The catacombs are located on the outskirts of the old Roman capital of Melite (today’s Mdina). Roman law prohibited burials within the city. This is the largest burial complex in the area and comprises a large number of catacombs.
St Paul’s Catacombs represent the earliest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta. They have been named after St Paul because of their vicinity to St Paul’s church and grotto. They were cleared up and investigated in 1894 by Dr A. A. Caruana, the pioneer of Christian archaeology in Malta.
These Maltese catacombs, when compared with those of Rome, Sicily and North Africa, are somewhat smaller, but they have a wider variety and richness of tomb architecture. St Paul’s Catacombs were the result of an indigenous development which was barely influenced by similar overseas traditions.
An imposing hall acts as the centre of St Paul’s Catacombs. Passages lead off from it in several directions into a bewildering series of tomb galleries. The few surviving murals, despite their fragmentary state, are of considerable interest since they constitute the only surviving evidence on the Islands of painting from the Late Roman and early medieval periods. Among the most interesting features of St Paul’s Catacombs are the circular tables which are set in a low platform with sloping sides and appear to resemble a reclining, circular couch. Both table and couch are hewn out in one piece forming a single architectural unit within an apsed recess. They were probably used to host commemorative meals during the annual festival of the dead when the rites of burials were renewed. These meals were intended to bring living members of a family close to their dead.
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