Dining with the Dear Departed

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Dining with the Dear Departed.

In many cultures the concept of a wake takes place to bid farewell to the deceased. A wake is very often a social occasion which emphasises the fact that the loss pertains to a social group and therefore has an effect on the group as a whole.

Modern wakes are also associated with the serving of refreshments after the burial ceremony: something which contemporary Maltese society is not accustomed to except in feature films portraying northern cultures. However, evidence from the Maltese early-Christian catacombs clearly suggests that the custom of a final farewell meal with the person who has just been laid to rest was a common occurrence during the Roman period of Malta’s history.

While there is no documentary evidence to support this, the major Maltese catacombs from the Roman period commonly feature one important component which clearly points to this tradition.

This feature is commonly known as the Agape Table and is generally found in the wide public hall areas of the catacombs, generally at their entrance. The larger catacombs such as St Paul’s and St. Agatha’s in Rabat, Malta generally feature two of these tables while smaller catacombs with reduced burial capacity such as the small hypogea overlooking the old Roman harbour in Salina (where the pictures accompanying this story were taken) either feature a single Agape table or even none at all.

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This so called “table” is carved in its entirety from the living rock and its shape is assumed to have been jointly inspired by the triclinium (reclining couch) which was a common accessory in Roman dining rooms together with the stibadium which was the C-shaped banquet table from whose surface the diners reclining on the triclinium obtained their food.

These combined triclinium-stibadium combinations were hewn out of the limestone rock within the catacombs to form a solid architectural unit. Thus they are a solid part of the catacomb meant for permanent, multiple use.

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The Agape tables generally rise around 60cm above ground level. They were carved in such a way so as to slope gently downwards towards the circumference of the main chamber. On the surface, they assume the shape of a round, flat table encircled with a 6cm wide rim which is around about 3cm high, a sort of raised circumference giving the impression of a shallow flat bowl. The tables in the Maltese catacombs are about 75cm in diameter.  These Agape tables copy the C-shape of the Roman stibadium and all feature a small section of the rim which is opened on their front part. It is assumed that this opening had a functional rather than ceremonial function making it possible to clean and wash the table when the meal was over.

Of course, one assumes that at the time when the catacombs were in use, the people partaking in the meal were not expected to recline on the bare rock but that cushions and other soft material were laid on the sloping surface surrounding the table to provide for comfortable posture.

There are various interpretations for the use of these structures but the most popular explanation is that they were generally used by relatives and friends of the deceased to share a last meal to commemorate the person’s passing to the afterlife, possibly inspired by Christ’s last supper with his disciples.  They may also have been used to host commemorative meals during festivals of the dead such as All Souls Day during which visits to places of burial were very common and ceremonies to renew the rite of burials were held.

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So next time you visit the catacombs do look for these conspicuous structures, close your eyes and go back fifteen hundred years to imagine a silent gathering of mourners sharing a meal within the stark rocky embrace of these underground labyrinths.

 

 

The Roman Catacombs of Salina

DSCN9531_Creative pixlr signedThe Roman Catacombs of Salina.

I have known about the small Christian Catacombs of Salina for a very long time but never had the opportunity to visit them. Finally, an opportunity to go to the site arose and I took my trusted Nikon with me to explore this relatively unknown, small but nevertheless impressive legacy from Malta’s early Christian period.

Salina Bay today is a small inlet within whose inner waters one finds the salt-pans which give it its name. Centuries ago, however, Salina was Malta’s biggest Roman harbour, extending as far inland as the village of Burmarrad. Centuries of silting by soil and sediment carried by storm-water draining from the huge watercourses of Wied il-Ghasel and Wied Rihana eventually choked this once-great harbour, first converting it into marshland and eventually into the fertile agricultural land there is today.

Proof of Salina Harbour’s historical importance and relevance is evidenced by numerous archaeological finds including anchor stocks and amphorae found underwater (suggesting the unfortunate remains of ships caught in storms and which did not make safe harbour), walls of Roman ashlar masonry indicating the presence of jetties now located inland, the huge agricultural estate over which the Chapel of San Pawl Milqi was eventually constructed and, of course, the Salina Catacombs.

The area where the catacombs lie is behind the Chapel of the Annunciation near the Ta’ Cassia Restaurant. The complex consists of a main catacomb which is inaccessible and protected by a locked metal gate and a number of smaller tomb groups clustered around a rectangular court cut in the rock in what must have been an ancient coralline limestone quarry.

DSCN9505 pixlr signedIt is in fact the smaller tombs that I managed to visit and photograph. You can get to them through a signposted public footpath which passes through private agricultural land. The land is characterised by a grey lower coralline limestone outcrop showing clear evidence of ancient quarrying. Eventually you get to a small rectangular space in which five portals are cut into the vertical rock-face although the remains of tombs outside these entrances suggests that more recent quarrying may have destroyed parts of this catacomb complex.

The catacombs are well maintained, clean and navigable. Since these small hypogea are almost at surface level and do not penetrate deep underground, they are reasonably well illuminated with natural light. Mosses and ferns grow on their damp walls and floors. Their ceilings are not very high and care needs to be taken to avoid painful encounters with the hard coralline limestone!

DSCN9542_Monochrome 2 pixlr signedThe catacombs contain different types and shapes of graves including canopied graves and others which are arched recesses in the wall (called arcosolium graves). Some of the grave pits are wide enough to have held the remains of two individuals lying side by side. Until at least the eighteenth century a number of the graves still contained intact skeletons pertaining to the late Roman or Byzantine periods.

DSCN9524_Balanced pixlr signedIn one of the small catacombs there is a perfectly preserved Stibadium, the c-shaped dining table also called the agape table on which relatives of the deceased shared a meal after the burial. The size of these smaller catacombs suggests that they either belonged to different families or to guilds who interred their departed members in them.

DSCN9539_Soft 3 pixlr signedHaving a complex burial site such as the one at Salina indicates that the area continued to host a sizeable community even during the late Roman period after 500AD when the old harbour was already silting up and turning into unhealthy marshland rife with malaria. The area was eventually abandoned as evidenced by the name of the hamlet of Bûr Marrad which translates from the Semitic into the Marsh of Sickness.

The Salina Catacombs are well worth a visit. Their historical significance, their simple architectural charm, their status as an ancient resting place for our predecessors and their link with Salina’s rich ancient history all make the short sojourn to visit them very worthwhile.

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