Hypogeum in Malta.The Maltese Islands is teeming with unique world-class heritage sites, but one of the most atmospheric and memorable places to visit in Malta is the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum in Paola.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum was discovered during building work in 1902. It is a huge prehistoric underground complex of rock-cut chambers on three levels dating back to 4000BC. Archaeologists now believe that it began as a religious sanctuary, later becoming a more complex sacred place and necropolis and ultimately the final resting place of some 7000 people. Hundreds of artifacts have been recovered from the site during the many excavations over the years. Perhaps one of the most famous is the miniature ceramic statue of the “Sleeping Lady” – a female form lying on her side, which can now be viewed at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.

It is simply an awe-inspiring structure. The Upper Level is a cavernous area, with open burial chambers hewn into the rock on all sides. The Middle Level has beautiful red ochre wall paintings and wall carvings, which echo the fantastic Megalithic temples of Ggantija and Tarxien above ground. The spirals and honeycomb designs, which adorn the walls and ceilings, are the only known prehistoric cave paintings in Malta. On this level there is also the Oracle Chamber, which seems to channel noise to echo mysteriously through the chambers. Down into the deepest level, some 10m below ground level, is an area that has become known as the “Holy of Holies”. Here, the silence is deafening and you feel enveloped by the earth.

The Hypogeum has been open to the public since 1908, and the impact of nearly one hundred years of humans visiting began to have a detrimental effect. The site was closed for 10 years for intensive conservation and restoration, and a controlled visitor system was put in place in order to preserve the site for future generations. There is now a complex environmental control system, which allows careful monitoring of the whole complex.

The site is open all week but tickets must be booked in advance through Heritage Malta. There are only 8 tours a day and there some visitor restrictions, so please read the website carefully. The site will be closed to the public for at least 6 months in 2016 for further conservation, so now is the time to book a tour and see this unique Maltese site.