separate catacombs are now connected to form one larger complex. Like similar small clusters found in the vicinity, the interior is made up of small galleries and tombs carved out on both sides of the passageways. We can say it was Christian by the triclinium table that dominates the complex. The burial chambers are richly decorated and carved scallop-shells can be seen on a number of window tombs many times accompanied by decorated pilasters flanking the entrance of each tomb. Eight triangular recesses for oil lamps are pierced in the wall opposite the agape table. The area round Mintna is full of similar small Christian groups, indicating the presence of an early Christian community in the surrounding area.
Naxxar - Salina Catacombs and Tombs

Salina is full of catacombs and tombs dating back between the second and the fourth Centuries A.D. The site was first opened in 1721 when a tomb was found with many skeletons piled on top of each other. Also found were a niche or an arch of ordinary stone with one skeleton, and a similar one dug in the rock with another skeleton, both of which were covered with stone slabs from which it seems that they were tombs of persons of distinction. The site is made up of five small catacombs, and several individual tombs. The tombs that remain are mostly in filled with rubble and inaccessible while a number were, destroyed during the construction of houses in the 1960s. The entrances to the catacombs are at different levels within a gently sloping hill. In 1937 they were re-discovered by C.G. Zammit, the Curator of Archaeology at the Valletta Museum and excavation was continued by others. The disruption of WWII let the site deteriorate, in fact the largest catacomb was badly mutilated and left in a ruined condition. In 1964 after a number of letters and reports in the local press the most noteworthy catacomb was fitted with a wooden gate but the rest of the cluster was still unprotected. The most conspicuous part of the complex is a man-made rectangular opening in the upper part of the hill with entrances to four of the units. There is a theory that this amply spaced entance area, was at the time of initial excavation, also intended to be the place where mourners celebrated. Many of the tombs within the units include resting places for the head carved in stone, and some had been re-opened and adapted so that couples could be buried together. There exist detailed descriptions of each catacomb with the number and kind of tombs contained within. For our purpose it is enough to say that they are definitely Christian from the Greek crosses carved on the walls and also from the setup with the Triclinium table present.
Rabat - St.Agatha

According to legend Agatha, during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Trajanus in AD 249-251, together with some of her friends, fled from Sicily, her native land, and took refuge in Malta for a short while. She was martyred soon after her return to Sicily. The crypt where she used to pray at Rabat was named after her, as were the nearby Catacombs and later on the Church now located over the crypt. At the time of her stay, the crypt was a small natural cave which was later enlarged and decorated. More about the Crypt itself in another chapter.
The crypt of St.Agatha's leads to the catacombs. Some of the tombs are also decorated with reliefs and frescoes. Most of the tombs were used for the internment of two or more people at times side by side. The Agape about 60cm above ground level sloping towards the walls of the chamber is flat and encircled by a rim with a small open section for cleaning.
The different tombs are saddle-back, canopied or baldacchino, arcosolium and just holes in the walls or Loculi of different sizes. Niches to hold oil lamps are also interspersed on the walls of the passageways.
Two of the tombs at the St.Agatha Catacombs are decorated with mural paintings. On the wall near the head of one of these is a Greek inscription, which states the name of the person buried and the date.
One of the chambers in these catacombs seems to have been the Sancta Sanctorum or Sanctuary. It is decorated with a 3rd century fresco in bright colours and carved with pillars and must have been the altar of this primitive chapel.
Rabat - St. Paul's Catacombs

The St.Paul Catacombs are the most commercialised on the islands. They are located on the outskirts of the old Roman capital Melite (today Mdina), since Roman law prohibited burials within the city. They represent the earliest evidence of Christianity in Malta and owe their name to the myth about St.Paul Grotto. These catacombs were unearthed and recorded in 1894 by Dr.A.A.Caruana, the pioneer of Christian archaeology in Malta.
An ample hall is the centre of the complex. From here, passages lead off in several directions into a series of tomb galleries. Among the most interesting features of St Paul Catacombs is the circular Agape or Triclinium which is like a low platform with sloping sides for reclining against while the relatives were celebrating the death (new life) of one of their own.
Rabat - Wignacourt Museum

Excavation started in 1999 with a Maltese group of archaeologists helped by the local Scout group beneath the Museum premises. The catacomb had its access near the stairs leading to a WWII bomb shelter. On clearing the rubble, two saddle baldacchino tombs, a window tomb and a loculus were found. An exedra with a funerary triclinium was also identified. The original entrance of the catacomb led into one side of a rectangular space. The sides containing the opening of the baldacchino tombs and the Agape border the remaining sides of this space. Light for this area was from lamps placed in six small niches above the exedra. It appears that the catacomb was looted in antiquity. At a later date the catacomb received a soil infill from the original access. The catacomb was again discovered during the excavation of the bomb shelter and was used as space where to dump the rubble created. Fortunately enough the tombs were spared. Evidence of extensive plastering, finishing and size indicate that the baldacchino to the left of the entrance was the most important tomb in the complex. No inscriptions were noted in the catacomb. The contents of both Baldacchino tombs were disturbed but still contain human bones. No pottery was observed inside the chambers. Work on the catacombs continues under the direction of the Museum authorities who are working on the preservation and a more complete excavation of the complex. Plan and Photo Below.
Rabat - San Katald

The present church is one rebuilt in 1739 over a crypt and a small catacomb.
Wied il-Ghajn

A Byzantine catacomb that is nowadays used as a water reservoir exists near St Thomas tower.
Zabbar - Santa Duminka.

In the early eighties a group of tombs was discovered at Xaghra ta Sta.Duminka near Zabbar. Only one of the tombs was investigated, revealing interesting graffiti of a stylised human figure which was interpreted as a representation of an 'orante' or praying person. Sketches of this praying figure and of the plan of these catacombs, can be seen at the Parish Museum. As the other four tombs in the area were full of rubble, further examination could not be undertaken. Residential building had already commenced prior to the discovery, and continued to expand in the years after, covering the area containing the site. Sadly no interest or action were taken by the authorities to preserve the sites and most likely they are now lost for good. Nowadays there is no trace of them.