St Paul’s Catacombs are the largest, most impressive and most accessible of the catacombs in Rabat and attract the tour groups. Plan your visit to avoid these as there is little space in the underground passageways. Photography is allowed in the catacombs but no flash.
They are made up of a labyrinth of narrow passages and stairs dating from 3rdC. They contain over one thousand burials with the last shortly before Arab rule in the 9thC. There is a variety of different tomb styles from small children’s recesses dug in the wall to grand canopied sarcophagi. There were professional grave diggers who also acted as guides directing mourners.
After death, the body was treated with oils and perfumes, shrouded and placed directly in the tomb. The head rested in a round shape carved out of the stone. Many tombs were designed for two but were often reused and more bodies added later. After the interment or on the anniversary of the burial, family and friends would gather in the catacomb for a funerary meal at an agape table cut specially from the rock.This had a raised rim with a drainage hole and was usually surrounded by rock cut benches.
The catacombs were partially lit by luminaria, shafts cut through to the surface which let in natural light, as well as small niches which would contain oil burning lamps.
The ticket office has a small museum with examples of oil lamps found in the catacombs and a paleo-Christian inscription “Fufica Galena and Curtius Diadoumenos husband and wife erected this tomb for the well deserving Valeria”.
The entry charge includes an audio guide to the catacombs where there are a series of talking posts. This is well worth following as it gives lot of information. The visitor area of the catacombs is well lit and access restricted to these areas. Outside is an enclosed garden area with stone buildings looking a bit like small Roman Temples with steps down into the catacombs. There are 28 different entrances, each with a number above the doorway. There were both private and public catacombs in this area. The tour takes you into two different areas.
The first (number 4) has an entrance passage with hypogea off it. We could see further rooms off these. Each has agape table. In the corridor is a blocking stone or ‘plug door’ used to block the entrance to a tomb. It was a very tight fit and would be sealed with mixture of lime and crushed pottery. At the end of the passageway is a blocking stone with surgical instruments carved on it.
Entrance 5 is a much larger and splendid building. A steep flight of steps leads down from the entrance with small tombs for children carved in walls beside steps. The main chamber has a series of passageways off it. When the catacombs fell into disuse in the 8/9thC, this area was used as a cave church until 13thC.
There is a walkway round the area with numbered posts for use with the audiotape explaining the different types of tombs, burial procedures etc. This is a huge rabbit warren of a place. Every available space was used. We could see lines of tombs; some single, some double. Some were carved out of the walls; others in huge carved sarcophagi in the floor. When they ran out of space, bodies were buried in the floor of the passageways and it is possible to see the depressions left by these graves. This was a very well worth while visit.