The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is an underground prehistoric burial site. Discovered in 1902 during construction works, the site was first excavated by Fr Emmanuel Magri between 1904 and 1906. Fr Magri died in Tunisia and his excavation notes have been lost. Excavations were taken over by Sir Themistocles Zammit, who continued works until 1911.
The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a complex made up of interconnecting rock-cut chambers set on three distinct levels. Earliest remains at the site date back to about 4000BC, and the complex was used over a span of many centuries, up to c. 2500 BC.
The uppermost level consists of a large hollow with burial chambers on its sides. This hollow was probably originally exposed to the sky and excavations in the early 1990s indicate that there might also have been a monumental structure marking the entrance. A doorway leads to the Middle Level, which contains some of the best known features of the Hypogeum such as the intricate red ochre wall paintings and the beautifully carved features in imitation of architectural elements common in contemporaneous Megalithic Temples. The deepest of the three levels is known as the Lower Level, which is accessed down seven steps in the chamber popularly known as the ‘Holy of Holies’.
The Hypogeum was first opened to visitors in 1908 and since then it has been visited by many thousands of people. Unfortunately, this has had a toll on the delicate microclimate of the site which has affected the preservation of the site and the unique red ochre paintings. For this reason, after a conservation project which saw the site closed for 10 years between 1990 and 2000, a new system was established in which only 10 visitors an hour are allowed in for a maximum of 8 hours a day, complemented by an environmental control system which keeps temperature and humidity at required levels.
Reasons to Visit
- 1. Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a unique site inscribed on the World Heritage List as “a site that bears a unique testimony to a cultural tradition which has disappeared”.
- 2. Paintings in red ochre, which decorate some of the walls within the site, are the oldest and only prehistoric paintings recorded on the Maltese Islands.
- 3. Beautifully carved featured in imitation of architectural elements common in the above-ground temples, including an example of what a roof of these structures would have looked like.
- 4. The only prehistoric burial site which is accessible to the general public.