Home   >   Tips   >   Culture   >   Experience The Historical And Green Allure Of Beautiful Rabat In Malta

Experience The Historical And Green Allure Of Beautiful Rabat In Malta

by Tiziana Micallef

Share this
Tal-Virtu Rabat Chapel surrounded by green fields
*Cover photo showcasing Tal-Virtu Chapel in Rabat

Situated just outside the gates of the magnificent fortified Mdina, there is Rabat. Equally alluring, this northern region town in Malta played (and still plays) an active role in Malta's history and cultural heritage that dates back to ancient times. 

Rabat is a Maltese oasis that attracts thousands of locals and tourists non-stop. With a rich past that whispers tales from Roman domination and Arab conquest times to the iconic catacombs and its main Kolleggjata Bazilika ta' San Pawl; among other magnificent churches, convents and monasteries for various religious orders, including the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to Malta, Rabat is a unique place blending tranquillity and tradition thanks also to the wide stretches of green escapes it has to offer in the periphery. 

Read along to discover some of the most captivating features that have made Rabat one exclusive town in Malta!

The Catacombs

Many might say that the most captivating allure lies beneath the surface of Rabat – which is true! St Paul's Catacombs are located within this suburb that once formed part of the Roman city of Melite; once located on the plateau of present Mdina and Rabat.

Part of a massive cemetery which probably dates back to the Phoenician-Punic period, St Paul's Catacombs include also the catacombs of St Agatha, St Catald, St Augustine and others. This complex is considered the largest in Malta and is a prominent feature of early Christian archaeology in Malta. It was located outside the city walls of Melite for a purpose. As the Roman tradition, Phoenician and Punic burials were located outside the city walls. In fact, for The Roman Empire, it was illegal to bury dead bodies within the city due to lack of hygiene.

Inside St Paul's Catacombs

Inside St Paul's Catacombs, via Wikimedia Commons

St Paul's and St Agatha's Complex hold over 30 underground temples (hypogea), many accessible to the public. St Agatha's cluster alone features 500 graves and galleries of multiple types, mostly for children. In these catacombs, there are also sections for pagans and Jews, plus a crypt dedicated to St Agatha and various frescoes unique to the Maltese islands. According to local tradition, St Agatha fled from Sicily during the persecution of Christians and stayed in Malta for a few years. When she returned to Sicily, it is said that she was immediately arrested and condemned to imprisonment and torture. 

What makes Rabat's catacombs so enticing is the unique repertoire of burial types it has – testimony to the different phases of Malta's history. Two agape tables carved out of bedrock found in St Paul's Catacombs were used for ceremonial meals in memory of the deceased relatives. The so-called baldacchino tombs are another fascinating find in the main corridors of the entire complex. These were free-standing, canopied burials with arches and supporting pillars. In the St Paul's cluster one can also witness burials with Christian, Muslim, pagan and Jewish symbols, side-by-side without any divisions!    

The Domus Romana

Believed to have been built at the start of the 1st century BC, this Roman-era, aristocratic townhouse is another example of Rabat's connection with Malta's valuable ancient times. The Domus Romana was built within the perimeter of the city of Melite and was used until the 2nd Century AD. It featured a collonnaded peristyle inspired by the Greek architecture of the time. What truly captures the eyes are the polychrome Hellenistic-style mosaics found in the peristyle and the rooms surrounding it. From decorative motifs to mythological scenes made with precise techniques and skill, the Domus Romana holds sophisticated art.

Statues dating back to the 1st Century AD, together with coins, glassware, tableware, bath accessories and other fine artefacts were discovered during archaeological excavations in 1881.

Domus Romana Rabat floor mosaic

Floor mosaic of the peristyle in the Domvs Romana, via Wikimedia Commons

When Malta formed part of the Fatimid Caliphate, in the 11th Century, the Domus Romana site was changed to a cemetery. In fact, during the excavations, at least 245 burials were discovered. This discovery also led to the unearthing of several limestone tombstones and a marble one with inscriptions on them made with two types of Islamic-style fonts.

Medieval Rabat

Moving on to another gem in Rabat is the beautiful Casa Bernard. This Palazzo is a symbol of pristine splendour. It combines amazing architectural features from when it was built on Roman foundations to be used as a medieval watch tower until its transformation into a double-fronted Palazzo in the middle of the 16th Century. 

Casa Bernard takes its name after Dr Salvatore Bernard started residing in the house in 1723. Coming from French origins and a family of doctors, Dr Salvatore Bernard was the personal physician to the Grand Master. He resided in the house with his family until the second quarter of the 20th Century. This historic palazzo can be appreciated through guided tours, frequently held by the new owners themselves who bought the property in 1993.

The historical and artistic elements that highlighted the period of the Knights of St John are also alive in the museum named after Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. The Wignacourt Museum is an 18th-century Baroque building that once housed the Chaplains of the Order and is linked to several Punic, Roman and early Christian catacombs and St Paul's Grotto. The myth says that Paul the Apostle had stayed in this grotto while shipwrecked in Malta. Thus, also the name behind the Catacombs of St Paul! Wignacourt Museum is also interconnected with a complex of World War II shelters – simply an amazingly jaw-dropping gem to explore in Rabat if you want to get in touch with different stages of Malta's history in one place. 

Rabat's Green Escape

If you're keen on digging deeper into Rabat's precious spots, but staying above the ground, this town offers several green escapes which you can easily combine and create a walk or hiking trail in a long escape from the hustle and bustle. Various districts in Rabat still boast their authenticity and offer picturesque views to any nature lover. 

Areas like Bahrija, Mtahleb, Landrijiet, Kuncizzjoni and Lunzjata, among others, take you on a journey of natural habitats, flora and fauna as a celebration of Malta's untouched nature. Between panoramic views, chapels and large stretches of silence, Rabat's outskirts give you time to breathe in the purest of Malta's true elements.  

Victoria Lines Panoramic View Rabat

View of the Victoria Lines in Rabat

Two landmarks also worth escaping to are Chadwick Lakes and the Victoria Lines. The latter is a 12km line of fortifications spanning along the width of Malta, dividing the north from the south. Running from Madliena through the limits of Mosta, to Bingemma and the limits of Rabat, this late 19th-century network of linear fortifications built during the British period can be an adventurous way of discovering what Rabat has to offer. 

Chadwick Lakes or Wied il-Qlejgha is another British-era landmark that touches upon the limits of Rabat and runs to Wied il-Ghasel in the outskirts of Mosta. If you're on the discovery of Rabat's greenery, this large system of small dams constructed by British engineer, Sir Osbert Chadwick, drain into Speranza Valley through to Salina Bay and ultimately the sea.

Want to discover more about Malta's gems? Browse the Culture section on Yellow.

About Tiziana Micallef

Tiziana is a content writer and a mum of two active boys. She's an organisation freak always looking for inventive storage solutions, and enjoys DIY. She loves exploring new languages and has a passion for fashion, which she believes is a great way of self-expression.