Ancient catacombs of Malta to reveal their splendour
The Paleochristian heritage of the Maltese Islands rates as the fourth most important cluster of such monuments in the Mediterranean Region following those of the Italy, Israel and of the Maghreb, of which its most prominent feature is its extensive concentration of subterranean burial grounds. An ancient set of catacombs in Mosta, Malta, dating back almost 1,700 years will now become more accessible as a result of a new walkway and reception centre, which will enable visitors to delve into the splendour of Malta’s ancient past.
The catacombs of Malta have been described by UNESCO as “excellent documents of the changing cultural, artistic and social climates of the Mediterranean world in the centuries going from the 3rd to the Centuries AD”. In a period covering the mid-third to the early seventh century AD, burial grounds developed in Malta from a tradition of simple rock-cut tombs of the Phoenician and Hellenistic eras (700 BC - 100 AD). While most of the catacombs of Malta are concentrated under the modern town of Rabat and the surrounding rural districts, the planned upgrade work planned by Heritage Malta pertains to the Ta’ Bistra catacombs in Mosta, which is currently on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Ta’ Bistra site is an extensive network of catacombs with individual entrances within the vertical face of the ridge looking northwards towards St Paul’s Bay. It consists of sixteen groups of hypogea (chambers) tunnelled next to each other and features spiral borders, scallop shells, arched pottery shelves, pilasters, and agape tables. Unlike the catacombs in Rabat that were dug underground, the ones at Ta’ Bistra were cut by means of tunnelling in the face of the ridge.
Inside the Ta’ Bistra Catacombs. Photo source.
The Ta’ Bistra catacombs were first unearthed in 1891 by F. Vassallo and later recorded by Charles Zammit in 1933. But by then the site had long been looted because the Knights of St John used to issue licences for treasure hunting. In 2005, another part of the catacomb network came to light during road works.
One remarkable feature of the Maltese catacombs is the co-mingling of religious rites, which includes clear references to Christianity, pagan practices and Judaism, all within the same locality. This reflects the co-habitation of these different cultures within Late Roman society. According to UNESCO, “this mixed feature of the Maltese catacombs is rarely equalled anywhere else in the Mediterranean.”
Featured image: The Ta’ Bistra Catacombs in Mosta. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli