Hal Saflieni: The Mystery of the Ancient Catacombs

Hal Saflieni

The incredible Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni (also known as Ħal-Saflieni) is one of the most mysterious marvels in the city of Paola, Malta. Scientists are still arguing about this enigmatic temple.

Archeologists have determined that the three-story temple is at least a thousand years older than the pyramids of Egypt. The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni is named after the street where it was discovered a century ago.


“Hypogeum” translated from Latin means “underground abode”. Many experts claim that the Maltese Hypogeum was built as an enormous underground temple of „life and death“ and it was an intertwined system of labyrinths, halls, and traps.

Subsequently, it was turned into a necropolis – remains of more than 7 000 people have been found inside. Historians demand that Hal Salflieni be recognized as the eighth wonder of the world. The structure is in UNESCO’s list of the World Heritage Sites.

The Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni is one of the most untraditional and unique archeological discoveries in the world. Ancient architects have carved it into a limestone rock. The uppermost lever (the oldest one) dates back to 3600-3300 BC, the middle one – 3300-3000 BC, and the deepest one (lowermost) dates back to 2150-2500 BC. The entire Hypogeum of Malta occupies an area of 500 square meters.


Some of the underground halls resemble the architecture of other temples in Matlta. The Main Chamber consists of bent walls, and according to historians, at one period, a cult in honor of Mother Earth’s fertility flourished on the island.

During excavations in the Hypogeum, a very famous  statue of a Sleeping Lady was discovered, and it is now being stored in the Archeology Museum in Malta. Other important artifacts, different figurines and statues, amulets and vases were also discovered in the temple. One of the most interesting findings is a headless Neolithic statue, found next to two limestone heads, one of which probably belonged to the statue.

The Sleeping Lady. National Museum of Archaeology, Valletta
The Sleeping Lady. National Museum of Archaeology, Valletta

Hal Saflieni was discovered by accident during construction works in 1902, and unfortunately, a large part of the upper level was destroyed by workers until they realized that the catacombs could be of historical interest. Fortunately for archeologists, workers were not able to destroy the main entrance of the temple.

Geometric drawings in the form of spirals were discovered on the walls of some of the halls. Many scientists believe that Hal Saflieni was used for rituals or religious services, as well as a tomb for the dead. Traces of ochre, used for ritual purposes, were discovered in the crevices, and according to archaeologists these rituals were practiced in honor of Mother Earth.

The uppermost level of the sanctuary is the oldest part of Hal Salfieni and it is obvious that the ancient architects  were expanding a natural cave when construction started.


The most interesting examples of rock-cutting and artistic layout of are found in the second level of Hal Salfieni. There, archaeologists discovered a small cavern, called the snake pit or votive pit, which was probably filled with animal sacrifices.

The statue of the Sleeping Lady was discovered in this small cavern, and it is the most beautiful figurine ever found in ancient temples in Malta. The lavish lady is probably daydreaming of something or she symbolizes death, or she is a priestess in a state of trance – there are many different opinions on the matter.

The most impressive hall of Hal Salfieni is the one called Holy of Holies and it is popular with its magnificently carved façade with a traditional entrance, cut into the rock.


It is also worth mentioning about the Oracle Room, which is located in the second level of the temple. Inside, there is a small oval crevice located near the face. If something is whispered quietly in this crevice, it would resonate as a loud echo throughout every room of the structure.

The ceiling of the hall is decorated with spirals that were also made with ochre. Some explorers believe that the drawings symbolize the Tree of Life. Maltese archeologist, Sir Temi Zammit, believes that this hall was the Oracle’s dwelling.

Archeologists and historians also believe that ancient architects of Malta used mathematical calculation during the construction of the temple.

Near the floor of the third and last of the levels, there are several so-called burial chambers. There are very small and one would have to kneel in order to peer inside.


It is known that one of the chambers extends in the form of a never-ending tunnel, getting lost in the deep and undiscovered crevices in the rocks of the island. Most likely this was the place mentioned in a 1940 issue of National Geographic Magazine  – some brave souls who dared to crawl into the chamber, fell into the depths and were lost forever.

Numerous underground tunnels, including the prehistoric catacombs, were later included in the fortification system. Victuals were stored in some of the caves and people used the others as shelters in times of battle. An enormous underground city developed under the tiny capital of Valletta, and in it lived the poor and homeless who had no home of their own on the surface.

The entire island is variegated with underground caves and temples of prehistoric people. However, Maltese authorities closed off all the entrances to the underground tunnels after a group of students got lost. They were off on a field trip through the tunnels and went missing without a trace.

Some ancient sources point out that the system of underground catacombs in Malta has spread not only under the surface of the island, but also under the sea. There are even some rumors that, at one point, it reached all the way to Italy.