Many of us wouldn’t normally visit many monuments that are underground. In fact, I think the last time I was below the surface of our earth was when I visited Wookie Hole Caverns in Somerset, England a few years back. But when in Malta last year, I managed to get down to the magical underground chasm they call the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni; a mysterious, historic and jaw-dropping structure found in the Maltese town of Paola. It is the only underground sanctuary in the world that dates from the prehistoric era.
Although the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni has actually been here for about 5,000 years, nobody (in modern times) knew anything about it until just over a century ago. It was when builders, who were knocking up a few homes, in 1902 accidentally stumbled across it and attempted to hush it up! No doubt to try and see if it had anything worth robbing in there.
Fortunately it soon alerted the attentions of the town’s authorities and was entrusted to a local priest to look after. Since 1980, it has been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Paola is a small harbour town in Malta and we got there by boat, but you can also drive there from the capital Valletta, which is just a few miles away.
The old sanctuary has two levels; the first level is like a natural cavern with some walls clearly extended. But it’s down on the second level where all the fun begins. Down here one comes across the Oracle Room, the Holy of Holies Room and one huge chamber where they once discovered a statuette of a sleeping lady.
There is another room on the second level called the Decorated Room, where the patterns on the walls are truly amazing. It is jaw-dropping to think these scribes have been here for about 5,000 years or so. But I was amazed to learn that someone’s hand print on one wall is actually from the prehistoric time and (thankfully) not made by some modern day tourist.
However, to visit there you’ll need to get there early (about 7am) and be prepared to queue, as the visitor center only allows 60 people per day to the tomb, which opens daily at 9am. You can get your tickets from the Museum of Fine Arts in the capital Valletta, about two miles away from the structure. It’s probably best to book in advance, if you can, as you don’t have to bother with the queuing process.