Through the front door of what looks like an ordinary house, in a suburban street of terraced houses, lies the world’s only prehistoric underground temple (at least, the only one we know of).
It was re-discovered in 1902 because workmen started to excavate a well for the house they had just built on top of the site. Instead, they opened up a house built for the dead about 6,000 years ago.
The Hypogeum (the word means “underground” in Greek) is a series of connected catacombs on three levels, each below the other, hollowed out of solid rock. It was used as both burial site and temple, and contains the remains of around 7,000 bodies, the earliest of which date to 4000BC. What is astonishing is that the walls are not rough but carved to mirror the temples of the same date above ground. This is astonishing because the Neolithic people who made these carvings had no metal tools. They made the geometric shapes using only stones and bones, by the light of wooden torches, surrounded by the remains of their ancestors. It took endless generations of them over a thousand years.
Astonishing, also, is the fact that this little labyrinth is older than the pyramids, a thousand years older than perhaps the most famous prehistoric monument in the world: Stonehenge. At this space of history, there is much we don’t know: Who designed it? Why? Did they chant in the resonant chamber that we now call the Oracle Room? Did they keep snakes for strange sacrifices in the lower levels? Why did they abandon this shrine around 2500 BC? Where did these people go?
In the end, what moved me most is not that the stone-age people of Malta employed such craftsmanship for the necropolis to hold their dead, but that they made such art to lie alongside them. Precise and detailed patterns are painted on the walls, and it is here that the small figurine called The Sleeping Lady was found. They sent the dead off to their next stop accompanied by beads and amulets, tiny carved animals, and other ornaments.
It was an extraordinary experience, to walk along a modern street and a few minutes later gaze up at swirls of red ochre placed there thousands of years ago. The bones are crumbling, but the testimony that these people were important once, to someone, remains. This is the oldest proof in the world of Philip Larkin’s theorem: “What will survive of us is love.”
The Hypogeum is a place where your breath is so dangerous; it has to be rationed. Only ten people are admitted every hour; that means 60 a day (80 in summer). The limits keep the level of condensation and carbon dioxide in the chambers low enough to prevent further damage to the stone. A member of staff escorts your small group along the pathways, and only the specific places that need to be lit for you to see are lit as you arrive; the darkness returns as you move on. Keeping the light low inhibits the growth of algae, which could damage the painted walls.
Nothing, however, can beat being below Cemetery Street.
To visit the Hypogeum, your best option is to book online in advance with Heritage Malta. (Some tickets are released daily at 9am at the National Museum of Fine Arts for visits the next day, but there are queues and no guarantees.) Tickets currently cost €30, which is expensive, but then again a) there is nowhere else like this and b) the money goes back into the upkeep of this fragile pocket of the Neolithic world that has fallen through the millennia untouched until the present day.