Like the rest of the archipelago of Malta, the area around Mdina, known as the Silent City, was occupied as early as 4000 BCE. The town stands on a hill in the centre of the island, and because of its strategic importance was first fortified by the Phoenicians around 700 BCE. Its importance at that time was echoed when the Roman Governor of Malta had his palace built here. Whilst Mdina is enclosed by the ancient city walls, just outside its walls is the village of Rabat (suburb), not to be confused with Rabat on the island of Gozo, named Victoria by the British. Because of its prominence it was to become the first capital of Malta.
It was during the Roman period, 4th century, that the Catacombs of St Paul, St Agatha, were dug. They were part of a large cemetery system of more than two dozen Catacombs started by the Carthaginians, outside the walls of the city. This suggests that the early Phoenician-Carthaginian city was the same size as the later Roman city of Melite. The Catacombs were used to bury all their dead, Pagan, Jewish and Christian, as it was considered unhygienic to bury the dead in the city. The early tombs were merely shafts with burial chambers dug at either side, whereas the later tombs were much larger, joining neighbouring tombs together forming labyrinths.
It is outside the city walls that the best preserved Roman remains stand, the domus (villa) of a wealthy Roman citizen built in the 2nd century, with mosaic pavements comparable with the best in Rome. The main entrance hall, accessed from the street, passed between four shops to open out into a spacious atrium, where guests or clients could be met.
The roof, which was open in the centre, was supported on pillars, and the sloping roof allowed rainwater to drain down into a central pool. Set around the atrium were a series of bedrooms, a dining room, living rooms and, in a commanding central place, the owner’s office. Two passageways led from this section to the back half of the house which is a pillared walkway set around a cloister. At the centre was a large pool used to keep fish for eating, and along one side were the kitchens and storage rooms along with the servant’s entrance, although the servants lived outside the main house.
As glass was so expensive, exterior windows were not common, but an under floor heating system was fitted under the main rooms, and mosaic tiling throughout the house, with more elaborate patterns in the main rooms and simple geometrical patterns in the others. The walls were decorated expensive paintings and murals in bright colours set in panels. It is from the name “domus” that we get words such as domicile and domestic from. Upper class Romans had domus in towns sometimes incorporating shops, or villas in the countryside where they run farms or estates, whilst lower classes of Roman society lived in overcrowded and dirty apartments.
Christianity arrived here very early when the Apostle St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 CE, and made his home for three months in Mdina.
When the Roman Empire fell the Vandals came from North Africa to fill the vacuum left behind. This lasted for a century before it was recaptured by Byzantium. In the 9th century a new wave came from Africa, this time the Moorish Fatimids, who held Mdina until the Norman invasion of 1091. It was they who built the massive walls and moat of Mdina that surround the Moorish housing that remained, whilst the suburb of Rabat continued to grow outside the walls. When Saracen invaders attacked the city in 1429 the walls held and the army was repelled by the defenders.
When the Knights of St John arrived in 1530, despite being given the keys to Mdina, the capital of Malta was moved from Mdina to Birgu. The aristocracy of Mdina were hostile over losing their power over the island, although the defences of the city were strengthened by the Knights, so much so that they stood against an Ottoman attack in 1551.
Following the Great Siege of 1565 on the Knights headquarters in the Grand Harbour, the retreating Muslims turned their attention on Mdina but, despite the defenders being short of cannon balls, they were driven off by artillery fire. The defences remained as they were until the De Redin Bastion was built, and the gates strengthened in the 17th century, and the Despuig Bastion during the 18th, after which attention switched to the defences of the Harbour.
Low Class Roman Housing
The Drinking Doves Mosaic
Rows of Rockcut Coffins
Shrines, St Paul's Catacombs
Jewish Silk Market, Mdina
St Paul's Street
The Greeks Gate
Mdina City Walls and Moat