Malta’s many attractions and curiosities do not stop at ground level – there is quite a bit to see in Malta underground too! This is not too surprising as one of the islands’ rock layers is the very workable globigerina limestone, and, where this happens to be the ground surface stone, the results – both man-made and natural – can be quite intriguing.
Undoubtedly Malta’s most astounding underground structure is the megalithic Hypogeum in Paola. Unbelievably this UNESCO World Heritage site only came to be discovered by accident in 1902 when workmen were building new houses in the area. What emerged from excavation was a unique underground necropolis holding the remains of some 7,000 individuals. The Hypogeum was dug by hand using primitive implements (chert, flint and obsidian tools and antlers). The huge complex is made up of interconnecting rock-cut chambers set on three distinct levels and the earliest remains at the site date back to about 4000BC. The complex remained in use up to about 2500 BC. The complex’s carvings wonderfully mimics motifs which imitate architectural elements common in this mysterious civilization’s other above ground temples and provides the best clues as to what the Malta underground temples’ roofing might have looked like.
Malta was one of the first countries to embrace the Christian faith – traditionally introduced to the islands when St. Paul was shipwrecked here in 60 AD. Like their prehistoric ancestors, the early Christians also buried their dead in large underground complexes – catacombs. Rabat in Malta has the two largest catacomb complexes on the islands – The St.Paul and St.Agatha complexes. The latter also contains a lovely underground chapel with early frescoes.
A large number of underground caves in Malta of various sizes are present. One of the largest and most important is the Ghar Dalam Cave Museum. Excavation of this cave complex revealed animal remains going back about half a million years back – animals which remained ‘trapped’ on the island in prehistoric times when Malta was physically cut off from the rest of Europe and eventually became extinct as the island’s restricted food resources could not support them. Among the interesting finds in this cave were remains of pygmy elephants, hippopotami and deer.
Smaller caves were used for both human and animal habitation. Remains of these can still be seen in the hilltops around Mellieha and there is also a large troglodyte complex at Ghar il-Kbir close to Buskett Gardens. This last complex was in use well before the Knights came to Malta in 1530 and remained in use until around 1830 – when the British forcefully evacuated the caves’ last inhabitants. Contrary to perceptions, troglodyte living in Malta was a highly civilized affair, with organised quarters for humans and animals and with the caves’ inhabitants being mostly vegetarian – using their livestock mainly for the provision of milk, wool, skins and eggs.
The Knights dug a series of secret tunnels underneath Valletta – most of these remain off limit and some have still to be mapped properly. One of the Malta underground tunnels complexes (beneath the Upper Barracca Gardens) was given a new lease of life during World War II, when the complex was extended to become what is known as the Lascaris War Rooms, from where the defence of the islands was planned. The war rooms were also the place from which Operation Husky – the Allied invasion of Sicily – was coordinated.
Church crypts are another underground feature quite common in Malta. Previously used for burials these are now mostly disused, with some of them opening for a few days a year – mostly in November. The Second World War was responsible for the loss of one of Malta’s most curious church crypts. The Nibbia chapel and its crypt in Valletta (close to Fort St. Elmo) was completely destroyed by enemy action. The crypt – known as the chapel of bones - was rather grotesquely ‘decorated’ with human skulls, bones and skeletons and was something of a sight in its day.
World War II also contributed to more underground structures. A number of old houses in various villages still have dug out wartime shelters constructed just before hostilities broke out. There are also a number of larger communal wartime shelters – the extensive ones at Rabat (part of the Wignacourt Museum) Mellieha, and in the dry moat at Birgu (forming part of the Malta at War Museum) are all open to the public.