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An Exclusive Look Into the Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum in Malta

by Silke Elzner

It is funny how there are sometimes random events that change the way we see the world. Take Malta, for example. What is the connection between the climate in Malta and an archaeological lottery win? Well, in Malta, the summers are usually hot and dry, whereas winters tend to be wet and mild. To survive the summer drought, Maltese people have been digging cisterns to collect rainwater underneath their houses for centuries. And this is what this one man did in the little town of Paola just outside of Valletta. However, what happened next was as extraordinary as winning the lottery: What workers discovered under the house was an ancient hypogeum.

I would have loved to see the look on the workers’ faces when they smashed through the roof of the unexpected cavity under the house. What would have been even better would have been witnessing the curious glances of the first researches who explored the many caves of the hypogeum after it had been dormant for thousands of years. What went through their heads as they found deep underground pits filled with bones, ceilings with red ochre paintings, niches filled with tiny statuettes and pottery?

One hundred years after this spectacular discovery I was also exploring the ancient site. An exclusive visit since tickets are expensive and strictly limited. Only around 80 people are allowed inside the Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum per day. Read here about my experiences and the history of this world heritage site. At the end of the article, I will also share with you everything you need to know if you want to visit the hypogeum too.

The Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni is an underground burial site in Malta, around 5,000 years old and covering an area of about 500sqm.

The Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni is an underground burial site in Malta, around 5,000 years old and covering an area of about 500sqm. Photo: www.viewingmalta.com

The Secrets of the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni

Let’s go back some 5,000 years. The people had been living in Malta for several generations already. They had developed their own distinct island culture, built massive temples from huge monoliths. They didn’t know metals and probably didn’t know the wheel either. Still, they were able to create masterpieces using the simplest of tools made of wood, stone, and horn. Take the temple of Tarxien, for example, which was adorned with spiral patterns, huge statues, elaborate altars.

These early people of Malta probably left their dead on an open field, let nature and wild animals eat the flesh off the bones. When this was done, they would collect the remains and carry them to the hypogeum. The entrance was located on a hillside, marked by huge boulders similar to what the temples looked like. Down they went into the underground. Tunnels, driven deep into the soft limestone, would take these ancient visitors into the depths of the underworld. In the darkness of this secret space, flickering torch flames would paint vivid patterns onto the walls, making the red artwork on the ceilings dance for the grieving visitors.

The rhythm of tools would resonate through the tunnels and halls. Somewhere in the depths of the hypogeum people would work on yet another extension of the burial chambers. New caves would be created to allow the deposit of more bones, provide mourners with a space for their rituals. The smell of death is thick in the visitors’ noses, making it hard to breathe. Rotting corpses everywhere, it is the house of the dead.

The oblong Oracle Room of the hypogeum was probably used for rituals or ceremonies.

The oblong Oracle Room of the hypogeum was probably used for rituals or ceremonies. Photo: www.viewingmalta.com

The Sleeping Lady and Other Mysteries

The visitors continue on their descent into the underground, until they are completely surrounded by darkness. They reach their final destination, the Holy of Holies, a circular room with entrances and niches to all sides, from which more rooms radiate. The ceiling is elaborately carved so that it resembles the ceilings of the above-ground temples in Malta. Stepped stones which close off the room in a crude cupola shape. This is the only hint researchers have today as to how temple roofs may have looked like in Malta since all above-ground roofs have since collapsed.

The group forms a circle and starts a mysterious chant. They may have sticks to add a rhythm to their song. Some of them step out of the circle and begin with rituals and ceremonies to honour the dead. We will never know how these rituals would have looked like. The light of the flames cast deep shadows onto the walls, keeping the shapes of the niches and doorways in constant motion. At the end of the ceremony, the bones of the deceased are thrown into a deep pit where they join the bones of hundreds of other dead people.

Once the pit is filled with bones, workers would walk across the gruesome floor of bones to reach the other side of the pit. They would start opening up a new passage, digging a new room with a bone pit to bury even more dead. Room after room after room, layer on top of layer, a macabre maze of bones and rotting flesh. Before the mourners return to their houses they leave something behind. A little statue of a fat woman who is lying on her side, asleep. Today, the statuette of the Sleeping Lady is one of the best examples of prehistoric art in the world.

The Sleeping Lady is just one of the many treasures that were found inside the hypogeum. It is now in a safe place in one of Malta's many museums. For many years, the tunnels of the hypogeum have been (ab)used for other purposes. In the past, it has been a playground, a stable, and an air-raid shelter.

The Sleeping Lady is just one of the many treasures that were found inside the hypogeum. It is now in a safe place in one of Malta’s many museums. For many years, the tunnels of the hypogeum have been (ab)used for other purposes. In the past, it has been a playground, a stable, and an air-raid shelter. Photo: www.viewingmalta.com

Practical Information About our Experience Inside the Hypogeum

There are some things you need to know before visiting the 5,000-year old hypogeum. I cannot stress enough that you must organise your tickets as soon as you have finalised your plane tickets to Malta. The reason being, that the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni is a delicate site which can only tolerate some 80 visitors per day. A complex environmental management system ensures that the site is preserved for future generations. The prehistoric chambers have their own microclimate, and more people entering the caves and breathing in oxygen and breathing out moist air would cause algae to flourish on the walls.

You are not allowed to take pictures inside the hypogeum. In fact, you even have to lock away your smartphone in front of the guide’s eyes. The first part of the visit is a short film in a small theatre of the heritage centre where visitors can learn about the discovery of the hypgeum and about the efforts of studying the site and conserving the treasures for future generations. Thanks to the audio guide you can decide in which language you want to watch the film. Afterwards, the group is led into another room where they are exposed to a multi-media show which is screened on all four walls surrounding the visitors. This second show intends to give you an atmospheric introduction to the purpose and the ideas behind the hypogeum.

After stepping through a lock, the group is then taken into the underground. You will have to take metal steps to get down. The ceilings are oftentimes so low that you have to bend down. It is narrow and dark and not suitable for visitors who struggle with enclosed spaces and darkness. The tour guide then takes the group from one station to the next, while everybody simply listens to the explanations and sounds on their individual audioguide. The complete underground tour takes about 20 to 30 minutes, in which you get to see a number of chambers, doorways, pits, niches, paintings, the Oracle Chamber, and the amazing Holy of Holies.

The temple of Tarxien is just a few steps from the hypogeum and can be visited in one go. Scientists believe that the two sites have a close connection and were used by the same people.

The temple of Tarxien is just a few steps from the hypogeum and can be visited in one go. Scientists believe that the two sites have a close connection and were used by the same people. Photo: www.viewingmalta.com

Tips for Getting Tickets to the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni in Malta

I hope that the following answers cover your most pressing questions about the Ħal-Saflieni.

How to book the Hypogeum in Malta?

It is essential that you book your tickets to the hypogeum as soon as possible, as tickets are extremely limited and sell out fast. We visited the hypogeum in April and saw a sign next to the cashier stating that next available tickets would be for the end of June. I think this makes it evident that some planning is necessary to avoid disappointment. You can easily pre-book your tickets on the website of Heritage Malta and pay by credit card. To check available dates and to make a booking, visit the website now.

Kids between the ages of 6 and 11 pay 15.00 EUR, adults pay 35.00 EUR per person. Given these steep rates, our visit to the hypogeum has been the most expensive experience by a big margin. Having said that, given the importance of the site as well as the complex measures needed to ensure an equilibrium inside the hypogeum, I find the fees justified. The hypogeum is unique, and as such, it is a UNESCO world heritage site. Tickets bought via the Heritage Malta website are sent by email with a barcode and can be shown in printed form at the allotted timeslot.

Last-minute tickets may be available on the day before the visit and can be purchased at Fort St Elmo (Valletta) and the Gozo Museum of Archaeology (Citadel, Gozo). However, it is very likely that you will miss out, so make sure you book online as soon as possible.

How to get to the Hypogeum in Malta?

We travelled by our own rental car and were able to find parking in one of the surrounding streets. The quarter where the hypogeum is located is mainly a grid pattern of residential streets with fairly narrow roads and on-street parking. If staying in Valletta and taking the bus, look at bus lines 81, 82 and 85.

Since you are already in Paola, you may also want to consider a visit to one of Malta’s megalithic temples. The temple of Tarxien is just a couple of steps away and can be visited for a fee without facing major queues. Some scientists believe that both sites are in close cultural and ritual connection with each other, making a visit to the Tarxien temple a great complimentary experience to your visit of the hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni.

Important to Know!

  • Make sure you arrive 15 minutes before your scheduled tour.
  • Late-comers will not be admitted once the tour has started.
  • The complete tour takes about 1 hour.
  • Make sure you wear enclosed shoes with good grip as surfaces may be wet and slippery.
  • There are steps to climb, so you need to have a reasonable degree of mobility.
  • Children under the age of 6 are not allowed.

All photos kindly provided by  www.viewingmalta.com

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