Black Friday in an ancient tomb

Malta

It probably wasn’t coincidence that the only tickets we could get to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum were on Friday the 13th. After all, it is estimated that 7000 people were buried at this site.

The Hypogeum is an ancient temple or tomb which dates back to 6000 years ago. It was discovered in 1902 when a new cistern was being installed for new houses to be built above. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site and has been the subject of much archaeological study.

One of the things we found so bizarre was that the Hypogeum sits in the middle of residential Paola and, at street level, the building which has now been constructed above it blends in with the rest of the suburb. There used to be four houses above the Hypogeum which have now been removed and replaced with a more modern structure protecting the tomb below.

The tomb is climate controlled in terms of temperature, CO2 and light to minimise the degradation of the ancient stone. Only 80 people per day are allowed (to keep CO2 to a controlled level) – eight groups of 10 people every hour.

The tour begins with a short background film before you move down to the top level of the tomb. There is an audio guide which is synchronised with the dim lighting as you move through.

The top level is what would have been ground level (or slightly below ground level) all those years ago. Large boulders are scattered around the entrance to make it look more inconspicuous. There are some small compartmental spaces where it is thought that the dead were first put to decompose before the corpses were buried.

You then descend gradually through another three levels, stopping to observe the entrances to the smaller tombs where the dead were buried. Many ancient artifacts were recovered from inside the Hypogeum such as sacrificial sculptures, weapons and other everyday objects. There are also original paintings in red ochre (resembling blood) on some of the walls and ceilings. The red pigment and some of the materials of the sacrificial sculptures are from neighboring islands and Sicily, so it is fairly certain that these people were seafaring.

The most remarkable thing about the structure is that it was built entirely by the use of bone picks and chisels. The entire Hypogeum is one big sculpture and it would have been built progressively over hundreds of years. Small holes were bored into the rock to make the rock easier to chip away. Even more incredible is the fact that some of the larger domed rooms were sculpted to look like they had been built by placing large boulders on top of each other. The main chamber was designed with outward sloped pillars and doors to make the room seem larger than it actually was.

Little is known of the people that built this tomb and you inevitably end up with more questions than can be answered. Using the research into the Hypogeum and the other ancient temples and other sites scattered around Malta and Gozo, archeologists have been able to make some assumptions about how they lived. In the Hypogeum itself, it seems that people were buried on a hierarchical basis and there is evidence of human and animal sacrifice.

Our concerns of being buried alive were probably unfounded given the number of earthquakes the structure has survived undamaged. We were surprised at how moisty it was down there, with water droplets pooling on the ceiling and dripping heard echoing throughout (Em wrote this bit). The Hypogeum was fascinating and well worth the €20 ticket price. For anyone heading to Malta, this is a must see, and is booked out months in advance.

Cameras weren’t allowed, but here are some Google photos.

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