WHS: Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, Malta

Every so often on our quest to visit Every World Heritage Site and all, we have a story to tell about how things didn’t quite work out the way they were supposed to; and sometimes, we have a story about how they didn’t work out at all. And that is the case today, for what was supposed to be the highlight of our stay in Malta:

Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum

 

The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum (underground cemetery) was discovered in 1902 on a hill overlooking the innermost part of the Grand Harbour of Valletta, in the town of Paola. It is a unique prehistoric monument, which seems to have been conceived as an underground cemetery, originally containing the remains of about 7,000 individuals. The cemetery was in use throughout the Żebbuġ, Ġgantija and Tarxien Phases of Maltese Prehistory, spanning from around 4000 B.C. to 2500 B.C.

Originally, one entered the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum through a structure at ground level. Only a few blocks of this entrance building have been discovered, and its form and dimensions remain uncertain. The plan of the Hypogeum itself is a series of three superimposed levels of chambers cut into soft globigerina limestone, using only chert, flint and obsidian tools and antlers. The earliest of the three levels is the uppermost, scooped out of the brow of a hill. A number of openings and chambers for the burial of the dead were then cut into the sides of the cavity.

The two lower levels were also hewn entirely out of the natural rock. Some natural daylight reached the middle level through a small opening from the upper level, but artificial lighting must have been used to navigate through some of the middle level chambers and the lowest level, which is 10.60 m below the present ground level.

One of the most striking characteristics of the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is that some of the chambers appear to have been cut in imitation of the architecture of the contemporary, above-ground megalithic temples. Features include false bays, inspired by trilithon doorways, and windows. Most importantly, some of the chambers have ceilings with one ring of carved stone overhanging the one below to imitate a roof of corbelled masonry. This form echoes the way in which some of the masonry walls of the contemporary above-ground temple chambers are corbelled inwards, suggesting that they too were originally roofed over.

Some of the walls and ceilings of the chambers were decorated with spiral and honey-comb designs in red ochre, a mineral pigment. These decorations are the only prehistoric wall paintings found on the Maltese Islands. In one of these decorated chambers, there is a small niche which echoes when someone speaks into it. While this effect may not have been created intentionally, it may well have been exploited as part of the rituals that took place within the chambers…

Now that sounds like a World Heritage Site for the ages, doesn’t it? The oldest underground temple known, unique acoustic effects, and even paranomal mysteries:

The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni and an unknown race with elongated skulls

The acoustic properties of the ‘Oracle room’ have been studied extensively by researchers. Anything spoken in that room is heard all throughout the Hypogeum.  Furthermore, some research has shown that the acoustic properties of the reverberating sound affects human emotions. Research done by Paolo Debertolis and Niccolo Bisconti of the Universities of Triests and Siena respectively, has shown that the construction of the chamber was made in a way to affect the psyche of people, perhaps to enhance mystical experiences during rituals…

One particularly interesting fact about the Hypogeum is that when it was discovered, 7,000 skeletons were found piled within the chambers.  What’s more is that they had a unique characteristic – elongated skulls – and one of the skulls (out of only a handful that survived) lacked the Fossa median (the join that runs along the top of the skull).  It is known that some of the skulls were on display in the Archaeological Museum in Valletta. However, after 1985 all the skulls that had been found in the Hypogeum, along with other elongated skulls found across multiple ancient sites in Malta, disappeared without a trace, and have never been recovered….

A race of people with elongated skulls, a chamber of unbelievable acoustic properties, and the mysterious disappearance of more than 7,000 skulls makes you think that something very special happened in this place, yet very few people to know about it, and it appears someone wanted it to be this way.

Now that, that is a World Heritage Site to remember our visit to forever!

And, when we excitedly arrived…

 

Oh, snap.

Well, in a grey area of considering World Heritage Sites visited, we were in fact within the stated bounds of the property. However, that “grey” area is pretty much indistinguishable from black when the entire point of visiting is to see what’s under the ground, tisn’t it?

Ah, well. So, we’ll need to visit Malta again, won’t we now?

Now, for your visit to Malta, we trust that the excerpts above are sufficient to convince you that this is in fact an AAA+ World Heritage Site to not miss under any circumstances —

— but these days, after it’s reopened since our visit to Malta with very strictly limited access, that will almost certainly require advanced planning:

Heritage Malta — Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum

The Hypogeum was first opened to visitors in 1908 and since then it has been visited by many thousands of people. Unfortunately, this has had a toll on the delicate microclimate of the site which has affected the preservation of the site and the unique red ochre paintings. For this reason, after a conservation project which saw the site closed for 10 years between 1990 and 2000, a new system was established in which only 10 visitors an hour are allowed in for a maximum of 8 hours a day, complemented by an environmental control system which keeps temperature and humidity at required levels.

Now, of those 8 tours a day, two are reserved for last minute buyers:

The Hypogeum is open Monday to Sunday from 09.00 till 16.00hrs (last tour). Eight Guided Tours take place each day. Tickets for the Guided Tours that commence at noon and 16.00hrs are available ONLY as ‘last minute tickets’ and priced at €40.00. These are available the day before from Fort St Elmo (Valletta) and the Gozo Museum of Archaeology (Citadel, Gozo).

However, we strongly support their recommendation to prepurchase:

Click HERE for TICKETS
Buy your tickets early as the Guided Tours are often fully booked weeks in advance. 

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p dir=”ltr”>And yep, we did some spot checking just now, and it’s five weeks out before free spots start showing up. And at only 80 a day, this just may be the most exclusive access World Heritage Site there is in the world — so make sure when you’re planning to visit Malta that your visit to the Hypogeum goes better than ours did!

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Alex Curylo

Alex

I go places.

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