Maltese history traces way back beyond the impressive fortresses which have barricaded Valetta from hordes of invaders over the centuries. Apparently the first humans turned up in Malta around 5000 years ago, and they left behind some built evidence of their time on the Tiny Isles. I’m a bit partial to visiting historic sites, so I headed out to have a look.
First on the list was the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. I had read about the site – an underground, prehistoric series of burial chambers located in greater Valetta City. Definitely had to check that out, so after finding the location I set off on foot. I expected to find the site in a large open area, perhaps with a bit of a park around it, and access to the Hypogeum through a visitor’s centre. As I approached the address, I was starting think something had gone wrong with my navigation. I was still in the midst of Valetta’s typically narrow streets and rows of houses. I turned a corner and sure enough, there was entrance to the Hypogeum. It looked like a nightclub.
The mundane exterior added to the mystery of the place – could this really be a 4000 year old burial site? I went in, bought my ticket, was issued an audio guide, and with the two other visitors present (there are some benefits to touring in the Corona age), awaited our tour. After a short audio/visual presentation, the guide opened a door and lead us down some steps into an entirely different world.
Before us was a network of chambers cut into Valletta’s limestone. Not only had ancient Malta’s inhabitants carved out these spaces, but they had crafted them into underground ‘buildings’ replete with columns, doorways and ceilings. In some rooms, red ochre had been applied to the rock in circular and spiral designs.
It is believed the Hypogeum lay undisturbed for over 4000 years, until workman installing a cistern (a water storage tank cut into the rock beneath a building) in 1902 tapped through the ‘roof’ into the catacombs below. Archaeologists estimated that the remains of around 6000 people (now removed from the site) had been interred within the caverns.
The initial opening of the Hypogeum, and the stream of curious visitors that followed, resulted in numerous threats to its ongoing preservation. Today, visitor numbers are limited, access within the caverns is restricted, and the site is carefully climate controlled.
We wound our way through the softly lit caverns, and at the completion of the tour climbed out of the ancient ‘cemetery’ and into the incongruously modern visitors entrance. Stepping out into the bright light and bustle of the Valetta afternoon was surreal, having just discovered what lies beneath the pavement.
Exploring the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum felt like stepping into Raiders of the Lost Ark (or Tomb Raider for you younger readers). My visit to this World Heritage site left me gawping open-mouthed like a kid, and has definitely whetted my appetite for discovering more of ancient Malta.
Visit the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum website here
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