The Safal Saflieni Hypogeum is a prehistoric underground structure located in Paola, near the Tarxien temples. Its construction is very ancient, and it is thought to have been built around 4,000 BC, therefore older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids; it was probably used first as a sacred temple, later becoming a burial place. The hypogeum was entirely excavated in the rock, descending more than ten meters deep, and is divided into three levels composed of communicating rooms; the whole structure takes up the plan of other Maltese temples and was probably built by the same civilization.
History and discovery of the Hypogeum
The Hypogeum was discovered by accident in 1902 during the construction of a building. The archaeological excavations lasted several years until the hypogeum was opened to the public in 1908. The hypogeum was certainly a place of worship: the sanctum is oriented in such a way as to receive light during the winter solstice, as the other Maltese temples. Inside the Hypogeum the remains of about 7,000 skeletons have been found, some of them with skull deformities similar to those found in the Andes or in ancient Egypt; more details (in English) are available.
Numerous archaeological findings made in the Hypogeum, such as amulets, beads, ceramics, carved animals and human figurines, are visible in the National Archaeological Museum, in Valletta. The great value of this structure and of the elements found within it has been recognized by UNESCO as having inscribed the Safal Saflieni Hypogeum on its List of World Heritage.
The structure of the Hypogeum
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum consists of three levels divided into rooms for a total depth of more than 10 meters. It is assumed that its construction was done at intervals, coinciding in some way with the different phases of construction of the Maltese temples.
The first level
Starting from the top, the first level is the oldest one: it would correspond to the Fasegantija Phase of the Maltese prehistory (3600 – 3300 BC). Here is a large central room with funerary rooms on the sides; some of these rooms were natural caves, then dug up to obtain the desired shape and size. The excavations suggest that once the central space was open and that there was a monumental entrance structure nearby.
The side rooms were later used as burial chambers. It seems that the bodies were left inside without being covered, up to the total decomposition. Later, the bones were collected and buried inside the chambers along with large quantities of red ocher: a ritual element that symbolizes blood and therefore life.
The second level
A passageway leads to the second level of the Hypogeum, probably built during the Saflieni Phase (3300 – 3000 BC). This level contains some of the best-known features of the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, such as the murals in red ocher and the sculpted architectural elements, typical of contemporary megalithic temples. The intermediate level is still being studied by experts.
- The Main Room is the central one: it is a circular room with trilithic entrances on the walls, some of which lead to smaller rooms. The most accepted hypothesis is that both the main and minor rooms had some ritual function: it should be noted that the acoustics in the smaller rooms are perfect and you can hear the sounds coming from the Oracle Chamber very clearly. Most of the surface of the walls is painted in red ocher.
- The Oracle Room is one of the smaller side rooms. This rectangular room houses a niche with a hole towards the central chamber, able to amplify the acoustics: probably this feature performed some function in the rite itself. Here too the ceiling is richly painted with spirals and circular spots in red ocher.
- La Cisterna is a two-meter deep pit. Inside, various votive objects were found, so it is assumed that it was used for offers.
- Next to the main room is the Sancta Sanctorum. The focal point of this room is the porthole placed inside three trilithic arranged one inside the other, like a matryoshka. The projecting ceiling has suggested to scholars that probably the megalithic temples should also have a similar covering, given the many similarities with the Hypogeum.
The third level
Seven steps lead to the third level, or the lowest and most recent level, dating back to the Tarxien Phase (3300 – 2400 BC). Over time these rooms have probably been converted into grain silos. The lowest chamber is 10.6 meters deep.
Taking photos or making videos is not allowed inside the Hypogeum. Moreover, it is strongly recommended to wear comfortable and closed shoes: due to the high humidity levels some parts of the course are wet and there is the risk of slipping. Given the confirmation of the Hypogeum, access to disabled people is limited only to the visitor centre.