A visit to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum was on the top of our wish list during our ten day-trip to Malta. We read about this prehistoric site when we checked the UNESCO World Heritage list for Malta. Besides the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, the tiny Mediterranean Island of Malta boasts two more UNESCO World Heritage sites. Several Megalithic Temples and the Old Town of the Capital Valletta are also on the list. We did not know much about Hal Saflieni before we went, but the age and the size of the structure deeply impressed us.
What is a Hypogeum?
Hypogeum or Hypogaeum is the Greek term for “underground”. So, the word usually indicates an underground temple or burial place. Over years of travel, we have visited several Hypogea around the world, like the underground burial sites in Tierradentro in Colombia, the tombs in Saqqara in Egypt, or the Hypogea in Palmyra in Syria. Many of them are very old. The UNESCO-listed Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Malta, however, is presumably the oldest pre-historic Hypogeum, dating back until 3600 BC. In order not to destroy the decoration in some parts of the cave, only a very limited number of visitors may go inside every day. For the same reason, there is a strict no-photo policy inside the Hypogeum. Cameras must stay in the lockers outside.
Early booking is essential
When we were planning a rough itinerary for our Malta trip about two weeks before the start, we read about the need to pre-book the tickets for a visit to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Still it came as a shock that most of the available tickets for our time frame were already sold out. But as we were quite flexible, we managed to make a reservation for the two of us. In “normal”, pre-Corona years you would have had to book at least six weeks in advance, we learn later. Due to Corona the group size was down to ten persons per visit to Hal Saflieni, too.
A Maltese tourist attraction around 1900
The visit to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum follows a well-scripted choreography. It starts with a short video introduction of the detection and excavation of the site. In 1902 builders accidentally found the underground chambers when they worked on a new housing development. The story reminds us of the famous Terracotta Army in Xian (China), where a farmer digging a well found one of the clay warriors. Not wanting any official attention, the Maltese builders just like the Chinese farmer tried to cover up their find at first.
But eventually information about a potential prehistoric site leaked out. The archaeologists arrived one year later. They found bones of more than 7000 people in three levels of carefully laid-out underground chambers! Some of these subterranean rooms were beautifully decorated.
As early as in 1907, the first tourists arrived. Armed with torches, affluent travellers on their “Grand Tour” explored the rock chambers filled with skeletons.
A visit to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in our days
A visit today is very different from the experience these early tourists might have had. Equipped with the compulsory audio guide we start on a 20-minute tour with fixed stops along a fenced-off route. Every time we stop, some features get extra spotlight for a short time only. This is to minimize destruction from too much light. The bones are now all in the Archaeological Museum, either on display or in storage for further examination.
Three layers of caves
The uppermost level of underground rooms is – of course – the oldest. It was dug into a hill around 3500 BC. The first chambers were probably natural caves that the early settlers extended according to their needs. Other chambers were not really caves, but open to the sky. Here we see large standing stone pillars which may have held an additional roof. Besides the bones, we learn, the archaeologists found pottery, beads, and stone pendants on this level. These early caves were almost certainly mainly used for burials.
In the 3rd millennium BC the people dug more caves below the first level. Today this is the middle level of rooms. However, the archaeologists can only guess why this happened. Maybe the caves were not only used for burials by then, but also for ceremonies. In that case, the participants might have needed more space. In addition, a geographical separation from the tombs might be welcome.
Spirals and echoes
Many chambers of the middle level have smoothed walls and some feature beautiful decorations of red ochre spiral designs. One room contains a small niche opening at about shoulder height. To their surprise, the researchers found that it reinforces human voices if you speak into it! So, this may have been an acoustic feature that priests or community leaders used in some rituals.
Among the finds in the middle level there were also some small sculptures. Mostly they were carved stone animals and the characteristic fat-lady figurines that we had particularly liked in the museum. Also at the middle level we see a round man-made cave in a design that imitates Megalithic architecture! It looks just like the Megalithic temples we have visited in Malta: An entrance gate, pillars and a tiered roof. The prehistoric people did all this without any modern tools only by using stone wedges and hammers.
Storage or dump?
Not far from this round hall a staircase leads down into the lower level of caves of the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. This part of the cave system is off-limits for the visitors, however. The lower level was possibly a storage for grain. But also, some of the bones from earlier burials were dumped there, perhaps in order to make space for newer bodies.
What happened to the builders of Hal Saflieni?
Carving these caves out of the sheer rock only with basic tools must have been immensely time and labour intensive. Moreover it must have been an ongoing project for several generations. And yet almost nothing is known about the early inhabitants of Malta who achieved these feats. When around 2500 BC new bronze-age settlers arrived, they found awesome megalithic structures. But the people who built them had already disappeared. Even now, we have no clue why they left or what happened to them.
Is a visit to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum a must in Malta?
Despite the early reservation, the high entrance fee of 35 Euro and the no-picture policy we really enjoyed the visit. In fact, it was one of the highlights of our trip to Malta and a precious experience. It is very rare to have the chance to visit such old man-made structures in person, after all. One can only wonder how and why our ancestors did it. If you have a strong interest in (early) history, you will definitely enjoy a visit.
For additional insights we recommend a visit to the Archaeological Museum in Valletta, where you can see some of the objects found in the caves as well as some of the bones.
How to get to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Malta
A public bus runs from the capital Valletta to the small town of Paola. Even by bus it is a short ride of around 20 minutes. From the bus stop it is a ten-minute walk to the UNESCO site of Hal Saflieni.
Remember to make an online booking for Hal Saflieni as early as possible.
The official site is: https://heritagemalta.org/hal-saflieni-hypogeum
NB: We paid for all expenses by ourselves and did not receive any sponsoring for this post.
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