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The Hypogeum: The Liberation of Descending

**excerpt from a manuscript in progress**

Arriving at the Hypogeum was a feat in itself, and to be honest, I didn’t truly know what to expect. That morning, my host had enthusiastically recommended it.

“You have to go to the Hypogeum Carla!” he said as he placed my coffee in front of me, along with delicious croissants, mouthwatering cheese, and fresh local fruit.

“The Hypogeum?” I asked, biting into soft bread, chasing it with tangy cranberry feta.

I’m embarrassed to admit I knew nothing of this Neolithic burial site, despite the fact that it is one of the most archaic sites in Malta, and yet, it was an archeological blind spot for me.

“Yes, the Hypogeum,” he said, “they only let five people in at a time and normally people have to reserve tickets a year or two in advance.” He watched me devouring the colourful range of fruit like a woman starved of sugar and pure fructose goodness. “I don’t wanna get your hopes up because I doubt you’ll find tickets, but maybe now, because of Covid, and the fact that they’ve just opened up again from the lockdown, it won’t be as busy and you can take your chances that they’ll let you in.”

I was immediately intrigued! As many of you who follow my ig stories know, I love going to all the places where you can’t get in LOL!

And so, it was decided: I’m getting into the Hypogeum.

After managing the labyrinth that the Maltese call public transit, I finally arrived. Tbh, the site itself, from the outside, seems like any other building. Blink and you miss it, especially if you don’t look up to see the writing on the wall.

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum

I was prepared that there would be five of us going in, I was prepared, of course, that we had to wear a mask, but I was not prepared that we couldn’t take pictures, and that we had to follow very strict rules of not diverting off a pre-staged path and rely on the pre-programmed audio recording which would instruct us through the structure, and dictate our experience.

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum was discovered in 1902 and at first it was thought to be another one of the Christian catacombs that were found scattered across the island. And yet, as archaeologists, anthropologists, and other scholars, began assessing the space, they realized that it was much much more ancient than they’d previously assumed, and as such, a century later the Hypogeum became a centrepiece of Malta’s cultural heritage, and eventually became a recognizable milestone in the history of world architecture. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

As with most sacred sites The Hypogeum was found accidentally. The town around the sacred burial, known to locals as Rahal Gdid, or Casal Paula, was being transformed by new housing projects. As a result, there was a great deal of construction and digging being done in this area. We were told that by 1902, there was already a cistern in place in one of the hollow tombs, that supplied the village with water, before the development of modern housing began. Some of the new development workers dug deep enough to crack through the cistern and they realized that the hollow space which they thought cradled the old cistern, was much larger than they previously expected. And so began the archeological digging into this prehistoric underground cemetery, and the fascinating discovery of the communal death cult that buried their people three stories deep into the islands core.

Upon entering the pitch black room that will cocoon us in darkness before we enter the burial rock structure, the five of us are given a headset, and what looks like a prehistoric cellular device (😝), with audio speakers in our own languages. The experience is incredibly audiovisual as the recording is both instructive and musical, and we are locked in a small dark room decorated with a full cosmic projection of stars and planets across the universe. A narrator asks us to look up at the cosmic sky as 3 pieces of archeological findings are illuminated in the centre of the room. Much of what was found is already at the National Archeological Museum, but seeing the locations where these items were found is enticing and fascinating.

Once we’ve been properly mesmerized by the audio visual stellar introduction of the Hypogeum, we are told that what we are about to experience is most likely almost 6000 years old (possibly older) and that the entire structure was dug by hand into the ground. There are at least three levels that have been explored, with many layers evidently going deeper and deeper into the earth. I am jumping out of my skin with excitement to see this massive structure. I’m mostly accustomed to ruins above ground, and I’ve spent so much of my time walking around temple formations, ancient agoras, archaic libraries, and even cemeteries, BUT! a burial site underground was something very new to my research and fascinating in all it’s potential detail.

Picture of interior courtesy of the Hypogeum guidebook, purchased at the gift shop

The entire site has been organized around a very strict travelling pattern. Stainless steel stairs and walkways guide travellers through the structure without allowing anyone to touch anything. This is mostly because when the Hypogeum first opened to tourists in 1908 the heat of human bodies in such a small, deep space, and tactile pressure of hands touching walls and rock formations started causing severe damage to the ancient structure. Consequently, the government of Malta decided to shut down the structure for nine years and rebuild it in such a way that people could still visit the incredible site, but in very small numbers (max 5) and by adhering to very strict walking patterns, which the stainless steel walkways provided. It wasn’t until I stepped into the damp, narrow rock tunnels that I realized why only 5 people, plus a security guard, could go through the site at one time. As such, we were all more than happy to oblige, as I think most of us just wanted a chance to see this unique Neolithic site. For me, it was the age of it all, the fact that it was almost 6000 yrs old (!!) I was intoxicated by the ancientness of all the hands that build it. As we walked deeper into the tomb, following the voice of each of our narrators, I could hear muffled voices of the other 4 narrators echoing the same instructions in different languages all around me. The stone rooms were sculpted so perfectly, the architectural design aligning very similarly to other structures unique to Malta, particularly the square-like doorways, similar to the other ancient ruins and temples that are above ground. All of it seemed so incredible, reminding me that humans have always been hard-working, inventive and creative.

We were not allowed to go into the hollowed tombs, though we walked closely by them, staying on path, as the narrator in my ear informed me of how the rooms may have been sculpted, and what may have been their original purpose, as well as what materials maybe have been used to carve such smooth and measured areas of ritual and burial. Many of the hollow spaces were illuminated by artificial light so we could get a view of the interior, but it was the audio description of bodies left unburied, posed in the fetal position, and covered with a thin dusting of red ochre, that had us peering deep into the tomb rooms, trying to imagine the practices of cultures who build the megaliths on this island and then abandoned them for destinations unknown. This is a group burial site, a communal burial site, where people lay in their eternal sleep back in the position of the womb, and their families covered them in red ochre dust, symbolic blood of the placenta. It is incredible to remember, to imagine, being communally comforted in death, images of red ochred bodies along skeletons of other red ochred bodies, harken to a past that seemed both familiar and beyond my understanding.

Artistic rendition of burial site courtesy of Hypogeum guidebook, purchased at gift shop. Artist unknown.

I found myself losing track of the narrators voice, lost in the imagining of what it would be like to be buried among ancestors in a permanent slumbering embrace…

There are three levels to the Hypogeum: Upper, Middle, and Lower, and the steel pathway took us through all three so that we can better understand how the ancients walked into this burial site to either lay their dead, visit their ancestors, or perform death rituals. And so we let ourselves be guided along the steel path, all of us quietly listening to the narrator in our ears and the slow flowing music that hypnotically draws us back to a time where music was played by simple instruments, and where perhaps this exact form of music was played for those who rested here permanently.

As we moved deeper into the structure, stainless steel stairs echoing the careful thumping of our feet, it was as though we were all in reverence. Descending into the deepest level, air moist with ancient rock and stagnant water, imbued with the mixture of bones and earth that sat buried here for thousands of years, I took a deep breath and despite my mask, I cautiously wondered if I was breathing in the very particles of the long dead? It was a bit creepy, but also incredibly fascinating. As though we shared one breath through time and space, one inhalation and exhalation, one organic matter. It was exactly these deep philosophical thoughts that had me losing track of the narrator’s instructions, and more than once my travel mates would look at me intently, in a silent nudge to move onto the next phase of our journey.

Two areas on the last, and lowest level, that we could visit were incredibly fascinating. The first was a large ritual room where the ceiling was almost entirely covered in red ochre spirals. Red ochre, as a tool for artistic drawings, is said to have come from Sicily, most likely through the integration of Sicilian and North African cultural and artistic traditions, and used excessively in Malta both on the megalithic temples above ground, and clearly here, in the burial tombs 40ft underground. The spirals are complex wavelike drawings that remain in good condition, though you can see that time and the changes in the interior environment have forced them to fade. It is unclear what these red ochre spirals are meant to symbolize. Could they be a reimagining of a tree like vine, growing from the roots of the earth up towards the outside world? Could they represent a journey, the journey of life perhaps, where life is represented as a spiral of the seasons and the circular nature of days and nights? Could they be the veins within bodies, within communities, within time? There are no answers for what Neolithic people intended with these red ochre spirals, and while they embody symbolic art, they remain a mystery.

The last room on our steel path is the room where the small statue of the sleeping lady was found. We squished into the last corner of the steel path, five people in five feet of space, looking into a hollow room with a circular hollow floor. At first I thought the sleeping lady was the size of the hole in the ground in front of us which is massive, and I was pretty certain my research claimed the sleeping lady was a very small sculpture. So I was taken back a little bit by both what the room represented with this hole in the ground, and its connection to the Neolithic sleeping lady statue. The narrator in my earphones stated that the hollow space in the floor was where other bodies were found and that the sleeping lady was found beside these bodies.

Still, her role in this burial structure remains unexplained. Interestingly, the position of her body, sleeping on her right side, her right arm almost under her head, her left arm relaxed across her chest, and her body slightly curved in a fetal position, is clearly reminiscent of the way that dead bodies were positioned in these sacred tombs. In fact the position of her body is nearly identical to the Reclining Buddha, an iconographic image of Buddha lying down on his right side, his right arm cradling his head, as he is about to leave his body and enter parinirvana. Though the sleeping lady predated Buddha by about 3500yrs, the eerie connections between eternal sleep, death, and reawakening cannot be ignored. The sleeping lady statuette bares traces of red ochre which implies she either shared in the dust coating the dead of the tomb where she was found, or she was painted red prior to being laid to rest among the bodies she was meant to be forever entombed with.

So what does it all mean, I kept asking myself? Did Neolithic people believe that death was a return to the womb? It would make sense if we consider the positioning of the body and the association of death with sleep, as well as the symbolic link between the red ochre and blood. This makes sense considering many ancient communities believed that caves were the womb of the goddess, or Mother Earth. The fact that a Neolithic cemetery is built into the ground can certainly be perceived as a symbolic return to the womb, and the embrace of the divine perhaps as a maternal organic figure. As such, one can easily see the connection between the living and the dead as a continual cycle, rather than the start and stop of birth and death as we modernly perceive it. And so, as we all squished into the small steel space, staring into this hollowed room, I can’t say what my travel mates were thinking, but to me it seemed clear that Neolithic peoples had a deeply intrinsic understanding, both of the cycle of life, as well as the comfort of death as a communal experience, something not to be feared, but embraced, perhaps even celebrated it.

I didn’t realize it then, in that moment, so many feet underground, but looking back at this first descent into the Hypogeum, I recognize it as the initial call to return for me. That early connection with the underworld as a place of discovery, not death. Descending was a type of beginning, or starting over, and even though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, I could feel myself fascinated with the idea.

The concept of descending as a healing space began, instead of fearing the dark. A realizing that descending is a communal experience, shared by all of us, particularly those of us searching, running, seeking the thing we cannot name, but we know we need so desperately.

The pull of descending fluttered to life inside a 6000 yr old tomb, and for the first time in my life I felt that the divine was underneath, inside, buried deep within, and not above me in the sky, or in the sun, or in the cosmos. It was the first time I found purpose, and that purpose was digging, going deep, entering the caves of generations before me, facing my fear of descending into darkness.

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