Malta is home to some of the most impressive neolithic sites in the world – none more so than the hypogeum at Hal Saflieni. This underground burial complex is open to the public, and has been an UNESCO world heritage site since 1980.
To find it, you’ll have to get to the small inland town of Paola, just South of Valletta. There are road signs for the hypogeum, but the Maltese heat has long since burnt off much of the lettering. This combined with the fact that the entrance to the hypogeum is in a normal-looking house down a nondescript street can make it difficult to find – but it’s well worth the effort.
Once inside, there’s a small waiting room and lockers to leave your personal belongings. Each visitor receives an audioguide with guided commentary, and there’s a small museum area to browse before going down into the hypogeum itself.
The hypogeum (from the Greek, meaning literally ‘underground’) of Hal Saflieni dates back to around 3000BC and started life as a religious sanctuary before its later use as a burial complex began in earnest. It is the only underground temple from the prehistoric era that has been found so far, and was discovered by chance when some local builders were building cisterns for a new house. Amazingly, the builders tried to hide the discovery at first – but it didn’t last long. It’s hard to hide an enormous underground burial chamber, complete with the remains of 7,000 human beings at the best of times.
They builders had stumbled upon what is undoubtedly one of the most valuable archaeological finds in human history. The first level is open and demonstrates a number of tombs that were initially hacked out of natural caves. From here, we descend to the second level.
Here, we see the ochre-walled main chamber (source of a number of important finds including the exquisite ‘Sleeping Lady’, now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Valletta) before moving on to the Oracle Room, decorated with intricate red ochre patterns. This room has the strange quality of resonating when a note is sung at the correct frequency – but was this intentional? Was it part of an ancient rite? Nobody knows.
From here, we move on to the Decorated Room, painted with spirals, past the Snake Pit and on to the breathtaking Holy of Holies, which stands within an exquisitely carved series of trilithons.
Visitor numbers are strictly limited to 80 per day so be sure to book ahead via the hypogeum website. If you can’t get tickets, there are two daily last minute tours at 12 noon and 4pm – ask for details at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta or the Gozo Museum of Archaeology.
Things are a little flashier now than on our first visit at the beginning of the noughties, which has removed some of the charm but made things a lot easier for those with limited mobility, although due to the nature of the site it is not yet wheelchair friendly. Unfortunately, children under 6 are not allowed into the hypogeum for safety reasons.
Address: Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, Burial Street, Paola, Malta
Opening Hours: Mon-Sun from 0900g-1600h. Tours on the hour.
Tickets: €30 per adult, €15 for concessions and children 12-17, €12 children aged 6-11, €35 on 1200 and 1600h tours
Great podcast on the hypogeum available by scrolling to the bottom of this website
Closed 24, 25 and 31 December, 1 January and Good Friday