What is the Hypogeum in Hal-Saflieni?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

The Hypogeum of Hal-Salflieni is an underground temple in Malta. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1980. The Hypogeum of Hal-Salflieni is the only prehistoric underground temple in the world, and is an awe-inspiring place.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

There are three main levels in the Hypogeum of Hal-Salflieni. The upper level was dug sometime between 3600 and 3300 BCE, the middle level was dug between 3300 and 3000 BCE, and the lower level was dug sometime between 3150 and 2500 BCE. At its deepest, the Hypogeum of Hal-Salflieni reaches more than 30 feet (10m) below the surface.

It is thought that originally the Hypogeum of Hal-Salflieni served as a religious sanctuary, but it was eventually converted into a necropolis. It contains the remnants of more than 7000 people.

The Hypogeum of Hal-Salflieni was discovered in the early-20th century by workers digging for a construction project broke through the roof of the structure. The site has since been extensively studied, and is considered by most to be one of the pivotal prehistoric sites in the world.

The first, and oldest, level of the Hypogeum of Hal-Salflieni consists almost exclusively of tombs. It is basically a single large passage, with individual burial chambers cut out along the way.

The middle level of the Hypogeum of Hal-Salflieni is the most interesting and rich of the levels, and is where most people spend their time. The rock here is cut very smoothly, and shows an incredibly finished masonry. The main chamber is a circle, painted with red ochre. It at one point housed beautiful statuettes, but these have since been taken to the museum in Valletta.

Another chamber, known as the Decorated Room, is also circular, with walls that slant inwards. The big draw to this room is the presence of a human hand pushed into the rock. The middle level also contains a pit, referred to as the Snake Pit, which likely either held snakes or was used as a receptacle for alms cast in. The Holiest of Holies is also found on the middle-level, and contains a number of trilithons similar to those found at Stonehenge or Mnajdra in Malta.

The bottom level of the Hypogeum of Hal-Salflieni is fairly empty, and many people think it was used historically as a storage site. It doesn’t appear to contain any human remains, and no artifacts have been found there.

When visiting the Hypogeum of Hal-Salflieni, it is difficult not to be impressed by the work and craft that went into its construction. This becomes all the more impressive, however, when one realizes that everything dug out here was done using nothing but flint and stone tools, as metal tools had not yet been invented. The sheer amount of manpower that must have gone into excavating and smoothing such an elaborate structure is truly mind boggling.

In order to prevent damage to the Hypogeum of Hal-Salflieni, only eighty visitors are allowed in each day. As a result, it is crucial that potential visitors book in advance, either through the site’s website, or by phone or mail.

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