Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni

The Hypogeum at Hal Saflieni in Malta, is without hyperbole, one of the most extraordinary  archaeological sites on Earth, and it is unique.Excavated from the living rock the temple descends into three successive levels deep under the ground and comprises four sets of caverns and galleries. The large number of flint and stone flakes and implements that were discovered discovered, but no metal objects, indicates that it dates from the late Neolithic era,  (3000-2500 BC).

The Hypogeum was 'discovered' in 1902 when builders broke in during the course of excavating cisterns for new houses. There had been a Neolithic temple on the surface but this had been cleared away to build the new houses. The Hypogeum was found full of rubbish and the lower levels were under water.The original entrance was by a slope in Hal Saflieni Street. The modern entrance is by a staircase that leads to the middle level of the complex.

The Hypogeum was most likely excavated as a place of worship as  its architectural features so closely resemble those of the temples above ground.  Over time niches and rooms were excavated close to the shrine for the storage of votive offerings.  Later it seems that people wished to deposit the remains of their dead in sacred ground close to the shrine.

Main chamber

Perhaps these temple builders believed that their entry into the earth for religious rites symbolized a temporary return to the womb of mother Earth,  from which all life derived, and to which all life was destined to return, at the end of life.

Ceiling painted with red ochre designs.

Red ochre spirals

As a result of the moisture deposited by visitors breath, the painted walls began to deteriorate rapidly. The site was closed for four years between 1992 and 1996. Now visitors number are limited to sixty per day.

When  these photographs were taken in 1990, the lights were switched off for fifteen minutes, every fifteen minutes. I waited in the dark, on my own,.........  (with a torch).........and can testify that the Hypogeum is the most atmospheric Neolithic temples in Malta.