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Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni

The Hypogeum in Ħal-Saflieni, Paola, Malta, is a subterranean structure excavated c. 2500 B.C. Thought to be originally a sanctuary, it became a necropolis in prehistoric times. It is the only prehistoric underground temple in the world. The Hypogeum was depicted on a 2 cents 5 mils stamp issued in the Maltese Islands in 1980 to commemorate the acceptance by UNESCO of this unique structure in the World Heritage Site list. It was closed to visitors between 1992 and 1996 for restoration works; since it reopened only 80 people per day are allowed entry and there can be a 2-3 weeks wait to get a ticket.

It was discovered by accident in 1902 when workers cutting cisterns for a new housing development broke through its roof. The workers tried to hide the temple at first, but eventually it was found. The study of the structure was first entrusted to Father Manuel Magri of the Society of Jesus, who directed the excavations on behalf of the Museums Committee. Magri unfortunately died in 1907, before the publication of the report. Following Magri's sudden death, excavation resumed under Sir Temi Zammit.

First Level

The first level is very similar to tombs found in Xemxija in Malta. Some rooms are natural caves which were later artificially extended. From evidence, one can say that this is the oldest level. The second level was only opened when the original builders found that this level was no longer adequate. This level is only ten metres below the street level.

Second Level

The level shows magnificent skill in stonework. One can see several important rooms, such as the Main Room, the Holy of Holies, and the Oracle Room.

The Main Chamber

This chamber is roughly circular and carved out from rock. A number of trilithon entrances are represented, some blind, and others leading to another chamber. Most of the wall surface has received a red wash of ochre. It was from this room that the statuettes of the sleeping lady were recovered. Nowadays these figurines are held in the Museum of Archaeology, in Valletta, Malta.

The Oracle Room

The Oracle Room is roughly rectangular and one of the smallest side chambers has the peculiarity of producing a powerful echo. A man's voice echoes, whereas a woman's voice does not echo. This room has an elaborately painted ceiling, consisting of spirals in red ochre with circular blobs.

The Decorated Room

Out of the Oracle's Room, through the hammer dressed chamber, on the right is another spacious hall, circular, with inward slanting smooth walls, richly decorated in a geometrical pattern. On the right side wall the entrance is a petrosomatoglyph of a human hand carved into the rock (Agius).

The Snake Pit

The second level contains a 2 metres deep pit which could have been used for either keeping snakes or collecting alms.

Holy of Holies

The focal point of this room is a porthole within a trilithon, which is in turn framed within a larger trilithon and yet another large trilithon.

Third Level

The lower storey contained no bones or offering only water. It strongly suggests storage, maybe of grain.

Tourism

The Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni is a very popular tourist attraction. However, because of its age, Heritage Malta (the government body that looks after historical sites) only allows 80 persons per day to visit the Hypogeum. Heritage Malta recommends tourists to book well ahead of time if they wish to visit.

Mysterious Accounts

There is an account that in the 1940s a British embassy worker, Miss Lois Jessup, went on a tour of the Hypogeum and convinced a guide to let her explore a 3ft. square "burial chamber" next to the floor of the lowest room in the last [3rd] sub-level. She claims that after squeezing through this chamber she came into a large room; where she was standing there was a large cliff with a steep drop and the floor of the cavern could not be seen. Across the cavern there was a small ledge with an opening in the wall. According the Ms. Jessup, a number of 'humanoid beings' that were covered in white hair and hunched over came out of this opening. They raised their palms in her direction and a large gust of wind filled the cavern, extinguishing the light of her candle. She then claimed that she felt something brush past her. When she went back to the Hypogeum on another occasion, she was told no such tour guide had ever worked on the site. Sometime after Miss Jessup's first visit, a group of school children and their teacher visited the Hypogeum on an outing and entered the same burial chamber, which then collapsed while they were inside. Search parties could not conduct a thorough search for the children or their teacher due to the cave-in. The parents of the children claimed that, for weeks, they could hear the voices of their children coming from under the ground in several parts of the island.

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