|If you plan to visit the Hypogeum, please check out availability long before you travel. I was fortunate to be there in very low season, so next day booking was possible, but at peak times it can be fully booked for over a month in advance. Tickets are €9.32 for adults - there's probably a child reduction but I wouldn't really recommend this place to youngsters unless they are really interested.
The building has numerous steps and low passages to negotiate, and is therefore unsuitable for the less mobile, or for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia or is afraid of the dark.
The group I joined were waiting in the entrance hall for our guide, and several times people came in without pre-booking - including a group of lads carrying a small Father Christmas who'd obviously had a couple at lunchtime - and were turned away. The entrance has comfy bench seats and toilets if needed.
There is absolutely no photography allowed and in fact you have to leave all your possessions in a locker - the guide has the key so everything is safe during the tour.
The first part is a visit to an exhibition of finds - most are of course in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, but a few remain here, including a copy of the sleeping lady which you are encouraged to touch. Audio commentary is provided on hand held devices and is available in 5 languages. Then there's a film to watch about the discovery and excavation of the site, before you can enter the hypogeum itself.
Our guide - Joanne - offered as the whole group was English speaking, to dispense with the hand helds and do it "properly" for us - and happily the group accepted her offer.
The area around Paola experinced massive development in the late 1800s to house dock workers, and the discovery of the hypogeum was reported to the authorities in 1902, but, from the construction of foundations and supports for the new builds, must have been known about for years before. In fact, the area around Hal Saflieni had an ancient name meaning "of the caves", so the site may have been known about long before that.
The hypogeum was excavated by Fr. Magri initially, with the middle level being opened to the public in 1908, and then T Zammit worked on the upper level after the purchase of the houses built on top of the site (the houses being eventualy demolished in the 1990s). However, it was closed to the public in 1991 as the damage caused by high visitor numbers had been realised, and reopened on 7 July 2000 - with climate control and regulated light levels. The lighting in particular dictates the visitor experience - it's timed to go with the audio commentary and only the features being described are illuminated. So you have to keep up!
A door from the AV room leads to the upper level; here there is a massive entrance trilithon and side burial chambers. Zammit estimated, by counting the number of patellas amongst the ochre painted bones found, that there were around 7,000 bodies interred here. The path through to the middle level was closed for excavation work, so we all trooped back to the rear of the entrance lobby and down a dimly lit modern spiral staircase.
The middle level has the most interesting features whilst the lower level cannot be visited, just observed from above.
Our guide showed us a section of wall with pick holes in it; no metal tools have been found, so it's suggested that animal horns were used to create enough of a gap to insert a piece of wood, which when soaked with water would expand, forcing open the natural faults and fissures - with flint, obsidian and stone tools used to complete the rock quarrying. Then we moved through to the oracle chamber with its ochre spiral painted ceiling; the guide encouraged one of the party to speak into the oracle hole, but deemed his tone not deep enough for the full resonant effect.
We passed through another ochre painted chamber - this time with spirals within hexagons - to the trilithon looking down into the lower level and onwards to the "holy of holies". The lower level has 7 steps leading down to it - but then a 2m drop! There are side chambers at the level of the last step, and the group discussed whether these might have been accessed using a plank as a bridge between them.
The votive or "snake pit" adjacent to the second ochre painted room is thought to be the location where the Sleeping Lady was found. This small (only 12cm long) terracota statuette is the pride of the collection at the National Museum of Archaeology with its exceptional level of craftmanship; the curvaceous female figure is reclining on a couch and is often referred to as the sleeping goddess of fertility. As finds in the pit were discovered whole rather than broken, we discussed the possibility that the pit had been filled with water or perhaps straw to prevent damage to items placed or even thrown in.
The "holy of holies" chamber has a facade that possibly mimics the roof structure of Maltese temples, and has a side chamber of it, a niche (possibly for a statue) and libation holes. This chamber would have significant amounts of natural light from a shaft which runs right down through the hypogeum around the summer solstice.
Then we retraced our steps to look at the main hall, with its trilithon windows through to niches and smaller chambers beyond, and to the holy of holies. The chamber was originally painted with red ochre and some of the pigment is still visible.
Then round past the area where builders confessed to breaking through in 1902, with arches to support the houses above visible, and back to the spiral staircase up and out as the light faded behind us.
A fascinating place! I would have loved to have spent more time in each part, but the light levels are strictly controlled, and as I mentioned, timed to coincide with the audio tour, so it wasn't an option.
This post appears as part of the weblog entry Malta part 3 – urban sites
Posted by sals
27th January 2008ce
Edited 29th January 2008ce