Europe

Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (World Heritage)

The underground grave complex from the Neolithic age extends over three floors and has numerous burial chambers, passages and corridors as well as cult rooms. The catacombs illustrate the long history of settlement on the island and the high culture of the residents.

Hal Saflieni’s Hypogeum: Facts

Official title: Hypogeum (underground cult space) by Hal Saflieni
Cultural monument: underground place of worship and necropolis on several levels, largest dimension 35×25 m
Continent: Europe
Country: Malta
Location: Paola, 1 km from the Tarxien Temple
Appointment: 1980
Meaning: most significant evidence of an underground Stone Age cult site

Hal Saflieni’s Hypogeum: History

4000-3000 BC Chr. Construction of the catacombs and passages as a sanctuary in the limestone rock of a plateau
around 3000 BC Chr. used as a burial place in the late Stone Age
1902 Discovered while building a house in what is now Hal Saflieni
1905-09 Prof. Sir Themistocles Zammit (1864-1935) completes the excavation
1913 Opening of the Stone Age cult site to the public
1915 Excavations and investigations secure pearls and thousands of pendants made of shell material for posterity
1991 closed to the public for conservation reasons; Limit to a maximum of 80 visitors per day

Back to mother earth

He hides deep in the alleys of Paola. The underground place is completely inconspicuous from the outside. Hal Saflieni, the »village lying in the valley«, has long since transformed into an urbanized area. Contrary to its name, it is located on a gentle hill, not far from the Stone Age temple complex of Tarxien. In the 17th century, the Grand Master of the Order of St. John, Antonio de Paule, had his summer residence nearby – in “Ta Gherien”, “near the caves”. Was the hypogeum already known in those days, as the place name suggests? Coin finds from the cult site, which can be dated to the time of the Knights of St. John, at least suggest this.

Centuries went by without paying particular attention to the Hal Saflieni catacombs. According to extrareference, a message in the “Malta Mail” of October 11, 1844 lets the readership know in dry lines: “Some ancient catacombs were recently discovered in Tarxien. However, no further research was carried out and the opening was immediately closed again, as it is suspected that, according to his Excellency the Governor – Sir Patrik Stuart is meant – he would like to visit the site before any further excavation British colonial officials received admiring recognition, but there is no record of it.

After all, more than half a century had to pass before the underworld of the Hypogeum, which is still shrouded in mystery today, was accidentally rediscovered during construction work. Grave chambers, passages and corridors, a treasure chamber, an alms pit and the “Holy of Holies” spread out over three floors in the soft limestone. Reminiscent of a classic temple complex, dome-shaped rock chambers with blind niches and flat pillars were created, which “supported” a stepped vault. Was this place, as numerous bone finds suggest, a Stone Age burial place? Probably not, because the limited space would hardly have been enough for all the people whose skulls, vertebrae and jawbones were found. So one must assume that the underground chambers – quite common in the Stone Age – served as an ossuary.

Not only human bones pointed to the distant past when the catacombs were opened, but also mortars, hand mills, hand axes and hard stone mallets with which the cult site was carved cell by cell out of the limestone. Shell pearls were discovered, fossilized animal teeth were buried, amulets made of hard stone and pendants made of agate were found. In Malta, too, the dead apparently did not begin their journey into the afterlife without their jewelry.

Traces of painting in the main hall – faded flat red and black and white squares with red curlicues – are signs of no meaning to this day. Interwoven, red spiral patterns, similar to rolling up fern leaves and possibly to be understood as a symbol for future life, cover the vaulted arch of the “Oracle Chamber”. Does it make sense to view the disc and ring patterns as a representation of the cosmos? Nobody knows for sure. Whether a niche that ends in an oval pit was used as an alms pit seems to be a justified assumption, because offerings could have been thrown into the pit through an opening in the wall of the main hall. Or were there even snakes kept here?

Two tiny clay figures recovered from the catacombs show fat women lying on their sides on a bench. Did the believers come together in the “belly of mother earth” to indulge in the temple sleep and have their dreams interpreted by ordained priests? Were the believers put into a dreamy sleep by hypnosis? What prophecies of the priests do you think came true? For us who will be born there are questions after questions. Questions that also surround the headless and overweight figure, of which one does not know exactly whether it is a man or a woman. In view of her considerable body, it is probably not so absurd to see “Mother Earth” in this alabaster being.

Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (World Heritage)