The Silent City in Malta
Rabat and Mdina, are referred to as The Silent City. Each has something different to offer. Rabat has several sites from different times in history, as well as the very well-known catacombs. Mdina is a city like no other on the Maltese Islands. Although being a fortified city, like many on the Maltese Islands, from the moment you approach the city, you notice just how different it is to all the rest, and for that, there is a reason. Visiting Mdina, The Silent City, is definitely a must for anyone who comes to Malta.
All photography in this article belongs to Alex Turnbull.
The town of Rabat got its name from when the Arabs were in Malta and in Arabic it means “suburb”, as it is located in the suburbs of Mdina, which was the capital city of Malta in the time of the Arabs. Half of the town today still has the remains of the Roman city of Melite, before the was resized under the Fatimid occupation.
Sites to visit in Rabat
Burial sites in Rabat
The famous catacombs of St. Paul and St. Agatha are found in Rabat, along with St. Augustine’s catacombs. These catacombs were used during Roman times for burials, as in the Roman culture it was unhygienic to bury the dead within the Silent City of Mdina. The catacombs were never made to be equipped to live in or hideout. The St. Paul’s catacombs form part of a large burial space or cemetery and comprise the catacombs of St. Agatha, St. Augustine, San Katald, and others. There are over 500 graves, all different with the majority being for children. There are also sections for Jews, Pagans, as well as Christians and the catacombs had many unique frescos.
The Abbatija Tad-Dejr is located in Rabat and is a paleochristian burial site in a hypogeal complex. Although smaller than those in Rome, the catacombs in Malta, specifically those in Rabat are very important as they reflect early Christianity. The earlier catacombs had a singular shaft and chamber tombs dug from the vertical face of a quarry. From 4 and 9 AD, an additional four complexes were added. From the four catacombs, the largest is the most important, with rows carefully placed with baldacchino tombs. The baldacchino tombs are seen to be the richest from the variety of tombs types found in the Maltese catacombs, this is noticeable as at least three were decorated with reliefs. This site is one of the only sites which took some pre-planning prior to excavation.
A stone altar was also discovered at the hypogeum and a number of crosses were carved into the rock surface. A fresco decorating the apse, where supposedly the location of the original altar, can now be seen at the National Museum of Fine Arts. The site is currently closed for conservations. For more information about catacombs, make sure to check out the Historic Sites article.
Wignacourt Museum and the Collegiate church of St. Paul
The Wignacourt museum in Rabat is found in an 18th-century Baroque building that used to be a house of the Chaplains of the Order of St. John. Its name was given after Grandmaster Alof de Wignacourt, who was in rule between 1601 – 1622. The museum focuses on art and religious artifacts. It is linked to the St. Paul’s grotto, as mentioned in the bible, are the catacombs St. Paul stayed in for 3 months after his shipwreck on the Maltese coast in 60 AD. The grotto itself is located right under the Collegiate church of St. Paul from where there is an entrance to the grotto.
Mdina entrance at night
The Domus Romana is what remains of a Roman house that dates back to the 1st century BC. It was discovered in 1881 and several well-preserved Roman mosaics, statues, and artifacts were found. The layout and architecture of the house had a colonnaded peristyle, inspired by the ancient Greeks and polychrome Hellenistic style mosaics which were found surrounding rooms, depicting motifs and mythological scenes. Even though the house was severely damaged, the mosaics remained intact and are comparable to those mosaics found in Pompeii and Sicily.
In the 11th century, the Domus was converted and used as a Muslim cemetery. During excavation, at least 245 burials were discovered together with a number of limestone tombstones and one marble tombstone with Naskh or Kufic inscriptions. After excavations, the first building, to house a museum on an archaeological site was built on this site, to preserve the mosaics. The museum was originally known as the Museum of Roman Antiquities and apart from the mosaics, it also showcased other Roman and Muslim artifacts that were discovered on site. The museum has been enlarged by the architect Galizia, adding a neoclassical façade and a large room to display the pieces. The remains from the Domus Romana were included on the Antiquities List of 1925. Today it is open for visitors.
Mdina – The Silent City
Mdina, also known by Melitta, Melitte, Madinah, Medina, as well as Citta Vecchia or Citta Notabile, was the old capital of Malta back in antiquity till the Medieval times. It is a fortified city and the town of Rabat is found just outside the Silent City of Mdina. In the 8th century, the city was founded as Maleth by the Phoenicians but later was renamed Melite by the Romans. The Silent City, as it is referred to, is on the tentative list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The ancient city was larger than the one that stands today. Mdina remained as the centre for Malta’s nobility and religious authorities, property was passed down from generation to generation.
The Silent City of Mdina is built on a plateau that has been inhabited from prehistory as well as in the Bronze Age. When the Phoenicians colonized Malta, around 8 century BC, Maleth was founded on this plateau. In 218 BC, it was taken under the rule of the Roman Republic and got renamed Melite. Some interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles says that when Paul was shipwrecked on the shores of Malta, he was greeted by Publius, the governor of Melite at the time, and Paul cured his father. This led to the population of Melite converting to Christianity and Publius becoming the first bishop of Malta, followed by becoming the bishop of Athens and being martyred in 112 AD.
Following the fall of the Roman Empire, a retrenchment was built within Mdina, to make it more defensible and the city was reduced to its present size. In 870 AD the city fell from Byzantine Melite into the hands of Aghlabids, led by Halaf al-Hadim who was killed in the fighting. After the battle, the inhabitants were massacred, the city destroyed, and all churches were looted. It is said that the marble from the churches was used to build the castle of Sousse in Tunisia. Al-Himyari mentions that Malta was uninhabited until 1048 or 1049 when Muslim communities and their slaves began resettling on the island. It was then that the city was changed from Melite to Medina. The layout of the city was completely different, yet in today’s Silent City you can see for yourself the typical features of the old Medina, a legacy left behind during the Arab rule.
In 1091, the city was surrendered to Roger I of Sicily, after a short siege, and Malta was incorporated into the county, later the Kingdom of Sicily. In the 15th century, the population of the Maltese Islands was about 100,000 and the inhabitants were mainly located in Mdina, Birgu, and the Cittadella in Gozo. In 1429, the city withstood an attack by Hafsid, however, the population numbers suffered greatly after the raid.
In 1530, with the arrival of the Order of St. John, the nobles handed over the keys to the city to Grandmaster Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, however, the Order decided to settle in Birgu and Mdina lost its title as a capital city. In 1540 the fortifications were upgraded and in 1551 the city withstood an attack from the Ottoman. During the Great Siege in 1565, Mdina was a base for the Order of St. John’s cavalry. There were several attack attempts from both the Order’s side against the Ottoman, as well as the Ottoman attempting to invading the island. In 1722, Grandmaster Antonio Manoel de Vilhena ordered the restoration and renovation of Mdina. This project was entrusted into the hands of a French architect and military engineer, Charles Francois de Mondion, who gave a touch of French Baroque to the Medieval city.
In 1798, The French forces captured Mdina without much resistance. Although the French garrison remained in the city, a Maltese uprising broke out a few months later. Rebels entered into the city through a sally port and massacred 65 men from the garrison. This led to the two-year uprising and blockade and in 1800 the French surrendered and Malta became a British protectorate.
Sites to visit in the Silent City of Mdina
St. Paul’s Cathedral & Cathedral Museum
St. Paul’s cathedral, also known as the Metropolitan cathedral of St. Paul, of the Mdina cathedral, is a Roman cathedral that was founded in the 12th century. Prior to the construction of the cathedral, it is possible that a mosque was built by the Arabs, which had replaced the first cathedral which was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and was destroyed during the attack from the Arabs in 870 AD. It stands where it is said the Roman governor Publius met St. Paul.
St. Paul’s cathedral and square
In 1091, once Christianity was re-established on the Maltese Islands, the cathedral was built and dedicated to St. Paul. It was built in Gothic and Romanesque style and was modified and enlarged several times after. In 1693, Mdina suffered greatly from an earthquake in Sicily, with the cathedral of St. Paul being partially destroyed and was then rebuilt by Lorenzo Gafa between 1697 – 1703, in Baroque style and is considered to be Gafa’s masterpiece. In the 1720s several medieval houses were demolished to create the square that is present today, the Bishop’s Palace and the Seminary, which is now the Cathedral Museum. The cathedral suffered damage during an earthquake in 1856, however, this has not stopped the cathedral from being one of the top attractions for tourists to visit when in Mdina.
National Museum of Natural History & Vilhena Palace
Vilhena Palace, also known as the Magisterial Palace and Palazzo Pretorio was built between 1726 – 1728. Its style is French Baroque, and it was named after Grandmaster Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, who commissioned its construction. The designs were of French architect Charles Francois de Mondion. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the palace was used as a hospital and became known as the Connaught Hospital. After 1973, it has been open to the public and today you can find the National Museum of Natural History.
Streets in the Silent City
Palazzo Falson historic house museum
The Palazzo Falson, prior known as Palazzo Cumbo-Navarra, Casa del Castelletti, and the Norman house, was built around 1495, making it the second oldest building in Mdina. It is a medieval townhouse that was built as a residence for a family of Maltese nobility and was named Palazzo Falson, after the family name. It is currently open to the public and is considered to be a house museum. It has seventeen rooms field with historic domestic belongings and antique collections.
Palazzo Santa Sofia
Palazzo Santa Sofia is located across from the cathedral and the ground floor of the building was built in 1233, making it the oldest building in Mdina. The second floor was constructed in the 20th century. The building was rented and at one point was even used as a school by the roman catholic nuns. Today, it is privately owned and managed by the local heritage foundation Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti. Although not open to the public, it can be hired for a private function.
The Mdina Experience
The Mdina Experience is a 30-minute visual journey through the history of the city. It is the perfect way to get a true understanding of what the city is all about, before wandering the streets of the Silent City and discovering it all for yourself.
The Mdina Dungeons
History is not made of too many pleasant experiences and although pretty dark, the Mdina Dungeons take you back in time to get a glimpse of what the dark side of history was like in the city. It is also the only dark walk attraction in Malta and some do find it quite graphic, so definitely no kids.