A Descent into Malta’s Mystical Hypogeum

Believed to be one of the oldest prehistoric underground temples in the world, the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a mysterious and impressive engineering marvel crafted by Malta’s ‘Temple Builders’. Little is known about the sophisticated Temple Builders and why they eventually vanished from the island, leaving only their temples behind. Incredibly, some of their structures predate Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Archaeologists think Malta’s Hypogeum was carved out of living rock as far back as 3600 BCE, and originally used as a sanctuary, then as a necropolis. The remains of approximately 7,000 people were found there.

By the time the Hypogeum was officially rediscovered in 1902, four homes had already been built on top of it. It’s said that real estate developers kept an even earlier discovery quiet so that they could continue constructing homes. The four modern structures have since been demolished, but the site is now engulfed by twentieth-century townhouses. With its present nondescript exterior, you would never guess that a prehistoric treasure like the Hypogeum dwells below ground.

The Hypogeum is built on three levels, with the oldest at ground level. What’s especially incredible about the structure is that it has survived earthquakes. Aesthetically, it’s also impressive that the individuals who sculpted it employed techniques that made it look like architecture, using simple tools to carve the rock.

In addition to finding human remains within the Hypogeum, archaeologists discovered pottery, amulets, beads, and the plump ‘Sleeping Lady’ statue. Made of clay, it depicts a reclined woman, perhaps symbolizing eternal rest. Today, that statue is in the country’s National Archaeology Museum in Valletta.

As we descended into the musty site, water droplets fell from the rock ceiling, which shimmered with moisture. Jammed next to the other visitors, I stepped carefully so I didn’t slip on the path. The air was damp and cool. I shuddered to think how foul the smell must have been millennia earlier when the chambers were filled with decaying corpses.

Occasionally, our female guide pointed out the Hypogeum’s highlights. At other moments, the audioguide prompted us, with a primordial beat in the background. I thought it was fitting that the musician who had created the audioguide’s haunting soundtrack had actually composed and recorded it inside the temple using stones, pottery, and a frame drum as instruments. Apparently wanting to be inspired by the Hypogeum’s surroundings, he spent a great amount of time underground there.

On some of the walls, you could still make out ornamental swirls of red ocher, a natural pigment likely originating from nearby Sicily. Since red ocher has been found elsewhere on Temple People artifacts, it’s thought to be a spiritual flourish, perhaps symbolizing blood or life.

No one actually crooned inside the Hypogeum’s ‘oracle chamber‘ during our tour, but our guide explained that specialists had actually discovered that if a man were to call into the abyss, his booming voice would resonate eerily through the temple. Apparently, this doesn’t work for female voices. It’s unknown if the resonating effect was deliberate, and if it might have had a spiritual purpose. Perhaps someday we will know why, but for now, it’s fascinating to ponder such mysteries of the Hypogeum.

hal-saflieni-hypogeum-malta-exterior
The Hypogeum site has been engulfed by development, making its exterior look unassuming. We were left wondering what other treasures remain hidden beneath Malta’s urban areas.
Photograph of the Hypogeum by Richard Ellis before 1910
Hypogeum means ‘underground’ in Greek. If you’ve seen any of Malta’s above-ground temples (Ħaġar Qim or Ġgantija, for example), you might notice the resemblance with the subterranean Hypogeum. Image in the Public Domain {PD-1923}and taken by Richard Ellis before 1910.
Site Map of the Hypogeum October 1907
A site map of the Hypogeum, circa 1907, made by the Maltese archaeologist Manuel Magri. Image in the Public Domain {PD-1923}.
sleeping-lady-figurine-malta-archaeology-museum-valletta-temple-builders
The ‘Sleeping Lady’ figurine was sculpted by Malta’s ‘Temple Builders’. Incredibly, this tiny statue survived for thousands of years inside the depths of the Hypogeum and was not re-discovered until the 20th century. I wonder who the Sleeping Lady was modeled after, and what she was supposed to represent? Peaceful sleep? Death? Note that you won’t find this statuette inside the Hypogeum complex, as it’s now on display in Malta’s Archaeology Museum in Valletta.

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • The Hypogeum is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and because of its fragile nature, only 80 visitors are allowed inside each day. Since visitor numbers are severely restricted, it’s a good idea to purchase tickets well in advance from the site’s caretaker, Heritage Malta. This Heritage Malta page details Hypogeum ticket prices and opening hours, and links to where you can purchase tickets online. When we visited in April 2016, tickets were €30.00 for adults and €15.00 for students. We purchased our tickets online, and printed out the tickets.
  • As we prepared to descend into the Hypogeum, a Heritage Malta employee collected all the purses, cameras, and backpacks of the people on the tour, and stowed them into a locked cabinet near the check-in desk. We were able to reclaim items left behind once we came back upstairs.
  • In order to protect the site, photography is not allowed inside, so some of the images I’ve shared here are in the public domain. Note that it’s dark and damp inside the Hypogeum, and rather cramped (not surprising for a nearly 5,000+-year-old site!), so wearing appropriate footwear makes it easier to avoid slips.
  • To get to the town of Paola, where the Hypogeum is located, we traveled from Valletta by bus. We used this Journey Planner and Google Maps to plot our route. Keep in mind that short distances can be deceiving when it comes to travel times on Malta. The island is densely populated, and during rush hour it can take an hour just to travel a few kilometers.
  • Would you like more ideas as you plan your trip to Malta? This link contains an index of all my posts from Malta.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell (with public domain exceptions noted). All Rights Reserved.

24 thoughts on “A Descent into Malta’s Mystical Hypogeum

  1. TRICIA! THIS IS FANTASTIC! WOW! Your blog is so cool. When I have the chance I will have to look further into your travels. You are amazing. I admire you so much. I feel very fortunate to call you my friend. WOW, did I already mention how exciting this is and how cool you are, please! Love you, ~Laura

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  2. This sounds fascinating. I get claustrophobic so it may not work for me. I’m glad you have a place listed for all of your Malta posts as we are going to Malta in March!!! We will be staying in Qawra for one week. I will be rereading all your posts. Too bad you are not living there anymore.

    1. Darlene, that’s exciting that you’re headed back to Malta! Indeed, it’s a pity we’re no longer there, as it would’ve been fun meeting up, and even showing you around a bit. We never made it to the St. Paul’s Bay area (which I see Qawra is part of), but I bet it’ll offer you convenient infrastructure for exploring. Of course, Malta is so tiny, everything is within reach so long as you time the traffic well. You’ll be closer to the ferry terminal too, should you decide to go to Gozo, which the locals sometimes describe as “Malta as it once was.”

      Please let me know if you have any questions as you plan. I’ll be looking forward to hearing about your trip. :)

  3. Thanks for the tour. Fascinating about the echo. I really wanted to see this place when I visit Malta in April, but the Heritage Malta website stated that it’s closed. :(

    1. Julie, glad you enjoyed it! We just left Malta, after living there for 12 months. Towards the tail end of our stay, we read that the Hypogeum would be undergoing much-needed restoration work for an undetermined amount of time. I’m sorry to hear it’ll likely be closed during your springtime visit. Are you planning on visiting some of Malta’s above-ground temples? We made a point of trying to visit most of them, and found some just as intriguing as the Hypogeum. If you have any questions about which one(s) you may want to visit, depending on where you’ll be staying, I’m happy to help.

      1. I’d like to visit a few archeological sites, mainly those I can get to with the hop on hop off bus, because I’ll only be there 2 days. Plus I’d like to wander around Valetta and the other old cities. I think I’ve figured out which ones I’ll try to visit, but if I have any questions, I’ll take you up on your kind offer. Thanks!

      2. You’ve probably already heard this, but travel times can be deceiving on Malta, particularly during rush hour. There’s certainly a lot of cars on that little island! Whenever we could, we traveled by ferry, as opposed to on land (using the Three Cities to Valletta ferry, and Valletta to Sliema ferry, for example.)

        Wish you fun trip planning!

    2. Dear Julie,

      I’ve just read that the Hypogeum is meant to open again on May 15th. Unfortunately you’ll miss it anyway if you’re going in April. If you’re in Malta on April 2 which is a Sunday, Heritage Malta will be opening Ta’ Ħaġrat temple, between 09.00hrs and 16.00hrs, at the reduced price of 3 Euro. More importantly, on the same day, Heritage Malta will provide access to Tal-Mintna Catacombs, a site which is usually closed to the public. You’ll fine other heritage events on http://www.heritagemalta.org/whats-on/

      My twitter page http://www.twitter.com/MiniMalta carries other information on all that’s related to the island of Malta.

      1. Gattaldo, thanks for sharing these extra details with Julie! We no longer live in Malta, but I’m happy to hear the Hypogeum will be re- opening soon. We sure do miss our Sundays in Malta, when we tried to explore a new heritage site or go for a walk in the countryside.

    1. Rachel, thanks for the kind words! I feel fortunate to have been able to step back in time here, and it’s nice spreading the word about this heritage site. Have you taken – or are you contemplating – a trip to Malta?

  4. I found myself holding my breath. The hair on my arms standing up. Then I felt the water dripping me. A tingling vicarious experience. I travel the world with you dear Tricia. XX Virginia

    1. Virginia, I greatly appreciate how you share your responses to a piece. How fun it would be to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea together someday! I hope you are well; I suppose you’re dreaming of the fragrant blooms that will be soon emerging in your cherished garden? Hugs to you too!

      1. My dear Tricia. For the first time (more than 25 years) since we have live on the lower mainland WE HAD WINTER. Months of it. First time ever my Camilla shrubs froze. By now we should have early flowering plum blossoms and crocuses and other delicate bulbs bloom. NOTHING. We had snow for Christmas, and it NEVER left. Strangely enough most of us enjoyed the beautiful snow (other than the scary icy roads). But we are into spring now and tiny daffodils are poking through the earth to see if it is safe to come out. XXX Virginia

      2. Virginia, it’s surely a good sign when daffodils emerge! After being spoiled by Malta’s year-round pleasant weather, we were a bit shocked by a German winter these past months. The blooms just started to emerge here a few days ago. I hope by now, your garden is bursting with color.

  5. It is amazing how many mysterious places await to be discovered. I haven’t heard about Hypogeum before, so thank you much for sharing this experience of yours. You have a inspiring blog.
    xx, Victoria

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