Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni

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Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni
Photo Ellis Hal Salflieni.jpg
Photograph of the Hypogeum by Richard Ellis before 1910
Location Paola, Malta
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Area 500m2
Material Limestone
Founded c.4000 BC (earliest remains)
Abandoned c.2500 BC
Periods Saflieni phase
Site notes
Excavation dates 1903–1908, 1990–1993
Archaeologists Manuel Magri
Themistocles Zammit
Anthony Pace
Nathaniel Cutajar
Reuben Grima
Condition Well preserved
Ownership Government of Malta
Management Heritage Malta
Public access Yes
Website Heritage Malta
Official name Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum
Type Cultural
Criteria iii
Designated 1980 (4th session)
Reference no. 130
Region Europe and North America

The Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni is a subterranean structure dating to the Saflieni phase (3300-3000 BC) in Maltese prehistory, located in Paola, Malta. It is often simply referred to as the Hypogeum (Maltese: Ipoġew), literally meaning "underground" in Greek. The Hypogeum is thought to have been originally a sanctuary, but it became a necropolis in prehistoric times, and in fact, the remains of more than 7,000 individuals have been found. It is the only known prehistoric underground temple in the world.[1]


First Level

The first level is only ten metres below the surface, and it is very similar to tombs found in Xemxija, near St. Paul's Bay. Some rooms are natural caves which were later artificially extended.

Second Level

The second level was opened when the original builders found that the first level was no longer adequate. This level features several apparently important rooms:

The Sleeping Lady of Ħal-Saflieni, National Museum of Archaeology, Valletta
  • Main Chamber: This chamber is roughly circular and carved out from rock. A number of trilithon entrances are represented, some blind, and others leading to another chamber. Most of the wall surface has received a red wash of ochre. It was from this room that the statuettes of the sleeping lady were recovered. These figurines are currently held in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.
  • Oracle Room: This is roughly rectangular and one of the smallest side chambers. It has the peculiarity of producing a powerful acoustic resonance from any vocalization made inside it. This room has an elaborately painted ceiling, consisting of spirals in red ochre with circular blobs.
  • Decorated Room: Out of the Oracle's Room, through the hammer dressed chamber, on the right is another spacious hall, circular, with inward slanting smooth walls, richly decorated in a geometrical pattern of spirals. On the right side wall of the entrance is a petrosomatoglyph of a human hand carved into the rock (Agius).
  • Snake Pit: The second level contains a 2 metres deep pit which could have been used for either keeping snakes or collecting alms.
The Holy of Holies
  • Holy of Holies: The focal point of this room is a porthole within a trilithon, or structure consisting of two large vertical stones, which is in turn framed within a larger trilithon and yet another large trilithon. The corbelled ceiling has been taken as a hint that Malta's surface temples, now uncovered, could have been roofed similarly.

Third Level

The lower storey contained no bones or offerings, only water. It strongly suggests storage, maybe of grain.

Discovery and recent history

Site map of the Hypogeum made in October 1907

The Hypogeum was discovered by accident in 1902 when workers cutting cisterns for a new housing development broke through its roof. The workers tried to hide the temple at first, but eventually it was found. The study of the structure was first entrusted to Father Manuel Magri of the Society of Jesus, who directed the excavations on behalf of the Museums Committee, starting from November 1903. Magri died in 1907, before the publication of the report. Following Magri's sudden death, excavation resumed under Sir Themistocles Zammit. It was opened to visitors in 1908.[2]

Queen Mary (though not King George V) visited the Hypogeum in January 1912, on their return journey from the Delhi Durbar.[3]

The Hypogeum was depicted on a 2 cents 5 mils stamp issued in Malta in 1980 to commemorate the acceptance by UNESCO of this unique structure in the World Heritage Site list. Excavations took place between 1990 and 1993 by Anthony Pace, Nathaniel Cutajar and Reuben Grima. It was then closed to visitors between 1991 and 2000 for restoration works; and since its reopening, Heritage Malta (the government body that looks after historical sites) only allows entry to 80 people per day, while the site's microclimate is strictly regulated.[4][5]

In 2014, an international team of scientists visited the Hypogeum to study acoustics.[6]


The Hypogeum is a very popular tourist attraction. However, since only 80 people are allowed per day, Heritage Malta recommends tourists to book well ahead of time if they wish to visit. Some last minute tickets are occasionally available from the National Museum of Archaeology or the National Museum of Fine Arts, both of which are located in Valletta. These are available on first-come, first-served basis. The museums open at 9am, but queuing for tickets starts around 7am.

See also


  1. "Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum". UNESCO. Retrieved 4 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum". Heritage Malta. Retrieved 4 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Fortescue, John (1912). The Royal Visit to India 1911-1912. London: MacMillan.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum". maltassist.com. Retrieved 4 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Pace, Anthony (2004). The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum Paola. Santa Venera: Midsea Books Ltd. ISBN 9993239933.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "International team of scientists to study hypogeum acoustics". Times of Malta. 21 January 2014. Retrieved 4 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Jim Diamond. "Malta Temples". Retrieved October 22, 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Agius, A.J. The Hypogeum at Hal-Saflieni. Freedom Press. Malta. P. 19.

External links

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