Attractions
Take cover! Beat the heat by visiting these 6 cool catacombs in Malta
Discover what lurks beneath Malta’s sunny surface

Melanie Drury

Not all of Malta’s amazing places of interest are in plain sight. Below ground, centuries-old man-made passageways were used for religious practice and the chambers used as a burial place - these are the catacombs. Tucked away below the cities and churches, discover the hidden catacombs in Malta.

1. The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum

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The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, dating from 4,000 BC to 2,500 BC, is one of Malta’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. This prehistoric underground burial site was discovered in 1902 during construction works. Fr Emmanuel Magri first excavated it, however his excavation notes have been ‘lost’. Not surprising, perhaps, when one considers the rumors about the discovery of elongated skulls and the mystery of the missing children at Hal Saflieni. The three-levelled Hypogeum, where 7,000 human skeletons and a large number of artefacts were unearthed, also displays unique acoustic properties and prehistoric art. The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is open daily 9am to 5pm but pre-booking well in advance is necessary.

2. & 3. St Paul’s & St Agatha's Catacombs

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One of the earliest and largest sites filled with archaeological evidence of Christian worship in Malta, this fascinating underground Basilica was used by St Paul (60 AD) and St Agatha (249 AD) as a place of Christian practice during their refuge on the island. Located in Rabat, they cover an area of over 3,600 square metres and 4,100 square metres, respectively. The catacombs are located beneath one of Malta’s oldest churches, St Publius' Church in Rabat. These are the largest and most famous of the twenty-one known catacombs in the area. At the time, Mdina or Melita was the capital yet burial was not allowed within the city walls. The catacombs feature Siculo Byzantine and Graeco Roman style frescos and two agape table placings for hosting wakes for the dead. The catacombs are open daily 9am to 5pm, or until 6pm from June to October.

4. Ta' Bistra

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Ta' Bistra Catacombs, located not far from Mosta centre in the area of Targa Gap, are the largest complex of tombs and catacombs outside Rabat. These form an extensive network of first century early Christian catacombs in the area known as il-Bisbezija. The paleochristian catacombs have individual entrances from the vertical face of the ridge overlooking St Paul's Bay. The site is 90 meters long and consists of 57 tombs laid out in 16 chambers. It is thought that Ta’ Bistra catacombs formed part of a much larger site which was partially damaged due to extensive quarrying, a farm that was built over it and its use as an air-raid shelter during WWII. An EU funded project saw the excavation, documentation, conservation and preservation of these ancient tombs as well as the restoration of the overlying farmhouse. Visitors can visit the site on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 9am to 5pm.

5. Tal-Mintna 

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Tal-Mintna in Mqabba, which dates back to 4AD, is less known, perhaps because the site is small compared with St Paul’s & St Agatha's Catacombs. However, the catacombs of Tal-Mintna stand out for their many interesting features. For example, the site features window tombs that are decorated with elaborately carved scallop-shells and embellished with decorated pilasters. Another interesting feature is that the site comprises three aligned hypogea which were originally dug separately, side-by-side, but, subsequently, joined by narrow passages to make one larger complex. This site is not generally open to the public and access to it is by appointment with Heritage Malta.

6. The Salina Catacombs

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Located near the Church of the Annunciation in Salina, Naxxar, this small cluster of catacombs is, again, less significant when compared to the larger catacombs on the island. However, they provide an important indication that a sizeable community must have lived in the area during the last half of the first millennium AD. The catacombs overlook a low ridge facing a lost Roman harbour, making the site even more archaeologically important. The site comprises five hypogea cut into the vertical surface of a small quarry, with one more that's been damaged plus a number of other openings in the rocky outcrops around the site. The hypogea display decorated pillars, an agape table, two baldacchino tombs, and window tombs lavishly decorated with reliefs of palm fronds and other spiral patterns. The site is restricted to the public for conservation but may be viewed by appointment with Heritage Malta.

5th July 2019


Melanie Drury
Written by
Melanie Drury
Melanie was born and raised in Malta and has spent a large chunk of her life travelling solo around the world. Back on the island with a new outlook, she realised just how much wealth her little island home possesses.

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