Beneath the splendour of the Wignacourt in Rabat lies an underground necropolis just waiting to be explored – its catacombs.
Before the Silent City became known as Città Notabile, and even before it got its name Mdina, Melite’s boundaries stretched all the way to Wignacourt College. Later resized to its current dimensions by the Arabs, its citizens during the time of the Roman era buried their deceased outside the city’s walls, deep under the Earth’s surface.
The catacombs adjoining the Wignacourt date back to around 200AD and are part of the hypogea of a Roman necropolis that is truly a feat in terms of its architecture. When venturing down into these vaults of history, in fact, you can appreciate a myriad of differently-styled tombs, from the saddle-backed baldacchino tombs (which are basically a hole with an semi-circular opening) to through-less baldacchino tombs (similar to the baldacchino tombs but, this time, with two openings), to window tombs and small loculi (tombs which are traditionally considered Egyptian in style).
This underground cemetery, which was positioned outside the city’s walls because of hygienic reasons, also doubled as a place for mourners to conglomerate. It was also the place where rituals could be performed. At the end of the tunnels, in fact, there is an Agape table, which was used for ritual meals to celebrate those who had died.
Today, because of the many cases of looting over the centuries, not much remains of what used to be inside the catacombs, yet visitors can still happen across century-old bones. The awesomeness of these catacombs, however, does not come from their eeriness but rather from our forefathers’ attention to detail. Some window tombs, for example, still have the purposely-carved indentations in the rock – the spot where the deceased’s heads would have once lain.
Although centuries have passed, there is still a solemnness to these tombs that cannot quite be explained in words. Going slowly down the steps that separate our everyday life from this underworld that is almost two millennia old, you can’t help but feel engulfed by a world that is long-gone.
For more information on the catacombs, which form part of Heritage Malta’s St Paul’s Catacombs complex, and the Wignacourt Museum you can contact us on +356 2749 4905 or at email@example.com