The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a prehistoric burial site. It’s believed to date back to around 4000 BC, with more recent remains found dating to the Early Bronze Age (approx 1500BC). That’s older than the pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge in England. We are talking seriously old!
The site was discovered in 1902 when construction workers were putting in a water cistern. It must have come as a bit of a shock to see all those bones.
In 1908, the site opened to the public, and since then, it has been visited by thousands of people. It was used as a bomb shelter during the Second World War, and for a while, local kids even used it as a play area.
Unfortunately, this took rather a toll on the Hypogeum’s delicate microclimate, affecting its unique red ochre paintings and the preservation of the site. So, in order to protect the site for future generations, a stricter protocol has been introduced and now, visitor numbers are very restricted. If you want to visit the Hypogeum, you will need to book in advance.
The Different Levels Of The Hypogeum
The Hypogeum is made up of interconnecting rock-cut chambers that are set on three distinct levels.
The Upper Level consists of a large hollow with burial chambers on its sides. It is believed that this part of the complex was initially exposed to the sky.
A doorway leads to the Middle Level. Here you see intricate red ochre wall paintings and carvings that resemble some of the architectural features found in megalithic temples.
The Lower Level is the deepest of all three levels. It is accessed via seven steps from the chamber which is popularly known as the ‘Holy of Holies’. Although you can’t go down there, it’s a very long drop from the last step!
What Do The Experts Believe?
Experts reckon that the Hypogeum was initially built as a sanctuary – a place for prayer and worship that later became a burial site.
Excavations, from as early as 1904, unearthed many stone beads and amulets, shell buttons, pottery items, and little stone carved animals and birds and clay figurines of human figures.
The Sleeping Lady of Malta
The most famous of all these clay figures is the iconic fat woman lying on a couch. Known simply as the ‘Sleeping Lady’, she is on display at Valletta’s National Museum of Archaeology. I like her; I feel like we would have had a lot in common!
Hypogeum – The Burial Site
As well as finding a large number of artefacts, the excavators found the remains of 7,000 human bodies. These bones are no longer at the Hypogeum – many were lost during excavation. The bones helped researchers to understand the prehistoric burial rituals and how our ancestors celebrated death. Some of the skulls found were elongated, causing all kinds of conspiracy theories. Aliens? Giant humanoids?
The Hypogeum Tour
Once, you’ve locked away your belongings and being given your hand-held audio guide; you are led into another room for a short audiovisual show, that will provide you with some idea of what you’re about to see. To listen, just hold your audio guide to your ear, like a phone. The audio guide is available in many languages. No need to press any buttons, it’s all automatic, although you can adjust the volume.
After the audiovisual show, you are led down into the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. A guide will lead you to each spot; then your audio guide will tell you what’s going on. It was quite an experience – both eerie and mysterious.
Opening Hours For The Hypogeum
Open daily: 09:00 – 17:00 (by booking only) You can’t just show up on the day, we didn’t realise that the first time we tried to visit and were turned away. Fortunately, for us, the Hypogeum is just a short walk from our home, so it didn’t really matter.
There are eight guided tours (with audio guides) per day. Each tour lasts for 50 minutes, and note, they only accommodate a maximum of ten people at a time! That’s why you need to book in advance.
How Much Are Hal Saflieni Hypogeum Tickets?
Hypogeum Visit (with audio guides):
Adults (18 – 59 years): €35.00
Youths (12 – 17 years), Senior Citizens (60 years +), Students, Concessions: €20.00
Children (6 – 11 years): €15.00
No admission to young children under the age of six.
Last-minute tickets at €40 per person may be available and must be booked the day before. These are available from Fort St Elmo (Valletta) and the Gozo Museum of Archaeology (Citadel, Gozo).
Tickets for the guided tour typically sell out pretty quickly. As I mentioned, you can’t just turn up on the day. When we did, we were told the next ticket available was in three months.
Tickets purchased are non-refundable or exchangeable.
Click here, to book your tickets online, https://booking.heritagemalta.org.
You Should Know That…
Photography and filming are not permitted in the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. No, not even a sneaky one with your phone.
Before the tour starts, you will have to put all your belongings in one of the lockers provided.
Tours start on time, and once it’s started, if you’re late, you won’t be allowed to join, so you are advised to arrive at least 15 minutes before your time slot.
The Hypogeum is a little bit claustrophobic. You are under the ground, and in some parts, the ceiling is quite low.
The steps are a little bit slippery, so wear shoes with some sort of grip.
The audiovisual show shown before the tour and the small display area are wheelchair accessible. However, the actual archaeological site is not accessible for wheelchairs.
Note: For now, due to Covid-19, you will need to wear a mask when you visit the Hypogeum and sanitise your hands before entering.
How To Get To The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
The Hypogeum is at Triq Ic Cimiterju, Paola. It’s right near the heart of Paola, about 400 metres from the huge Paola church. It’s easy to find, but finding somewhere to park will be quite hard as it’s in a residential area, so allow time to drive around in circles looking for a parking spot.
The bus stops closest to the Hypogeum are ‘Ipogew’ and ‘Pjazza’. It’s relatively well signposted from the bus stops, and it’s about a five-minute walk from the large Paola Parish church.
Coming from Valletta, take buses 81, 82, 83, 84, 88.
Would We Recommend A Visit To The Hypogeum?
Yes, it’s quite fascinating and well worth a visit but do remember to book your tickets before you visit.
While You’re In The Area, Why Not Visit The Nearby Tarxien Temples
Just a very short walk from the Hypogeum, you’ll come to another Neolithic site, the Tarxien Temples. Local farmers discovered the site in 1913.
The temple site consists of four megalithic structures and is the largest temple complex in the Maltese islands. The temples were built between 3600 and 2500 BC.
You’ll see some unique prehistoric art and statues.
Since 2015, the temple is under a large protective tent which provides much-needed shade. Plus, there’s a walkway with information signs.
The more popular to visit megalithic temples in Malta are the ones in the Ħaġar Qim Archaeological Park. Great location overlooking the sea, but we kind of prefer the Tarxien Temples as it’s less crowded, and there’s actually more to see. It’s just the surrounding residential area is not such a picturesque location, but that is also part of its charm.
Opening Hours For The Tarxien Temples
The Tarxien Temples are open every day, except Monday and Tuesday from 10:00 til18:00hrs.
How Much Does It Cost To Visit The Tarxien Temples
Adults (18 – 59 years): €6.00
Youths (12 – 17 years), Senior Citizens (60 years & over), Concessions, and Students: €4.50
Children (6 – 11 years): €3.00
Infants (1 – 5 years): Free
No need to book tickets in advance for The Tarxien Temples, and you can take photos.
Have you ever visited the Hypogeum and/or Tarxien Temples? What did you think? Tell us about your experience in the comments below, we’d love to hear.