The Inquisitor's Palace

Malta is a small country with a big history, and much of it deals with the darker side of how horrible people can be to each other. So if you’re a dark tourist, or if you’re just casually interested in stories of torture, crime and witchcraft, where are some of the best dark history sites to visit in Malta?

The Inquisitor’s Palace

There’s a stern-looking building in Birgu that still strikes fear into the hearts of some of the older population of the small Maltese city.

It’s said that this building, seen in the image above, still has people crossing the street rather than walking next to it. There’s even said to be a well of knives (bir tas-skieken in Maltese) lurking inside, waiting for poor souls to be thrown down to their doom. 

But fear not – the Inquisitor’s Palace is open to the public these days, its secrets have been laid bare, and it’s actually a rare gem.

Home to the Roman Inquisition in Malta, it’s one of the only remaining inquisitors’ palaces still to be found in its original condition, anywhere in the world.

But what was the Roman Inquisition? And why did an inquisitor need a palace? And is there really a well of knives inside?

The Roman Inquisition was a system of tribunals first established in 1542 by Pope Paul III, responsible for prosecuting people accused of all manner of crimes that went against the teaching of the Catholic faith.

These could be:

  • heresy (saying things about Catholicism that weren’t true)
  • blasphemy (taking God or saint’s names in vain)
  • sorcery or witchcraft (the first is by men, the second by women)
  • apostasy (abandoning your Catholic faith for another, either Islam or Judaism – regarded as the worst of all crimes by the Inquisition

These tribunals were held in Malta, much of Italy, and other parts of Europe where the pope had influence. The Inquisition eventually reached Malta in 1574 and remained a part of local life until it was kicked out of the country by Napoleon in 1798, following his invasion of the island.

The Inquisitor’s Palace was the place where all these tribunals were held in Malta. Today you can visit the palace, see the courtroom where the tribunals were held, the chambers where torture was carried out in a small number of cases and even the inquisitor’s kitchens and bedroom.

Whoever was the Inquisitor in Malta, and there were 62 of them over the centuries, was a high-ranking representative of the Pope in Malta. However, this often brought them into conflict with the Bishop of Malta, also answering to the Vatican, and the Grand Master of the Knights of St John, who ran the whole country.

One of the reasons the Inquisitors wanted a palace to reside in was to help affirm their status and reputation as a person of importance, especially when embroiled in a power play with two other high-ranking officials on the island. 

As for the legend of the well of knives – well, it doesn’t exist. The story likely sprang up because of the torture that take place inside the palace, to “help” those accused of behaviour unacceptable to the Catholic Church to see the error of their ways and confess to their sinful ways. But that didn’t involve being thrown down a pit with swords inside it. 

The whole building has plenty of stories just waiting for you to discover on a Dark Malta Tour, including tales of witchcraft, spells, and general bad behaviour by the Maltese population – sometimes by the inquisitors themselves!

St Paul’s Catacombs

A view of St Paul's Catacombs

What happened when a Roman died? The answer, both in Malta and elsewhere in the Roman empire, can be found underground.

The Roman empire was in Malta from 218 BCE until 870 CE, by which time it had become the Byzantine empire. St Paul’s Catacombs are a complex of underground Roman cemeteries that were used in Malta mainly between the 4th and 8th centuries CE.

It’s an area found in Rabat, a town right next to Mdina which is the ancient capital of Malta, and the catacombs cover more than 2,000m2 across more than 30 hypogea. Of these, the main cluster is what’s known as St Paul’s Catacombs.

They’re named after St Paul because the grotto where the saint is said to have lived for three months is close by, and it was once thought that grotto and these catacombs were connected. They’re not, but the name has stuck ever since.

The visitor centre will give you a great overview of the burial techniques of the Romans, and there are artefacts on display that were found among the tombs, demonstrating what kinds of things Romans were buried with.

Then you’ll descend into the land of the dead, to see the different types of tombs, according to the status and ages of the deceased. You’ll see how the Romans used stone to make doors and locks, and left specific carvings on the walls. You’ll also see how tomb raiders didn’t always let the dead rest in peace.

A visit to St Paul’s Catacombs is an eerie but interesting experience, and you’ll learn plenty about the rituals and reverence that the Romans held for their deceased loved ones.

Mdina Dungeons

The entrance to Mdina Dungeons showing stocks and a dummy dressed as a man

The Mdina Dungeons are an underground series of chambers and cells where events from the darker side of Malta’s history have been recreated.

Found just within the entranceway to the ancient city of Mdina which was once the Maltese capital, these dungeons contain dramatic stories dating from the Roman era to the Arab period to the Knights of St John and Napoleon.

These periods of history saw horrible acts such as public executions, beheadings, crucifixions, and all kinds of nasty types of torture employed by the different, but always unforgiving, authorities to rule over the Maltese islands.

The dungeons were originally built in the 16th century as a means of imprisoning criminals and political prisoners. During the rule of the Knights Hospitaller, the dungeons were used as a place of punishment and torture, and many prisoners were held there for months or even years.

Visit the Mdina Dungeons to take a glimpse into Malta’s terrifying past and feel glad you didn’t feel the wrath of the torturer’s terror!

National War Museum

The Gloster Sea Gladiator Faith - Pic by Alan Wilson

The story of Malta is one of war and conflict. Situated in the heart of the Mediterranean with a fantastic Grand Harbour in the capital Valletta, this small island of 316km² has been regarded as a vitally strategic place by many nations and empires, who have been willing to go to war over it.

This long history of fighting means Malta’s National War Museum is a superb catalogue of all these dramatic events. Divided into six sections, it covers 7,000 years of the island’s military history, beginning in the Bronze Age and carrying on into the modern day.

It carries many fascinating historical artefacts, including military armour of the Order of St John and the Ottoman Turks who fought ferociously in Malta in the Great Siege of 1565. It’s worth remembering that French Enlightenment writer Voltaire once said that “nothing is so well known as the Siege of Malta”, showing just how infamous that long, bloody battle was.

But of all the exhibits – which are displayed in chronological order – it’s the section relating to World War II that is perhaps the most memorable.

Here you’ll find wreckage from crashed aircraft, captured German machine guns, a torpedo and many kinds of weapons and artefacts from British and Maltese servicemen, along with items recovered from captured German and Italian forces.

Among the most important exhibits at the National War Museum are the Gloster Sea Gladiator N5520 FAITH which was one of Malta’s only three available planes at the start of World War II; the ‘Husky’ Jeep used by Franklin D Roosevelt during his visit to Malta in 1943; and the George Cross, Malta’s historic award for gallantry, given to the nation by the United Kingdom’s King George VI in 1942.

You’ll see this medal depicted on the Maltese flag, but if you take a private Dark Malta Tour to this museum, then you can see the actual artefact itself and hear just why Malta became the first civilian group to ever be given this award for bravery.

Walking Tours of Valletta, Birgu and Mdina

Mdina Gate seen at night

There’s dark history to be found in many parts of Malta, but not least on the streets of its ancient towns and cities. The former capital Mdina – seen in the image above – the main harbour city of Birgu and the capital city Valletta have experienced all manner of strange goings-on over the centuries.

There have been murders and tragedies on the streets of Valletta, a city named after Grand Master Jean de la Valette who had somewhat unkind views of the Maltese. It’s also the home to strange statues with intriguing histories, and a metal hook that has a link to legendary British Admiral Lord Nelson.

Birgu has ghost stories that haunt its side streets, and its main square was the site of executions. It’s also the place where sorcerers and witches were brought to appear at the tribunal in the Inquisitor’s Palace, and where terrible deeds were carried out by priests and nuns.

Mdina has been besieged many times and is the place where miracles were said to have helped its populous to defeat their invaders. It’s also where a huge hoard of buried treasure was once discovered, and the place where a woman once rode through the streets as punishment, naked on a donkey.

The best way to uncover all of these stories and more is to take a walking tour organised by Dark Malta Tours, where you’ll hear tales of the terrible and stories of the strange in each of these three places. Book your tour today!

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