Temple in the Negative

A few hundred meters from Tarxien we come across something quite extraordinary. We can call it a temple because it displays all the features of the Maltese temple—except in the negative. It is a subterranean temple carved into the living rock and its facade has been obtained, under the ground, by removing thousands of cubic meters of limestone. It is called Hypogeum Hal-Saflieni.

It is no easy task to visit the Hypogeum. In fact, since its careful restoration, only small groups may visit it, one at a time. Reservations must be made well in advance at the Valletta National Museum. Then you have to arrive strictly on time, which is far from simple given the traffic and street signs in Malta. Then you watch a video of what you are about to see. Then the guide explains that you are not allowed to take photos, to film anything, to speak, and if possible even to breathe. (Such precautions seem excessive, but Malta is an island of contradictions; in Bugibba, the remains of a ruined temple are flaunted in the private garden of a hotel, 3 meters away from the swimming pool, and guests use the handy megalithic slabs to drape their towels over to dry in the sun.) Inside the Hypogeum, there is a sequential lighting system so that the light goes on when the guide enters the area and goes off when the guide leaves the area, so the group must follow close behind. Nevertheless, visiting the Hypogeum is worth the effort, as it is without doubt one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world.

The Hypogeum was discovered at the end of the 19th century by workers who were building the foundations of an apartment block. The discovery was kept secret so as not to disrupt the construction schedule, and the construction work caused irreparable damage to the superstructure, which almost certainly included an enclosure giving access in the shape of a megalithic circle. Today only the underground rooms, arranged over three floors, are left. This extremely ancient complex was most likely already in use at the earliest stages of the Temple Period, and in fact it was here that the sleeping lady (cited earlier) was discovered. Each level is made up of numerous spaces, and recalls the features of temples at ground level quite plainly. For example, we can see a room with an "oracular window" and spiral motifs painted on walls that are comparable to those dotted all over the stone slabs of the temple, as well as a veritable facade "in the negative,'' splendid with its fake corbelled ceiling, located in a room traditionally called the Holy of Holies.

The purpose of this amazing feat of engineering is unknown; one has the impression it that it was a place of initiation, where a ceremony took place. Many rooms were discovered to be filled with the bones of thousands of people, and it has been surmised that the Hypogeum also served as a kind of collective burial chamber. Yet it stretches one's credulity to imagine (as the guide would have it) that one could only set foot in the place when the corpses were in a state of decomposition. Thus, either the cemetery stage succeeded that of usage, or else the bones were laid there after total decomposition had taken place elsewhere, maybe in the open air.

In the 18th century, in Gozo, another underground hypogeum carved into the living rock was brought to light. The complex was depicted in a watercolor that was painted at the time, but since then all traces of the complex have been lost. In the painting, however, it is possible to make out the temple of Ggantija quite clearly in the background, and it was thanks to this detail that the site was recently unearthed and studied by Anthony Bonanno and his group (1990), who were able to dig it out with modern methods, seeking to set its significance in the context of the island. The site is a few hundred meters west of Ggantija and is known today as Xaghra. The most outstanding of Bonanno's findings at Xaghra is a statue depicting two "fat ladies'' sitting side by side (exactly as the two Ggantija temples are situated). To add to our complete incomprehension of their meaning, one of the ladies is holding on her lap a statuette of herself (see Figure 15.3).

The position of Xaghra in relation to Ggantija is analogous to that of the Hypogeum in relation to Tarxien, and one is strongly tempted to assert that in both cases the pairing is not coincidental. I believe that the pairing of Mnajdra and Hagar Qim might also be ascribed to the same motives, especially if it is true that Hypogea became sepulchers only in the final stages of their usage. But what were these motives?

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