Like any good world-heritage-site-cum-theme-park, the Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum builds anticipation even before you get to the site itself. The soundtrack of the audio guide begins in the lobby, bathing the individual listeners in spacey percussive themes. Next come the two audio-visual showrooms. In the first, multi-screen projections recount the history, discovery, and preservation of the Hypogeum, surrounding the site with a sense of mystery and loss. By the time you reach the second room, simultaneous videos cover the walls completely, emphasizing the more mystical properties of the underground architecture as well as the infinitesimal nature of our place in the cosmos. The goal here — with the music, the voiceover, the projections (at first expository then speculative à la Neil Degrasse Tyson) — seems to be to create a kind of gateway through which the small tour group passes into another time and space; one you can’t otherwise access.
And rightfully so perhaps. The Hypogeum is a cavernous subterranean structure dating back 5000 years ago. You need to reserve a visit months in advance or try to snag a last-minute ticket the day before. Part necropolis, part sanctuary, these Neolithic ruins in Paola, Malta, consist of three levels with multiple rooms and chambers, most notably the “oracle room” — a strangely resonant space with powerful acoustic properties — and the “main chamber” — a large circular room with multiple shelves or “loculi” that housed the dead.
On the one hand, the whole experience is very Inferno-esque: “Abandon all hope, you who enter here (Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate).” You walk through the Hypogeum in almost complete darkness with a small group of nine to ten people plus one staff member guiding you; lights go on only as you approach; you hear narratives about the remains of the 7000 bodies found there. On the other hand, it’s all a bit haunted-housey. Now turn left and you will see the remains of a human skeleton and ochre paintings on the wall! Look to your right and you will see a mysterious shelf! Scientists still don’t know what these ancient humans used this space for! Cue soundtrack; cue chanting voices and timed-light. It’s strange how our 20th and 21st-century selves seem to be convinced that all Neolithic peoples who used big rocks and had an understanding of the winter solstice also listened to Hearts of Space and Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack.
What’s an authentic experience of distant worlds? Why even bother?
Visiting the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a good reminder that no matter how hard you resist, everything around you will eventually be buried and that most likely no one will find it until thousands of years later, and if they do, it’s usually by accident. Continental shifts, volcanic eruptions, floods, natural disasters, and national borders will be preserved and illustrated in diagrams, data banks, clouds, and other methods of collection and analysis. Does “the West [have] the will to survive,” as Trump asked today? In the end, it doesn’t really matter because it can’t.
Throughout the tour I kept thinking about two people of note in my group — one, a deaf woman who was rightfully irritated from the outset because the website promised there would be a written script of the audio guide for the hard of hearing, but there wasn’t. And so she took the tour experiencing no soundtrack, no dramatic audio, no noise, just the vibrations and dampness of the space. I wondered if she felt confined, annoyed, or maybe more moved than all of us wrapped in the high production values. I kept thinking we were missing something she wasn’t.
The second person was a short, demure older woman. She moved slowly, shoulders hunched, head lowered, and was escorted by a tall man in his 30s and a couple in their mid-60s. She entered the lobby from the scorching Maltese sun wearing her green and white checkered silk scarf and white wide-brimmed hat with affirmation and slight disinterest.
When the man in his 30s checked her in, he told the guard his name, and then hers, “Ginsburg… Justice Ginsburg.”
In the lobby, the guard apologized to the deaf woman with larger than life gestures, “I am sorry. I am sorry.” “I know,” she said. “Yes, I know. You are sorry. I am sorry. We are all sorry.” A deaf woman and her husband; a French woman and her son; five Americans, one of whom was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I wanted to talk to her but it was dark; she was trying to walk safely and carefully while paying attention to every word of the audio guide. Maybe Ruth will narrate the audio guide of our future ruins; maybe she was studying up.