MDINA DUNGEONS MUSEUM, MALTA
With a history that can be traced back more than 4000 years, Mdina is one of Europe's finest examples of an ancient walled city. As well as being a fascinating place to visit due to its cultural and religious treasures and extraordinary mix of medieval and baroque architecture, the city is perched upon a hilltop that offers spectacular panoramic views across the island all the way to the sea and, at night, gas lamps are used to illuminate the narrow cobbled streets.
Mdina is often referred to as "the silent city", perhaps due to the fact that - having once been the capital city of Malta - it became deserted when a new capital was appointed in 1565. Today, it still lives up to this nickname as few cars are permitted to enter the city gates and the local businesses have strict noise regulations. There are even signs urging silence all over the city.
Located just inside the walls of Mdina, beneath the Magisterial Vilhena Palace, are a series of underground passageways, chambers and cells where events are recreated to show the dark side of Maltese history. Exploring chapters from the times of the Romans, Byzantine, Arabs, Knights and the French, The Mdina Dungeons Museum contains graphic exhibitions that showcase crucifixions, beheadings, public executions, and torture, while providing details of crime, revolts, conspiracies, imprisonment, punishments and inquisitions that were commonplace during these different periods.
I wandered upon the museum by accident while visiting Mdina on my way to the nearby St. Paul's Catacombs. Heading down the narrow stone staircase and into the darkness, I realised I had made a terrible mistake as I appeared to be the only person in the dungeon and only a few steps in, it was already giving me the creeps. As I passed through the cells and corridors, avoiding the gaze of the various maimed, mangled, impaled, and disease ridden figures that formed the exhibitions, I read stories about crime and death in Malta, and the devices used to torture those accused of wrongdoing. One of the most notorious instruments is 'the rack' which sees the victim's ankles fastened to one roller and the wrists chained to the other end. As the interrogation progresses, a mechanism attached to the top roller gradually retracts the chains, slowly increasing the strain on the prisoner's shoulders, hips, knees, and elbows and causing excruciating pain until their joints are dislocated. As if this wasn't bad enough, being tied to the rack also enabled further torture to be applied, typically burning with hot torches or candles or using pincers to tear out the nails of the fingers and toes.
Less severe punishment included 'Masks of Shame' which were intended to ridicule people in front of their neighbours and the community. Most masks were symbolic referring to particular offences. For example, a mask with big ears was made for those who supposedly went out of their way to hear everything, while a big-nosed mask was created for those who interfere in other people's business and a mask with a big mouth and a long tongue signified that the wearer maliciously spread stories to other people. Such masks also bore inscriptions e.g. "The shrew who cannot hold her tongue has to put this muzzle on."
Another display explained how, in 1749, those involved in a failed Slave revolt were condemned to death and transported through the streets of Valletta where the executioner would tear bits of flesh from their bodies with red hot pliers before pouring boiling tar on to the open wounds. Some conspirators were branded with the letter 'R' signifying 'Ribelli' (Rebels), whilst others were quartered in the Grand Harbour.
To be honest, some of the wax figures are not particularly realistic looking, but in the dark corridors of the dungeon, when sound effects of torture and executions are playing through unseen speakers, this somehow adds an even creepier layer to the exhibitions. A source of amusement for me was the ladies toilets which are tucked in the corner of one of the rooms next to a display of masks of shame and under the recreation of a torture scene which has some unfortunate souls hanging upside down, next to heads on spikes. Quite a sight when you're visiting the loo.
Despite my initial trepidation, I found the museum quite good fun and really informative. It offers a great opportunity to learn more about different strands of Malta's history and, for only €5, it's value for money. Outside the entrance is an old medieval-style pillory which makes a good photo opportunity.
More info can be found here.