Uncovering a historical gem: Ta’ Bistra catacombs opened to the public

Ta’ Bistra paleochristian catacombs date back to the fourth century AD and were originally discovered in 1891.

Catacombs in Mosta dating back 1,700 years have been opened to visitors by Mosta local council, which has also created a visiting centre in works that have been ongoing for eight years.

Ta’ Bistra paleochristian catacombs date back to the fourth century AD and were originally discovered in 1891. The site was only properly excavated in 1933 by archaeologist Charles Zammit, the son of Sir Temi Zammit, who excavated the Hypogeum and the megalithic Tarxien temples. Temi Zammit earned his knighthood for his work in eliminating undulant fever from Malta.

“The site is 90 metres long and consists of 57 tombs laid out in 16 chambers,” said Project Manager George Cassar.

“Given how vast the project is, it required the collaboration of various partners and funds in order for it to be carried out. The project has also been divided into three stages.”

Cassar explained that the first phase had been funded by the EU under its Cultexchange project of the Interreg IIIA programme, and that the remainder of the project would fall under the Archaeotur project among others. 

“The aim of this project is not just to conserve the sites but to open them to visits by members of the public,” Cassar said. 

“The launch was an occasion marking the conclusion of the Mosta part of the Archaeotur project, which is part of the Italia-Malta programme, where both countries pointed out sites that needed to benefit from more tourism,” said John J. Camilleri, acting executive secretary at Mosta local council. 

The council had started a twinning project with the municipality of Ragusa in Sicily following the discovery of very similar catacombs known as La Catacomba delle Trabocche.  

Camilleri pointed out that Malta had picked two sites for the Archaetour project: the Ta’ Bistra catacombs in Mosta and the St Augustine catacombs in Rabat. The project involved various organisations like the Mosta local council, the Rabat local council, the Malta Tourism Authority and Heritage Malta. 

Camilleri said that the visitor centre would supply information through videos, 3D models and photos to visitors, who could also visit the catacombs. 

The visitor centre has been in development since 2008, when works to strengthen the farmhouse structure built over part of the site had begun. The farmhouse has, over the years, been strengthened and converted into the fully functioning visitor’s centre it is now. Work has also been done to clean the archaeological site and surround it by a boundary wall to protect it from vandals. 

“Visitors also have the opportunity to view a traditional Maltese farmhouse that overlies part of the tombs, and a traditional Maltese stone quarry,” Camilleri said.

The farm which had been built over the underground tombs is believed to have been built many years after the site was excavated in 1933, and it is reported that the building had caused some damage to the tombs themselves, particularly as they were occasionally used to keep animals. 

The farm is not the only building to have been built over the site, with semi-detached villas and a main road connecting Mosta to Rabat having been constructed over the site in the early 80’s despite the fact that Ta’ Bistra catacombs had been listed in the antiquities act of 1932. 

The act stipulates that any sites that are confirmed as antiquities are to be “regarded as falling under the provisions of the Cultural Heritage Act,” but the construction of villas in the area had been allowed nonetheless.

Cassar clarified that although villas had originally been built over the catacombs, they were no longer private property, and those sections that had been built over by private property had been expropriated in the early 90’s. 

A report published in MaltaToday in 2002 had revealed “the Museums Department has expropriated two strips of land running parallel to the catacombs. The department had also been opposed to the building of the now very busy main road over the area.”

“The land now belongs to Heritage Malta, and the landowners had been compensated,” Cassar said.

Camilleri said the 57 tombs were believed to be part of much larger catacombs which were partially damaged due to extensive quarrying in the area. 

“It is thought that the site was damaged due to quarrying related to the building of Mosta’s Rotunda church towards 1833.”

According to Camilleri, the site had also served as an air raid shelter for civilians during World War II. The catacombs are considered extremely important because they could potentially shed light on some of the earliest Christian dwellers on the island, and their behaviour and burial rituals.