The ?al Saflieni Hypogeum

UNESCO World Heritage Site #280: Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum
UNESCO World Heritage Site #280: Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum

From the World Heritage inscription:

Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a cultural property of exceptional prehistoric value. This unique monument dates back to early antiquity (about 2500 BC) and it is the only known example of a subterranean structure of the Bronze Age.

The hypogeum was discovered accidentally in 1902 by a stonemason who was laying the foundations of some houses on the island of Malta. Temi Zammit, the first Director of Malta’s Museums Department, assumed responsibility for the excavation. His excavation yielded a wealth of archaeological material including much pottery and human bones, personal ornaments such as beads and amulets, little carved animals and larger figurines.

This ‘labyrinth’, as it is often called, consists of a series of elliptical chambers and alveoli of varying importance, to which access is gained by different corridors. The megalithic walls are constructed of cyclopean masonry – large irregular blocks of chalky coralline stone without mortar – which was summarily dressed with rudimentary tools of flint and obsidian. The principal rooms distinguish themselves by their domed vaulting and by the elaborate structure of false bays inspired by the doorways and windows of contemporary terrestrial constructions. The hypogeum, which was originally conceived as a sanctuary, perhaps an oracle, from the prehistoric period was transformed into an ossuary, as borne out by the remains of more than 7,000 individuals discovered during the course of the excavation.

The upper level consists of a large hollow with a central passage and burial chambers cut on each side. One of the chambers still contains original burial deposits. The middle level consists of various chambers very smoothly finished, which give the impression of built masonry. The workmanship is all the more impressive when it is considered that the chambers were meticulously carved using only flint and stone tools. Curvilinear and spiral paintings in red ochre are still visible in some areas. One of the niches in the ‘Oracle Chamber’ has the characteristic of echoing deep sounds. The carved facade is magnificent and the quality of its architecture is in a remarkable state of preservation.

This is a very strange write up for a world heritage site visit.

First, lets talk about this history and significance of the site. It dates back to before the pyramids to the same culture which built the Megalithic Temples of Malt. In fact, you can see reproductions of many of the megalithic temples inside the hypogeum which are carved out of stone. There is no question that the site is of importance to our understanding of early humanity, as you can read in the UNESCO description above.

Second, the site is physically located underground in the middle of a residential neighborhood (hypogeum means ‘underground’). There are some signs, but nothing which is going to jump out at you and scream “WORLD HERITAGE SITE”. The entrance is on a side street and is rather unimposing. The photo above is what you will see from the street, and below I explain why this is the photo I have associated with this site. It is also a 10 minute walk from one of the megalithic temples in Malta, which probably makes them two of the closest world heritage sites on Earth.

Third, access to the site is extremely limited. Only 10 people are allowed on each tour and there are only 6 tours per day. YOU MUST RESERVE TICKETS BEFORE YOU ARRIVE IN MALTA if you want to be guaranteed to get on a tour. There are a few slots available each day for last minute tickets, but they are only for 2 of the six tours and they are only for sale at the museum in Valletta, not at the hypogeum. In the short time I was waiting in the lobby (which is very small) at least a dozen people walked in hoping to buy tickets and were turned away.

The reason for the small groups are two fold: 1) There just isn’t much room in the hypogeum. Even with 10 people it often felt cramped. They could possibly run more tours, but I don’t think they could add the number per tour. 2) In an effort to preserve some of the paintings found on the rock, they limit visitors. This is to stabilize the air and limit the time which lights are on.

Finally, YOU CAN’T TAKE ANY PHOTOS WHATSOEVER INSIDE THE HYPOGEUM. Not only can you not take photos inside, but Gary the traveling photographer can’t take photos inside, and even National Geographic can’t take photos inside. They have no exceptions and from what I’ve been told have never granted an exception to any media outlet. I begged and I pleaded, but they did not budge.

Moreover, even if you did sneak a camera inside, it is so dark that you’d never get a decent photo without a tripod. There is no way a smartphone or a point and shoot camera is going to take a decent photo in that environment. A flash would ruin the artwork and there is no way you are going to sneak in a tripod with an SLR.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do as I post an image for every world heritage site I visit. I eventually realized that I’ve had this problem before, particularly at Ban Chiang Archaeological Site in Thailand and the Sangiran Early Man in Indonesia. Both are archeological sites which nothing to photograph. In both cases, I just took a photo of the entrance to the site and called it a day. That is what I decided to do here too.

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites which I have visited.