The unique Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum underground temple in Paola (Malta)

The unique Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum underground temple in Paola (Malta)
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The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a unique gem dating as far back as 4000 BC. The site is an underground complex made up of several interconnecting chambers spread on three levels, located in the village of Paola, Malta (also referred to as Raħal Ġdid locally). The UNESCO World Heritage centre describes it as being of Outstanding Universal Value [1].

The Central Chamber of the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum.

Experts believe that the Hypogeum was originally a sanctuary, a place for prayer and worship, which later became a burial site. Excavations, which began as early as 1904, revealed a wealth of findings, such as decorated pottery items, buttons made of shells, stone beads and amulets, little stone carved animals and birds that may have been worn as pendants as well as stone and clay figurines of human figures.

The most striking of these figures is the iconic fat woman lying on a couch, known as the ‘Sleeping Lady’ now on display at the National Museum of Archeology in Valletta. Apart from these artefacts, the excavators also found the remains of some 7,000 human bodies. The bones helped researchers understand the prehistoric burial rituals and how our ancestors celebrated death.

The temple’s structure and interior

The most distinctive feature of the Hypogeum is most certainly the red ochre paintings that decorate some of the walls. These are the oldest and only prehistoric paintings recorded on the Maltese Islands.

The chambers, made to resemble other temple structures found around Malta, were cut into soft globigerina limestone using very basic tools made out of rock and animal bones. The whole complex was hewn out of the side of a hill with the builders going down to 10.60 m below ground level.

The Ħal Saflieni mystery

During excavations, archaeologists found the remains of some 7,000 human bodies. The bones helped researchers understand more about prehistoric burial rituals and how our ancestors celebrated death. But that’s not all. A number of these skulls had peculiar deformities, others showed signs of surgery, and stranger yet, a number of elongated skulls were found among them, causing a stir of debates and theories as to their origin [2].

One of these skulls even lacked the Fossa median (the join that runs along the top of the skull). These skulls, some of which used to be on display at the National Museum of Archeology in Valletta, are similar to others found in Egypt and also in South America. This has led to speculation especially when these skulls disappeared from the museum for unknown reasons [3] in 1985. The Ħal Saflieni mystery remains.

Conservation project and re-opening

After having been closed to the public in 2017, the Hypogeum has reopened to the public and now offers an upgraded visitors’ centre and much improved audio guide to give you a much better experience.

Why you should visit the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum

  • The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is the only underground burial prehistoric site in Malta.
  • It is over 6,000 years old and contains some unique features such as the red ochre cave paintings. These are the oldest and only prehistoric paintings in Malta.
  • The place gives insight on how other above ground sites may have looked like when they were still intact.

How to get there

To get to the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum you can catch a ride on bus routes 84, 85 or 88 from the main bus terminus at Valletta. The trip takes around 40 minutes.

Visiting the Hypogeum

Important notes

  • For conservation reasons, only 10 visitors per tour are allowed inside the complex, which also means it’s important to book well in advance!
  • Photography and filming on site is not allowed inside the building and temple.

Visiting hours

The Hypogeum is open Monday to Sunday between 09.00 and 16.00hrs with a maximum of 8 tours each day.

Some recommendations when visiting the Hypogeum:

  • The site is underground with low ceilings and small spaces, which might cause discomfort to people susceptible to claustrophobia
  • Comfortable shoes should be worn to avoid slipping since some areas are very slippery due to high humidity levels
  • The Hypogeum is not wheelchair friendly.

Contact details

Burial Street,
Paola PLA 1116
Tel: +356 21 805 019

Entrance fees

  • Adults (18 – 59 years): €30.00
  • Youths (12 – 17 years), Senior Citizens (60 years & over), and Students: €15.00
  • Children (6 – 11 years): €12.00
  • Infants (1 – 5 years): No admission due to health and safety reasons

Tickets can be purchased online on the website of Heritage Malta or from the National Museum of Fine Arts (Valletta) and the Gozo Museum of Archaeology (Citadel).

Note: Heritage Malta don’t offer refunds or exchange for tickets purchased for this site.

More info about similar sites in Malta: Uncovering Malta’s Megalithic Temples (including map)

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