Legend has it that Paul was kept as a prisoner in a cave during the three months he was in Malta, awaiting transport to Rome. That cave was said to still exist, now a religious shrine, so I decided to find it.
I took a bus out of Valletta to Rabat in central Malta. As the bus drove through the arid countryside, punctuated by fields and rubble walls and painted with yellow-blooming prickly pear cactus and oleander trees heavy with big pink flowers, a walled city came into view high upon a hill. This was Mdina. The city takes its name from the Arabic word for walled city, medina, and the fortifications surrounding the tiny town are the same built by the Arabs during their occupation of Malta in the ninth century. Rabat is contiguous with Mdina and comprises the town immediately outside Mdina’s city gate; rabat is also an Arab word, loosely translating to “suburb.” Before the Arab invasion, there had been only one town under the Byzantines. The Arabs tightened the defenses by closing in the central part of the settlement, effectively creating two cities.
It was in Rabat where Paul was supposed to have been imprisoned. Today, St. Paul’s Grotto rests beneath St. Paul’s Church on Triq San Pawl. A long set of stairs descended from the sidewalk into the depths below the church. The light grew dim and the air was cool and damp. At the foot of the stairs was an iron fence with a gate standing open. On the other side there was an altar with a large statue of St. Paul. A tour guide sheparded half a dozen or so camera-toting visitors through the grotto and so I followed him.
He came to the actual grotto where it is said that Paul preached and administered to those curious about Christianity. The grotto was not a cave; in fact, it was not much more than a shallow alcove in the rock, perhaps eight feet high by ten feet across. A marble statue of St. Paul stood in the center of the grotto. He balanced a large book on one outthrust hip, while extending his left hand to the viewer–and sure enough, as the old man pointed out to me in Valletta, Paul had all five fingers extended. A small silver replica of a galley donated in 1960 by Knights of St. John Grand Master de Moyana hung from the rock ceiling. At the base of the statue were four ugly lamps, fashioned to look something like torches, set on short stone columns. The lamps were a gift from Pope Paul VI, who was not necessarily know for his sense of interior design.
The tour guide carried on about the miracles Paul worked in the grotto, although, if truth were told, as a Roman citizen it is unlikely that Paul would have been imprisoned in a cave while in Malta. It is far more likely that he would have spent his time on the island in the comfort of the magistrate Publius’ house.
St. Paul’s Grotto was disappointing and the pilgrims that trickled through the site seemed suitably unimpressed. Ascending into the bright sunlight I realized that I was near two ancient catacomb complexes, one named after, of course, St. Paul, the other named for St. Agatha. I headed southwest from the church square on Triq Sant’ Agatha (Saint Agatha Street) to St. Paul’s Catacombs. All that was visible above ground was a stone wall surrounding a few small stone structures scattered in a weedy lot. Below that weedy lot, however, lay a serpentine maze of early Christian tombs, most of them dug in the fourth and fifth centuries.
The temperature dropped significantly as I descended into the catacombs from the staircase in one of the little stone structures. It took a few moments before my eyes become accustomed to the darkness, broken now and then by naked light bulbs hanging on wires. I found myself in a vestibule of sorts with a primitive chapel and stone-cut altar on the right. On the left was a room that contained two large round tables carved from the stone, surrounded by a groove that served as a bench. The tables were called agape tables. Here people gathered, reclining on the benches Roman style, to mourn, pray and feast as they commemorated their dead.
I wandered through the galleries of silent tombs cut into the native globigerina limestone. Originally, each grave would have been sealed with a slab made of stone or terra cotta, but now the dusty graves lay open, their occupants long gone. There was a variety of grave styles represented in the catacombs: loculi, small rectangular graves for babies carved into the walls of the passageways; arcosolium tombs dug directly into the floors of the passageways; canopied table tombs, a series of graves dug side by side about two feet above the ground on shelves framed by arches; window graves with arched “windows” cut above the sealing slabs so that one could look down an entire row of such graves; and various other styles.
Despite the name of the catacombs, there is no historical association with St. Paul. On the surface once again, I thought I’d try my luck at St. Agatha’s Crypt and Catacombs. I found the sign-posted alley for St. Agatha’s about one-tenth of a mile southwest of St. Paul’s Catacombs. It was a lovely, narrow tree-shaded alley–one that could easily be missed by the inattentive visitor– that opened into a stone courtyard. There was a tiny, unassuming archaeological museum in the courtyard where I purchased a ticket to explore the crypt and catacombs. When I asked when the next guided tour would start, the cashier simply shrugged, and told me to help myself. He pointed across the courtyard to what looked like a subway entrance.
I walked across the courtyard and found that the iron gate across the stairs descending into the catacombs was padlocked. I wiggled the lock. It was unlocked. The gate squeaked in protest as I dragged it open and crept down the stairs. “Crept” is accurate, since there were no lights to help me find my way down. At the bottom I entered the original crypt.
It was in that crypt that St. Agatha, an early Christian fleeing persecution in her native Catania in Sicily was said to have found refuge, at least temporarily. She had refused to marry the Roman governor of Catania and fled to Malta in 251 A.D. She stayed there for several months, but eventually returned to Sicily where the Romans arrested her, cut off her left breast, and roasted her to death. Today, Agatha is a popular saint whose influence is widespread both in Malta and especially in Sicily; my grandfather came to the United States from the Sicilian seaport of St. Agata de Mitello.
A single weak light gave off firefly glow in the crypt. The flash from my camera was like a flare in the dark chamber, briefly illuminating a rough-hewn altar and colorful frescoes covering the walls and ceiling–I would find out later that the frescoes were painted in 1200 and depicted the ubiquitous St. Paul, St. Agatha, and the Madonna breast-feeding the infant Jesus.
In a small recess in the wall, I could see steps cut into the stone and another puny light in the distance. I made my way up the three steps, entering the catacombs proper.
As in St. Paul’s Catacombs, there were a variety of grave styles present, but the light was weaker here and they were not as easy to distinguish. My camera flash served as a flashlight, pushing back the gloom a least momentarily. Spider webs appeared like black lace strung across the grave windows. The catacombs contained as many as 500 graves and covered about 2.5 square miles, although only a small portion is open to the public. This was a good thing; as it is, one could easily get lost in the dark passages that are accessible.
The section I was in was the oldest (the catacombs were used up until the seventeenth century), with burials dating from the second and third centuries. These were Christian graves, but there were also pagan graves dating from the same time period, a noteworthy example of early religious tolerance, something missing in modern Malta. The passages were narrow, the ceilings low. In one chamber, I looked into an open grave illuminated by a tiny bulb and was startled to find people looking up at me. Two crumbling skeletons lay side by side in the cool darkness, their empty eye sockets trained on eternity.
Once my heartbeat returned to normal, I continued my exploration of the catacombs, taking pictures, many of them simply by pointing and shooting into the darkness. I found that, unlike St. Paul’s, some of the graves here were decorated with frescoes and inscriptions. One such tomb bore Greek letters and the images of floral wreaths and pelicans.
At last, I stumbled into what is believed to be the earliest Christian church in Malta. It was a semicircular chamber with a frescoed niche at one end that probably served as both an altar and tabernacle. In the dim light, I could barely make out the shape of the niche, but once again, my camera provided light. The central feature of the fresco was a large scallop shell and painted below the shell on either side, a bird. The tourist brochure described them as doves, representing the souls of the dead.
What a wonderful thought, to think of those dead souls winging their way up out of the darkness into the light of eternity!