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Report 2012: Five Days in Malta

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 21 of 24: Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

photo by MAW

Inside the Hypogeum

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum was discovered accidentally in 1899 when workmen were digging foundations for housing but not reported as the builder was concerned he would have to stop work. Four years later workman digging cistern broke into it again. Excavation found the remains of 7000 bodies as well as stone mallets, green stone necklaces and a small ‘sleeping lady’ now in the museum in Valletta.

This is now one of the major tourist sites in Malta. To prevent damage, visitor numbers are restricted to eighty a day. Entry is by guided tour only and tickets sell out several weeks in advance. Make sure you book early.

The hypogeum was built between 3600-2500BC. It is a network of elliptical chambers on three levels with interconnecting passageways. It is thought to have been an underground temple that later became a cemetery.

From the outside it is in a large rather featureless building. Inside is a lobby with a small ticket desk and toilets. Beyond is a small exhibition area which we asked to be allowed to go and look at while we waited for our tour to begin.

There were only nine people on our tour, which included two small boys. If there had been 10 adults it would have been congested and difficult to see, as we needed to do a bit of shuffling to make sure everyone could see what we were supposed to be looking at. All bags and cameras have to be left in a locker before the tour. No photographs are allowed but there are photographs in the Archaeology Museum in Valletta of the inside which can be photographed.

We were given an audio guide and told it would start to talk without us touching any buttons. Music would play between the stops to allow us plenty of time to get between listening points. This was composed specially to resemble the sound effects produced in the chambers. After a few minutes I found the rhythm irritating and a distraction. A member of staff accompanied us all the time. There is a limited amount of lighting and it is on for the shortest time possible to stop the growth of algae on the walls.

The tour begins in the exhibition which has information about the Hypogeum and its significance. There is a display of stone tools and a replica of the small sleeping lady found. About 15 minutes is allowed for this which is then followed by a short video before going into the Hypogeum. There are walkways with steps through the top and middle levels with ten listening posts.

Beginning at the top level we could see the remains of the modern tile floor and walls of the houses removed when the Hypogeum was opened to visitors. The chambers are large and irregular as they were originally carved out of natural caves. There are free standing stones and a large trilithon.

Dropping down to the second level there is a large chamber with smaller chambers off, all hand carved using antlers and other primitive tools. The smaller chambers are reached through ‘doorways’ cut through the rock. There are the remains of red ochre spiral patterns on the roof. It is thought the red ochre may have had a ritual significance as the color of blood. The tour takes you into the Holy of Holies, an enclosed chamber with a corbelled ceiling and more chambers off. There is more spiral decorations but we couldn’t see the black and white checkered board patterns mentioned in the literature. May be we weren’t looking in the right place.

We then moved into the main chamber which is a large round chamber with sculptured walls which bulge out slightly. There are monumental trilithon archways off it into more chambers. Again it has a corbelled ceiling and a red ochre wash on the walls.

On the way back we stopped at a ventilation shaft dug by the builders before the Hypogeum was excavated, which is now used to help circulate air round the Hypogeum. The final stop was the 20thC cistern which had been carved out of the rock and was used to hold rain water for the houses above.

This was a very well worth while visit. The atmosphere is heavy with mystery and superstition. In the quiet and dim lighting, we admired the workmanship that went into making the Hypogeum and the ancient ancestors didn't seem very far away.

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