More catacombs, the largest of them here in Rabat, constructed just outside the ditch surrounding the Roman city of Melita. They are believed to have begun as simple Punic hypogea, tombs dug straight down into the earth but later further dug out, added to, connected in the late Roman period to form catacombs, in medieval times to have become the site of a church.
First you enter the main section, then emerging you plunge back down into multiple small subsections to see a Menorah here, a ship there, endless stibadium that still fascinate, just as the darkness does and the vistas across tombs and through small arched windows carved into walls — Bonnano is right, there is so little obvious Christian iconography to be found anywhere.
Some myths on display — the pig that fell into a hole here, and emerged in a village 4 km away. The class of children that entered, never to be seen again. The giants who delved here.
Rabat’s Domvs Romanus was discovered in 1881 by gardeners planting trees in Howard Garden. Excavated by Dr A. A. Caruana in 1881. They found a number of Islamic graves and some of the mosaics — the mosaics are extraordinary and allow the fairly precise dating of their placement with a span of 50 years at the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 1st century BC. Sadly the British went ahead and destroyed a big chunk of it, cutting the road to Mtarfa railway through the north end in 1899. It was excavated anew by Temmi Zammit in 1922. Which, well, it was early days in archaeology, so loads of interesting things have been lost. We both remember a reference to the cartloads of pottery that were catalogued and then destroyed — but can’t remember where we read this. It wasn’t here. Ah well.
There is a little museum here, containing finds both from the site as well as a few donated from elsewhere. They had these amazing figurines from between the 1st and 3rd Century AD, the middle one is, of course, my favourite. The accompanying notice describes the figure as Eegemone (il cadottiero) — though I imagine this may be Egemone, il condottiero — and the one on the right Ermanio (il vecchio recalvostro). This is the only one for whom provenance is known, found in St Paul’s Square, Mdina. There is nothing about the significance of the names.
Then there is this wonderful glass drinking vessel known as a Rython, with this amazing snail’s head, found in a tomb (but which? no one knows) in Rabat, c 1st Century AD. The glass chalice to the right is also lovely:
Bonnano in Malta: Phoenician, Punic, and Roman gives two wonderful maps. One is of the site as a whole, with a look at the system of cisterns providing water to the house.
The second shows just the villa itself, with the areas where the mosaics were found:
There was the Triclinium, where dining happened, where the pater familias conducted all of his business — where once there were amazing mosaics, mostly gone but what remains of them are so beautiful with their tiny pieces and fine shadings:
Such extraordinary mosaics. They were later repaired with coarse tiles.
I am rather in awe of these floors. There is a display about the cocciopesto floor — believed to have originated in Carthage (those Phoenicians again) around the 4th Century BC, sometimes referred to as Pavimentum Punicum. Crushed pottery was mixed with lime to form a cheap, resistant material — their red colour came from from crushed pottery. This was often combined with white marble tesserae to create simple designs, then called opus signinum. Opus sculatum is the lozenge shaped tiles, put together to form a perspective cube. Such floors were found in almost all Roman sites in Malta, and still found today in fact. Those found here are considered some of the finest in the Mediterranean. No question why (I am just sad glass had to come between us):
Masks lined these floors. Signage states they probably drew on Greek New Comedy — they almost certainly represent a story but no way to know now what that may have been. I find them very eerie with their open mouths, can’t quite imagine wanting them to gape at me from the floors of my home. .
The floors were built over buried amphora, to control the damp…
There are quotations from Vitruvius here from his book on architecture, which has re-entered my list of things to read.
The mosaics, surely, would be enough to demonstrate this was the villa of someone very high status, but in addition very fine Imperial sculptures were also found here — of Claudius and his family probably. A rare thing to have the emperor and his family in your home. Like the masks, I don’t think I would have much appreciated that either.
The museum also holds this statue, found elsewhere in Mdina, which gets much more mention in the books. A goddess, unknown, with an ‘Isis knot’ under her breast, a ‘Lybian’ style to her hair, an eastern necklace.
Outside, staring at the ruins of other poorer homes aligned along a long-buried street
St Agatha’s Catacombs in Rabat are locked away behind a great iron door down the bottom of a flight of steps, available to see on a guided tour only. I was somehow first down the steps and first into a tall arching space with frescoes all around it. An extraordinary, evocative space that deserved more time, more darkness, no reminders of modern tours. We needed time to piece together ancient faces. We were not so lucky. This is the picture I might have taken had there been photography allowed, but it was darker.
There is a battle of interpretations being waged here, from the leaflet produced by the Missionary Society of St Paul:
Strong tradition holds that the young virgin, Agatha, sought refuge on the island of Malta, so as to escape the persecution of the Emperor Decius (249-251 AD) and the Governor of Sicily, Quintinius, who had fallen in love with her.
Agatha is said to have lived in the city [Melita], but used to come to pray at this place. A few months later, she returned to her native country, where she was tortured and killed because of her faith on 5th February 251 AD.
These dates ever so exact. The story from the guide and from elsewhere was that she had hidden in the crypt itself. One place describes how she taught children here. The leaflet says the crypt was maintained thereafter as sacred to her honour. One set of frescoes was painted in 1200, and the second set in 1480, attributed to Salvatore D’Antonio from Messina. Anthony Bonanno dates the catacombs to late 3rd and 4th Centuries, gives a wider range of dates for the frescoes and names no names. And across the road, a set of boards in the St Paul catacombs ‘debunking’ some quite fabulous myths (more on them later) has the following entry:
Christians did not hide in catacombs not least because they were terrible hiding places, and there is no evidence for Christianity until the 4th Century AD.
I gather up all interpretations of the past to enjoy the catacombs, they are beautiful, if slightly back-breaking. Many of the tombs are decorated, many of them carved so people could lie side by side, some of them still contain bones. You come at the end to the ‘Holy of Holies’, ‘believed to be the earliest rock-cut church in Malta.’ The leaflet states there was once an agape table set here, which was later destroyed when the church outlawed their use — of all the interpretations swirling about this place, this is the one I buy the least:
Distinctions between the rich and the poorer members of the congregation during these banquets became customary, and so they were stopped.
The whole catacomb distinguishes between rich and poor — those with central tombs custom-cut into rock, surrounded by four pillars and passageways to be freestanding. The poor left to shelves in passageways, pits in floors, graves used over and over.
But the fresco here is lovely, one of the best preserved.
Definitely Christian with the Chi Rho and the vases and the doves — unlike the mutilated stibadium (Bonanno’s preferred term, he mentions mensae and triclinia), which have been found more widely in Libya and Petra and probably tie back to a longer lineage of pagan worship. Many of those here in Malta are not associated with Christian iconography at all (though that doesn’t mean necessarily that they weren’t Christian), and several come with with carved menorahs making them fairly necessarily Jewish. Bonanno does not mention this as an early rock-cut church, nor this as the niche above an altar, either. But these spaces are still very full of an awe closely related to religious feeling, even in modern-day electric lighting rather than flickering oil lamps. How to differentiate between church and religious space holding believers? A map here, from Bonanno.
There is a museum here also, which reminds me of Victorian days of glory, full of finds from the catacombs but also multiple donations, unprovenanced, uncertain.
They range from pottery to fragments of scupture, Egyptian shabtis, bits of glass and beads. The connection to a Hellenized Egypt feels quite strong here.
My favourite things were the votive slabs taken from the old church built here in 1504, some of them found in the walls of the church rebuilt in 1670. I love these scenes of everyday life:
Animals — including the legend of the pelican who causes her own breast to bleed to feed her young. This is everywhere in Medieval English carvings as well as in one of the frescoes decorating a grave in the catacombs below.
Two architectural/ city scenes, at the very end of the row:
Though of course, the most amazing thing had to be the 4000 year-old mummified crocodile identified with Sobek, Lord of the Nile.
A graffitied cherub
There was also some truly extraordinary Catholic kitsch, which I also loved. I think I am going to collect all of that together for one glorious post of sacred hearts and severed heads…
St Paul is my least favourite apostle. Not exactly an apostle, I know, but something like that. Persecuting Christians one minute, persecuting those who aren’t Christian enough the next, and it always seemed to me he quite hated women, made we want to throw my bible during Sunday School despite some lovely passages about love in those letters he wrote the Corinthians. Still, interesting to think of him here, in Malta, where we are too! Our first two nights in Mdina/Rabat, known as Melite to the Romans. This is from Acts 28: 1-10.
1. And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.
2 And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.
3 And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
4 And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
5 And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
6 Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
7 In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously.
8 And it came to pass, that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him.
9 So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed:
10 Who also honoured us with many honours; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary.
Pretty exciting times. Legend placed St Paul in this grotto/ cave/ prison preaching the gospel. If true (and it makes some geographic sense and the place name is right), he would have arrived here in 60 AD, shipwrecked while traveling from Crete to Rome for trial in front of Julius Ceasar.
St Paul’s Grotto
You follow down steps:
To find the requisite marbled bit:
And a quite lovely fresco
The grotto itself is rather more humble, rather more grim.
There was a huge fight over the legacy of St Paul between the Knights of St John and the Church. In 1607, Spanish hermit Juan Benegas de Cordova was given permission by Pope Paul V to look after the grotto. A small sheet of typewritten paper in the Wignacourt Museum above relates that it seems only then did the Knights realise the potential of the spot. Benegas ‘ceded’ the Grotto to them on 24th April 1617. Above it, Alof de Wignacourt built the Collegio that now forms the museum for the College of Chaplains, their mission to promote the cult of St Paul as well as to protect the Grotto. The church realised it had missed a trick, and immediately built their own — bigger, more eye-catching — church of St Paul immediately next door, financed by Cosmana Navarra (who has a street named after her, also a very nice restaurant now inhabiting her townhouse though we ourselves went to the Grotto Tavern, where I had ravioli in a kind of broth that started out on first taste as disappointingly bland until a crazy crescendo of flavour was reached at some point thereafter transforming my ideas of the heights pasta can attain). The grotto remained contested until the Knights lost everything (damn Napoleon) and now is with the Church. But this painting by the Knight’s own painter Antoine Favray (1706-1787), shows St John the Baptist and St Paul together, which only makes sense in the light of this story…hence, I suppose, the typewritten sheet beneath him.
Here also are perhaps my favourite catacombs — we have visited many. It also has a brilliant series of WWII shelters.
Down into the WWII Shelters
At the war’s outbreak (says the display), 8,000 workers began to dig shelters with pick axes. 841 shelters were dug to serve the population.
Some families asked for permission to dig individual shelters as seen in these caves, about 50 such rooms — all are a standard size and shape, but some have been painted and tiled. I loved these touches to create a kind of home here.
The view from inside
Beyond the shelters are the catacombs, and they were my favourites because you can just wander around. There were very few others here, and to have this place to ourselves — so very cool.
Here we found first mention of the Agape Table, which we would find everywhere, yet this is a name fairly sneered at by Anthony Bonanno in Malta: Phoenician, Punic, and Roman. He might also have sneered at this drawing, of a family communing over a meal in the catacombs, a reconstruction of how it is believed they are used.
But they are quite incredible
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.