The Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni is the only prehistoric underground temple in the world.
We knew that this was a must see place, so several months prior to our trip we went online in search of tickets. The place is not just a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the atmosphere inside the temple complex is highly regulated. This allows for only ten people per hour to enter for a very limited time period and only 60 persons per 24 hours. As you can imagine, tickets are sold out for around a year in advance! I found two tickets available on a day when we were going to be in Malta!!! You bet I bought those within seconds of finding them.
The Hypogeum is located within a residential neighborhood and a bus drops you off blocks from the site. You then wander the streets from small sign to the next hoping you are going in the right direction…
Hey the place is just another residential doorway…….we went right past it the first time!
Now access is VERY controlled, as I stated, so all personal items are collected…….darn, no secret photos to be had!
Since no photos are allowed the following photos of the interior of the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni are all from Google searches.
The Hypogeum of Paola, Malta, literally meaning “underground” in Greek, is a subterranean structure dating to the Saflieni phase (3000-2500 BC) in Maltese prehistory.
Thought to have been originally a sanctuary, it became a necropolis in prehistoric times, as is proven by the remains of more than 7,000 individuals that have been discovered during the course of the excavation.
The Hypogeum was depicted on a 2 cents 5 mils stamp issued in the Maltese Islands in 1980 to commemorate the acceptance by UNESCO of this unique structure in the World Heritage Site list.
It was closed to visitors between 1992 and 1996 for restoration works; since it reopened only 60 people per day are allowed entry.
It was discovered by accident in 1902 when workers cutting cisterns for a new housing development broke through its roof. The workers tried to hide the temple at first, but eventually it was found. The study of the structure was first entrusted to Father Manuel Magri of the Society of Jesus, who directed the excavations on behalf of the Museums Committee. Magri died in 1907, before the publication of the report. Following Magri’s sudden death, excavation resumed under Sir Temi Zammit.
The first level is very similar to tombs found in Xemxija in Malta. Some rooms are natural caves which were later artificially extended. Remember that these rooms were carved into solid limestone with DEER ANTLERS!!!
This was built in the Neolithic Age.
The second level was only opened when the original builders found that this level was no longer adequate. This level is only ten meters below the street level.
The Second level features several apparently important rooms, such as
the Main Room, the Holy of Holies, and the Oracle Room.
The Main Chamber is roughly circular and carved out from rock. A number of trilithon entrances are represented, some blind, and others leading to another chamber. Most of the wall surface has received a red wash of ochre.
It was from this room that the statuettes of the sleeping lady were recovered. Nowadays these figurines are held in the Museum of Archaeology, in Valletta, Malta.
The Oracle Room is roughly rectangular and one of the smallest side chambers. It has the peculiarity of producing a powerful acoustic resonance from any vocalization made inside it.
This room has an elaborately painted ceiling, consisting of spirals in red ochre with circular blobs.
Out of the Oracle’s Room, through the hammer dressed chamber, on the right is another spacious hall, circular, with inward slanting smooth walls, richly decorated in a geometrical pattern. On the right side wall the entrance is a petrosomatoglyph of a human hand carved into the rock.
The second level contains a 2 meters deep pit which could have been used for either keeping snakes or collecting alms.
The focal point of this room is a porthole within a trilithon, which is in turn framed within a larger trilithon and yet another large trilithon.
The lower story contained no bones or offerings, only water. It strongly suggests storage, maybe of grain.
Stories from the Past
There is an account that in the 1940s a British embassy worker, Miss Lois Jessup, went on a tour of the Hypogeum and persuaded a guide to let her explore a 3 ft. square “burial chamber” next to the floor of the lowest room in the last 3rd sub-level. She claims that after squeezing through this chamber she came into a large room; where she was standing there was a large cliff with a steep drop and the floor of the cavern could not be seen. Across the cavern there was a small ledge with an opening in the wall. According to Ms. Jessup, a number of “humanoid beings” that were covered in white hair and hunched over came out of this opening. They raised their palms in her direction and a large gust of wind filled the cavern, extinguishing the light of her candle. She then claimed that she felt something brush past her. When she went back to the Hypogeum on another occasion, she was told no such tour guide had ever worked on the site.
Sometime after Miss Jessup’s first visit, a group of school children and their teacher visited the Hypogeum on an outing and entered the same burial chamber, which then collapsed while they were inside. Search parties could not conduct a thorough search for the children or their teacher due to the cave-in. The parents of the children claimed that, for weeks, they could hear the voices of their young children coming from under the ground in several parts of the island. source: http://www.philipcoppens.com/
Many subterranean passageways, including ancient catacombs, now are a part of the island’s fortifications and defense system. Supplies are kept in many tunnels; others are bomb shelters. Beneath Valletta some of the underground areas served as homes for the poor. Prehistoric men built temples and chambers in these vaults. In a pit beside one sacrificial altar lie thousands of human skeletons. Years ago one could walk underground from one end of Malta to the other. The Government closed the entrances to these tunnels after school children and their teachers became lost in the labyrinth while on a study tour and never returned…………. According to National Geographic’s ”Ancient X-Files” there are no local newspaper reports or accounts from residents about the missing children, making it more likely this was an invented story.
Whatever the local lore is about this place, I can tell you that we felt very honored and thankful to have been able to walk these ancient rooms. To imagine our ancestors toiling for years to construct this grand and beautiful place……….not to mention the marvelous ceremonies and rituals that must have been………..